The wild bunch that makes MAD magazine successful (1972)
By Lynn Sherr, Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK — Right away, you know you’re headed for the Mad Magazine offices, because the elevator stops at the 13th floor.
Then you practically crash into a lifesized cardboard cutout of Alfred E. Neuman in lederhosen, following which:
— You hear a whirring sound from the stockroom which turns out to be an artist extracting fresh carrot juice.
— You come to a poster on a door — Karl Marx wearing glasses — behind which sits a living human of similar appearance who is mountainous, rumpled and bearded, and hair down to his shoulders, and you learn that he is millionaire publisher William M. Gaines.
— You find the next cubicle decorated with a sampler saying “God Bless Our Fallout Shelter,” embroidered by editor Al Feldstein’s ex-mother-in-law.
— You see two cartoonists huddled over their drawing boards gleefully turning every photograph in that day’s New York Times into publisher Gaines.
“With a few strokes and lots of hair, you can do it to any face,” chuckles Sergio Aragones, a mustached Spaniard, applying his felt-tip pen to Sen. James Buckley, Mrs. Juan Peron and a silver-plated samovar from Bloomingdale’s.
It is, as they say somewhere, just another day with the folks who put out Mad Magazine — that hardy collection of parody, cartoons and Alfred E. Neumaniana that has turned up in the secret pouch of a captured Viet Cong and the U.S. House of Representatives.
From appearances, it’s a cheerful, amusing, occasionally sophomoric and even sometimes dull, publication that Gaines calls a “grown-up comic book.”
In fact, Mad Magazine is big business. Eight times a year, 1.8 million fans plunk down 40 cents apiece to buy it at the newsstand, while another 100,000 readers get it through the mail.
What began as an experimental comic book nearly 20 years ago is today a 48-page magazine supplemented by annual specials, 54 paperbacks with sales figures in the millions, plus foreign translations in nine languages — including an Anglicized version, to remove anything critical of the royal family.
It carries no advertising, because Gaines says he doesn’t want to compromise his integrity. A wholly-owned subsidiary of the giant Kinney Services, it shares its corporate parents with the Warner Brothers empire, the Independent News Service (which distributes Mad) and Paperback Library (recently acquired to print the Mad paperbacks).
What, me worry?
The secret of this free-wheeling humor magazine that appeals mainly to teenagers, but also to a lot of their parents, is its unlikely blend of creativity and commerce.
To some, Mad is irrelevant because it takes no political stand; to others, that is its genius, because according to freelance writer Frank Jacobs, “Mad puts down anything it thinks is dumb.”
Jacobs, a song-and-poem parodist who recently composed lyrics of “Dump Spiro” to the tune of “Titwillow” to be sung by a cartooned President Nixon also says the magazine works because he and his colleagues are “channeled eccentrics.”
The full-time staff consists only of six: publisher Gaines, editor Feldstein, associate editors Nick Meglin and Jerry De Fuccio, art director John Putnam and production man Leonard Brenner. Plus three women who handle subscriptions,
Brenner, known simply as “Beard,” is the one with four different editions of Volume A from encyclopedia companies because “that’s the one they give away free.”
Meglin and De Fuccio were the only two people breaking up with laughter at the movie “Love Story” while everyone else was crying. (They say they saw the potential for parody.)
Putnam is an ageless hippie who builds model planes and boats and has been known to send the entire fleet off with firecrackers on the Fourth of July.
Most of the writing and cartooning comes from a stable of about 25 freelancers: professional writers and artists who command high fees in television, movies, advertising and magazines, but who have been with Mad for years, and generally accord it their first loyalty.
Much of that loyalty comes from respect for the patriarch of the family: Bill Gaines. A good-natured, generous gentleman with a widespread reputation for fairness and honesty, Gaines, 49, runs his magazine with the kid gloves of trust. He occupies a modest office right alongside his staffers in their rather unexceptional building on Madison (the magazine spells it MADison) Avenue.
Flying from his ceiling are at least six miniature zeppelins of various sizes, including one with the “What Me Worry?” kid emblazoned in red. On one wall is a roll of toilet paper imprinted with a swastika; on his desk, a brass-and-rubber horn from a Bombay taxi. Over in the corner, there’s a lifelike, oversized, furry gorilla that appears to be climbing through the window.
“I have a lot of juvenile interests — one of which is King Kong,” Gaines explained with a deep laugh.
As for the flying aircraft, he said, “I’m just interested in zeppelins, you might know. Unfortunately, there are no zeppelins left! They would have such a big future today… in cruises or for shipping bulk. Like, say you wanted to ship eight billion ping-pong balls to Europe,” he said, entirely serious.
Gaines’ other loves are equally unusual. He makes frequent trips to the island of Haiti but disapproves of its government. He went out of his way to buy 72 pairs of cotton socks for 59 cents a pair at a bargain store, but proudly paid $90 for one bottle of wine. He considers himself cheap, but eagerly pays $100 for a gourmet meal.
Gaines entered the comic book world through his father, M C (Max) Gaines, an ad man-turned-publisher who sold the first commercial comic books in the country, discovered Superman and invented Wonder Woman.
Max Gaines’ death in 1947 pulled the young Bill, then studying to be a chemistry teacher, back home.
At his mother’s insistence, he took up the family business, ultimately turning the shaky E. C. Publications (which changed from “Educational” to “Entertaining” Comics) into the precedent-setting publishers of a line of horror, suspense and science-fiction comics.
One day, a talented young staffer named Harvey Kurtzman told Gaines he wanted to do something different.
“I remembered that Harvey was good with humor,” Gaines recalled. “So I said, Harvey, why don’t you throw out a humor book? That was how Mad began.”
The first issue, a comic book, appeared on the stands in the fall of 1952. Kurtzman’s brand of humor, including a unique spoof called “Superduperman” in the fourth issue, set the tone. Twenty-three issues later, Gaines discontinued all the comics and turned Mad into a magazine.
Then one day Kurtzman asked Gaines for control of Mad. Gaines thought he meant financial control and refused. Kurtzman quit. Actually, Kurtzman meant editorial control, and only recently, after a cash settlement and kind words, have the two men smoothed over the rift.
In any event, Kurtzman’s departure transferred editorship to Al Feldstein, who is credited with turning Mad into the mass-media success that it is.
Today, Mad is Gaines’ only publication under the E C label. Twice divorced, he has three children (all Mad readers) who live with his first wife. He spends much of his time traveling with them.
Traveling also claims much of Gaines’ time and money with his Mad family. Each year for the last 10, he has bundled up his staff and contributors, minus wives or girlfriends, for a madcap, exotic jaunt of eating, sightseeing, gags and general tomfoolery.
During the first vacation to Haiti, Gaines and company piled into jeeps and drove across the island to hand-deliver a copy of Mad to the startled sole subscriber in Port-au-Prince.
Oddly enough for such clever fellows, however, and for creators of a magazine read mostly by teenagers, no Mad staff member is under 30. Except for De Fuccio, none of the full-timers is a college graduate, none smokes, and they generally do not go drinking or lunching together.
They are, in fact, hard-working professionals who come to work around 9 in the morning, get their editing or artwork or assignments done, and, with few exceptions, join the 5 o’clock rush to go home.
The same is true of the freelancers, most of whom have been with Mad since its early days. They met their deadlines and respect editorial judgment.
In return, they get some of the highest fees in the business (around $260 a page, plus a year-end bonus) and, according to Al Jaffee, a cartoonist with the face of a bearded cherub who contributes the Mad Fold-Ins, “There’s no bad vibrations, no titles that have to be bowed and scraped to. I think we almost have sibling rivalries rather than corporate anxieties.”
Despite accusations of everything from communism to Nazism, lawsuits have been minor — except for the time they nonchalantly ran an article with a phony $3 bill that just happened to activate the change machine in a Dallas post office. The US Treasury agents stopped by to confiscate the plates and the artwork.
But as editor Feldstein says of Alfred E. Neuman: “Alfred symbolizes the philosophy of the magazine: Keep smiling, as the world crumbles around you.”
Vintage Mad Magazine “Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid” (July 1970)
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” parody
Mad Magazine cover (September 1970)
“Boob & Carnal & Tad & Alas & Alfred” is a parody of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which starred Elliott Gould, Natalie Wood, Robert Culp & Dyan Cannon
Vintage Mad Magazine – Willard movie (March 1972)
Mad – Fonzie of Happy Days (December 1976)
Classic Mad – Bionic Woman & 6 Million Dollar Man (January 1977)
Mad magazine – Welcome Back Kotter (March 1977)
Vintage Mad Magazine – Rocky (October 1977)
Mad Magazine – Star Wars (January 1978)
Vintage Mad Magazine – Yoda/Star Wars ( January 1981)
MAD June 1981: Dallas/JR Ewing (Larry Hagman)
Old MAD magazine cover: Kite (#224, July 1981)
MAD: Superman II (#226, October 1981)
MAD Presents the ultimate horror movie (1981)
Cover of issue #227 from December 1981
MAD January 1982: Raiders of a Lost Art
Vintage MAD magazine with M*A*S*H (October 1982)
MAD December 1982 (A): Rocky & Mr T
MAD December 1982 (B): Conan the Barbarian
MAD Salutes Charles Darwin’s birthday
Issue 238 – April 1983
MAD December 1983: Superman III
MAD October 1984: Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom
MAD: Back to the Future (1986)