MAD was more than satire; it strengthened the freedom of speech

July 9, 2019 | G. Michael Dobbs

At the Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capitol, President Donald Trump made a speech about the Revolutionary War and “The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter at Valley Forge, found glory across the water of Delaware and seized victory from Cornwallis in Yorktown. Our army manned the ramparts. It took over the airports. It did everything it had to do. At Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, it had nothing but victory.”

It was a typical Trump moment: off-script and nonsensical.

It was also a rich moment for the writers and artists of MAD.

Since 1952, first as a comic book and then as a magazine, MAD has led the charge with its youthful readers in questioning what they see, hear and read and what the business and governmental leaders of this nation tell them.

And now it’s over. There will be two more newsstands editions of MAD with all new material. Then, according to reports from its contributors, MAD will be only available at comic book shops and reprint old material with new covers.

MAD spawned many imitators, among them Sick, Crazy, The National Lampoon and Cracked – all of them stopped publishing years ago. The original outlived them all.

MAD’s success was such that many people considered it to be an honor to have MAD make fun of them. The magazine frequently printed photos of movie stars enjoying the send-ups of their latest film.

MAD turned out to be much more than just a humor and satire magazine. It actually strengthened the freedom of speech. In 1961 the music company representing the works of Irving Berlin sued MAD because of a song parody it published. Other famous composers joined in.

The result was the courts sided with MAD and the Supreme Court sustained the lower courts’ rulings.

I didn’t start reading MAD until high school. My mother – bless her – was suspicious of it and it was not allowed in the house.

As a kid MAD taught me that people had agendas. They lie. They deceive. We were taught we needed to ask questions.

Oh, yes and MAD was hilarious with outstanding writers and artists.

I had the privilege of interviewing MAD’s publisher William Gaines three times. Amazingly enough Gaines consented to spend time with a green as grass college journalism student in the magazine’s Madison Avenue office in New York City.

There were antique toy zeppelins hanging from the ceiling and a huge sculpture of King Kong’s face mounted in the window creating the illusion of Kong peering into the office from the outside.

Gaines in the mid-1970s resembled a hippie Santa Claus. He was a savvy businessman who none-the-less bucked the trends in media. He accepted no advertising for MAD and he wasn’t very interested in any licensing of merchandise.

He told me about an animated MAD television special ABC commissioned. It was never aired and Gaines believed the reason was one segment in which the automotive industry was the satiric target.

“MAD accepts no advertising and we have no censorship problems from anyone. We do anything we want and the only thing that we are bound to is the law of the United States,” Gaines told me.

Other words Gaines told me rang in my ears for years. Speaking about competition from imitators, he said, “Listen when you get into business, and that may be something that simply hasn’t occurred to you but it will when you get out of school and start competing. When you get out in what I’ll call ‘the real world; for lack of a better term you’re in competition with everyone around you. Your bread and butter and your family’s bread and butter depend on what you’re doing and [that] what you’re doing survives and prospers.”

It was a lesson I took to heart, along with all of the lessons I learned from MAD.

In this era of social media in which people parrot and believe whatever they heard or read online and pass it along without questioning, MAD’s viewpoint and message is needed more than ever. It’s just too bad MAD won’t be around to assist in the mission of asking questions and challenging authority.

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