The 2015 cover (#537) of Mad magazine's annual The Mad 20 list. Image courtesy of E.C. Publications

Saying kaddish for Mad magazine

Another essential part of my childhood has died.

The other day, we learned that Mad magazine would be effectively shutting down.

Which is to say: Alfred E. Neuman is dying at an all-too-young age of 67.

It had been many years since I had thought about Mad magazine. But, it is impossible to imagine my childhood and early adolescence without it.

I am making a mental list of the features that were part of that childhood journey.

  • “Spy vs. Spy”  was a playful, silent introduction to the Cold War (along with Boris and Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”).
  • Dave Berg’s “Lighter Side of...” introduced me to the small absurdities of life (and when his daughter attended my college, and I met him on the first day o the semester, it was one of the most memorable days of my youth).
  • Don Martin’s cartoons were, in their own way, a little sadistic. In one case, they influenced my interpretation of Jewish history. For decades, I have told our young people about the heroic martyrdom of Eleazar Maccabee, who died in a kamikaze-like attack on a Syrian general who was riding an elephant. Eleazar ran beneath the elephant, eviscerating the poor animal with a sword — only to be crushed to death beneath its weight. I told my sons that this was the origin of the traditional latke, which resembled the hapless Eleazar. Yes, I was channeling Don Martin.
  • The idea that you could fold the inside back cover and come up with an entirely new illustration was revelatory.

And then, of course, there were the satires on movies and television shows. Those satires would introduce me to snark. More than that: they confirmed in me the notion that much of what the entertainment industry was handing us was, frankly, stupid.

Some of those satires became famous. Who can forget “Antenna On The Roof,” which updated “Fiddler on the Roof”? It was more than a satire; it was a piece of American Jewish social commentary. It suggested that the world of “Fiddler” had transformed itself into a world of bourgeois acceptability (and if you were paying attention, you could see an homage to that satire in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” with Larry on the roof, fixing the antenna).

I did not know that life could be funny until I started reading Mad magazine.

Why does this obituary find a place in this column?

Because, at its very heart, Mad magazine was a piece of modern, secular Jewish literature — almost up there with Philip Roth. The list of the members of that fabled “usual gang of idiots” reads like a Jewish accounting firm: Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman (who once drew a caricature of me), Mort Drucker, Will Elder, Dave Berg. (No, no women. This was the era of “Mad Men.”)

In that sense, Mad introduced us to a gentle form of Jewish humor and satire.

Contrast it with my second humorous love, the National Lampoon.

If you wanted to extend Lenny Bruce’s famous shtick: “Mad magazine was Jewish; the National Lampoon was goyish.” The National Lampoon emerged from the decidedly gentile and genteel walls of the Harvard Lampoon. Its creators were gentiles — Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. So, it seemed, were many of its writers.

As  Thomas Carney wrote:

“The National Lampoon was the first full-blown appearance of non-Jewish humor in years--not anti-Semitic, just non-Jewish. Its roots were W.A.S.P. and Irish Catholic, with a weird strain of Canadian detachment. . . . This was not Jewish street-smart humor as a defense mechanism; this was slash-and-burn stuff that alternated in pitch but moved very much on the offensive. It was always disrespect everything, mostly yourself, a sort of reverse deism."

Mad magazine was not that way. It did not snarl. It soothed. It told you that life could be funny, but it did so in a way that was rarely cruel. It was the gentle, knowing joking of your uncle — not the elitist prank of the frat boy.

At this moment, I flash back to a personal memory. It is a photograph.

Decades ago, I was visiting my sons at summer camp. I picked up a copy of Mad magazine that belonged to one of them. I also grabbed a Tanakh that seemed to be lying around.

The photo is of me in a chair, reading Mad magazine — with the Tanakh peaking out from behind it.

Yeah, that’s me.

Mad magazine, but with the Tanakh behind it.

At this moment, the founders of Mad magazine, and many of its writers, are in the World to Come.

They are sad to see their creation bite the dust.

But, they are pleased that their magazine made life bearable for so many nerdy kids.

Like me.