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SOLOMON: After All These Years, It's Still a Mad World

Many middle-aged Americans have fond childhood memories of Mad Magazine. While its grinning young icon Alfred E. Neuman served as a zany alter ego for millions of baby boomers, the magazine was an artful "tour de farce" -- and an escape from the strictures of conformity in the 1950s and 1960s.Although Mad Magazine may seem to exist only in memory, it's actually still around. The press run is a lot smaller than it used to be -- now about half a million copies -- but the monthly remains very much alive.Founded in 1952, Mad quickly took up the challenge of breaking through rigidity and complacency. For many kids, Mad Magazine was the first media outlet to acknowledge that advertisers and politicians were lying to them on a regular basis. The professionals at work along Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue were frequent targets.From the outset, Mad also took on the most popular products of mass-marketed entertainment -- especially TV shows and Hollywood movies. The magazine had a sharp edge. Calling themselves "the usual gang of idiots," Mad's editors brought a subversive sensibility to their efforts.These days, commercialism is so cranked up that it's apt to seem like a parody of itself. Sometimes, unintended self-satire appears to permeate the mass media. Superficial ironic poses are everywhere. Politicians are slicker -- and perhaps more transparent -- than ever. Under such conditions, how can satirists compete with the madness commonly passing for reality?"It's tough to stay ahead of the curve because events keep being more preposterous than anything we can make up in the magazine," says John Ficarra, one of Mad's top editors.Willing to take creative risks while going over the top, Mad avoids mere silliness. Evident intelligence is often at work behind the drawings and between the lines. The magazine creates a rare atmosphere on its pages -- skeptical but not cynical, meaning without preaching, irreverent but not nihilistic.On America's magazine racks, Mad is unusual for another reason: It doesn't get a dime from advertisers.That's not just an aesthetic relief for readers -- it's also a boon to creativity. "The minute we would start accepting ads," Ficarra told me, "it would be much more difficult for us to do these kinds of things."For several decades, Mad has disparaged commercialism while shining light on its effects. So -- in contrast to the back covers of Time and Newsweek, which often glamorize smoking with splashy cigarette ads -- the back cover of the latest issue of Mad features a "Special All-Smoking Edition" of a cartoon called "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions."A visitor asks a hospital patient who is hooked into a myriad of tubes and respirators: "Did a lifetime of smoking cause your terminal illness?""No, you can hardly call it a lifetime," comes the reply. "I didn't start smoking till I was 12!"Interviewing the president of a company named "R.J.R. Coffinail," a reporter asks: "Are you trying to get people addicted to smoking cigarettes?""No," the tobacco executive answers, "we add all the tar and nicotine for the health benefits."Meanwhile, the May issue of Mad includes five pages of an imaginary newspaper, the Tofu Times, with articles such as "How to Make Better Use of Your Time While Meditating," "Balancing Your Checkbook With Mind Waves" and "Putting Your Colon on the Internet -- It's Easy!"A section of the Tofu Times, offering "New Products for a New Age," hypes an inflatable guru made of sturdy polyvinyl chloride: "Optional voice chip features lecture on the evils of materialism. You'll be the envy of all your New Age friends!"In another spread, four pages are devoted to "The Diary of a 'Tomb Raider' Fanatic." A brief introduction under the Alfred E. Neuman logo sets the stage: "There's a nightmare world of unreality, where virtual humans fight to overcome a programmed hell." Without hitting readers over the head, the message is clear: Becoming obsessed with video games is no way to live.In a media world crying out for sharp satire, Mad Magazine is a survivor -- still managing to lampoon human foibles and mass-culture idiocy without denigrating humanity. That's no small achievement.Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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