The following is part one of a conversation between Judith Yaross Lee and John Bird, co-editors of the new University of Missouri Press book, Seeing Mad: Essays on Mad Magazine’s Humor and Legacy, available now. In this three-part interview, Judith and John talk about their youthful reading of Mad, then discuss the process of editing the most comprehensive academic analysis of the magazine to date, as well as reflect on the historical and cultural importance of the magazine that announced in July 2020 that future issues would prioritize reprints over new content.
John: How and when did you start reading Mad?
Judith: I started reading Mad soon after my family moved from Chicago to suburban Evanston when I was 9, in the summer of 1958, because I couldn’t get enough reading material now that we needed a car or bus to get to the library and the bookmobile limited checkouts to two books, which I could devour in a day when it was too hot to do anything (who had air conditioning? not us). But I could walk or ride my bike by myself to what we called a milk store—a bodega or convenience mart today—that didn’t require crossing any busy streets, and that store had a magazine rack filled with comics and Mad, which at 25¢ (cheap!) fit my weekly allowance, leaving me with enough funds for a comic book and popsicle or two till the next issue came out.
John: What appealed to you about the magazine?
Judith: Mad captured my imagination through its artwork and irreverence. I loved the frozen frenzy of Don Martin’s drawings, but the tv and movie satires and other graphic narratives with dialogue really stole my heart. They were filled with Yiddishisms, Americanized usage of the language that my parents and grandparents spoke when they didn’t want us kids to understand, and which I heard so often that I recall seeing the word nudge and wondering whether it was the Yiddish noodge (nag). The stories’ sarcasm and cynicism felt equally familiar in a way that set Mad apart from the rest of my media environment: the anodyne WASP humor of TV sitcoms and Doris Day movies, the uncomfortable racism of Our Gang Comedy, the violent slapstick of The Three Stooges, and moralistic contents of My Weekly Reader and Highlights for Children. So even though Mad’s writers and artists were my parents’ generation rather than mine, the Jewish sensibility that Jaffee and Abrams and I discuss in the book was a major factor in its appeal, because in those days American Jews in the hinterlands beyond New York were cautious about outing themselves and being confronted with or arousing anti-Semitism.
John: What are some issues you remember, and what effect did Mad have on you overall?
Judith: When I look back at the Mad of those days–#47 from June 1959 is a good example—all the elements I recall are there even though Al Feldstein was still reshapingthe magazineafter Harvey Kurtzman’s departure (#28, July 1956, was his last issue). There’s a hilarious Don Martin page about an act of mercy on a city bus—and as a city kid I’d ridden lots of buses and subways—in which a guy is choking on his necktie but unwinding him from it turns him into a whizzing top whose force propels him through the roof. There’s a four-page graphic narrative drawn by Wally Wood in which Sid Caesar (whose manic performances I knew from TV) plays a perpetually hungry, dialect-speaking astrophysicist named Professor Ludwig Von Orbitmacher. There are versions of the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill” as if published in Seventeen, Modern Romance, and other magazines. And there is a set of short TV parodies, with caricatures by Mort Drucker, each blending two program formulas: “Sea Hunt with a Dragnet,” “Arthur Murray’s Meet the Press Party,” and so on. Mad’s references to Eleanor Roosevelt and other contemporary figures, as in the Arthur Murray and “I’ve Got a Secret News Report” strips, helped me understand the political conversations always going on at our dinner table.
Judith: Okay, so I’ll ask you now. How and when did you start reading Mad?
John: I was at my cousin Sally’s house when I was about ten years old, so that would have been 1964. Her husband John had copies of Mad lying around, and my brother Jimmy and I started reading them. There was a little thing about a waitress falling into the ice cream at Howard Johnson’s and thus creating the 29th flavor. This struck me as incredibly funny; I couldn’t stop laughing! It doesn’t seem that funny to me now, but it really hit ten-year-old me. I told my parents about it on the way home, and they said that was awful, and that Mad was something Jimmy and I should not read. So of course we pooled our allowance and bought the next issue (25¢ cheap!). Then we got a subscription, even though it cost about the same as the newsstand price, and we were avid readers for years, eventually sharing our copies with our younger sister and brother as they got old enough to read it. So the young Bird household was infected with Madness!
Judith: What did you like about the magazine, and what are some things that you remember?
John: A lot of things were over my head, but I know that Mad educated me as I kept reading and as I got older. Don Martin was always a favorite, mainly because of the zany drawings with characters whose feet were hinged funny and the sound effects. I liked “Spy vs. Spy” for its visual appeal and the surprise. The same with the fold-in. “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” was another favorite, and Jimmy and I used to try to write in the extra one that they left space for. Looking back, I realize that the communal aspect of reading it, sharing it with my siblings and later with friends was an important part of the experience.
I always liked the movie and TV parodies, especially for shows I had seen, like “The $ound of Money” and “Loused Up in Space.” I didn’t know much about drawing, but I knew that Mort Drucker was great. The way Mad would skew something I had taken straight made me look at it again and see the absurdities, like in the Lost in Space parody when Will Boobinson tells his father he has to go to the bathroom. His father says something like, “the nearest gas station is forty million miles away,” and Will says, “Gee, I don’t think I can hold it that long.” That was in Mad #104, July 1966, so I was twelve. Incredibly funny!
As I got older, I began to like Dave Berg and the more “adult” features, and I know my appreciation of satire grew. Another thing Mad introduced me to was Jewishness. I was a Southern Protestant, very white bred (and bread). The Yiddishisms and the Jewish sense of humor were foreign to me but a revelation. I think Mad enlarged a lot of people’s insular worlds. I know it did mine.
Judith: How did the magazine relate to your sense of what was going on in the world at the time, and how did it change the way you experienced it?
John: I was becoming more aware of politics and world events and culture; I was 14 in 1968 when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, when there were race riots in the cities, when the Chicago Democratic Convention erupted into protest and violence, and as the Vietnam War was escalating. I knew that I was only a few years away from possibly having to go fight. Reading Mad helped me make sense of what I saw as adult hypocrisy and bungling and made me question authority. So what had begun as simple childish laughter had become something quite serious.
Even so, the humor was always the big draw, as well as the communal aspect of having something I could share with my brother and my friends. I’ll talk more about the singing when we discuss the genesis of the book, but I’ll skip forward to high school and the way my good friend Robert Sadler and I shared our love for the magazine. We had different aspects of the magazine that we knew and liked, so it was fun to turn each other on to those. We used to sit in class and draw the Mad dirigible; I remember us drawing the “Mad Poiuyt,” that impossible optical illusion, on various blackboards around high school. Robert had a lot of the reprint books and turned me on to earlier things I had missed. He also helped me appreciate what I now know is the “chicken fat,” the little background drawings and messages that adorned so much of Mad.
Judith: I had stopped reading Mad by the mid-’60s. When did you stop reading Mad, and why?
John: I’m not sure. I know I read it all the way through high school, so 1972 or so, but I guess I just stopped reading it when I went to college. Maybe it’s because I was separated from my brother Jimmy and my friend Robert. I would buy a copy now and then, but it became something that was more or less a part of the past for me. I guess it had done its work on me. I think that has happened to many readers over the years: you read it intensely for a certain period in your youth, then you move on. I don’t think it’s really a sense of outgrowing it, but I suppose it is in a way. In any case, Mad had a profound effect on my sense of humor, my recognition of satire, my worldview, and my skepticism. Not bad for something that was “25¢ cheap” when I started reading it!
Stay tuned for the second part of the interview, coming next week!