July 08, 2019

Horse 2567 - Why MAD Magazine Will Close

Buried deep within the newspaper today, was the announcement that Mad Magazine will cease publishing new material immediately and will print reprints of old stuff until December to satisfy subscription holders. After that, the magazine which began in 1952, will cease to be beyond this year.

Probably this is symptomatic of the larger issues that print is suffering, in that the whole media is dying on its feet; having had its lunch stolen by the rise of the internet. More specifically it could be that the space that Mad Magazine occupied in Satire, has also been taken away by television; it is now possible to get your fix of satire on a daily basis, rather than the bi-monthly magazine.
It could also be that Mad Magazine has just found itself inside the humour equivalent of wood chippers.

The magazine started in 1952 which was during the Cold War and immediately before the Eisenhower Administration. The level of animosity between the two big political football teams in America was still there but as the United States found itself in very peculiar geopolitical dance with a very big and obvious acceptable target for comedy, the magazine could safely make fun of subjects like communism, the floundering Democrat party and Ike's big ol' shiny bald head, in relative safety.
Even so, the issues of civil rights, and the emerging sexual revolution, were still mostly off-limits. Comedy in the 1950s was still free to play with casual racism and blunt stereotypes because the default get out clause for comedy is 'it's all a bit of fun'.

The era of the magazine which I am most familiar with, having read the hoard of editions which were in our high school library, is the 1970s. Again, the Cold War was in full swing and the Watergate Affair was very much grist for the mill. Move on later in the decade and the magazine tore into Jimmy Carter and held up Ronald Reagan as some kind of demi-god.
It is at this point where I will openly state that I have never read any edition of the magazine beyond 1992; so my knowledge of it ends with the era of the Berlin Wall coming down and Boris Yeltsin doing his famous dancing. This is kind of apt as those things also mark the end of the Cold War.

I can only speculate (and this is where we move into the realm of writing about things that I haven't read), that with dwindling sales, and the political climate moving back to levels of animosity not seen since before the American Civil War, that the magazine found itself an impossible place to generate content and drive revenue.
The internet, which is possibly the greatest window ever invented into the human heart, has shown that on both sides of the political divide, everyone is so snowflakey that the merest provocation of heat, causes everyone to melt.
Mad Magazine has probably found that if it moved too far in any political direction, it would alienate part of its revenue base; which I suspect has meant that it ran into the arms of the enemy of satire: unfunniness.

My own reading of the magazine as a late high schooler, and as someone who should have been the prime target, found a lot of the magazine unfunny. That wasn't helped by the fact that I was reading roastings of films and television that I'd never seen (and would never be able to see), as well as comics such as Spy vs Spy which were just unfunny.
My own comedy palate had been mostly informed by British radio comedies like The Goon Show, Hancock's Half Hour, I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, and radio panel shows like The News Quiz (which is still going), I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue (which is still going), Just A Minute (which is still going), as well as even other comics like Donald Duck, Garfield, Peanuts, The Wizard Of Id, and what not.

There is a point to be made here. Comedy is generally made of the five elements of Satire, Stupidity, Surrealism, Parody, and Vanity. Those five elements frequently overlap and play with each other. All of them have the potential to run into unfunniness really quickly; with satire and parody having the shortest expiration dates.

My guess is that Mad Magazine, having found an ever impossible task in its usual stock and trade of satire and parody, coupled with an ever decreasing print media market, reached the point where it was no longer viable to produce the magazine any more. I'm not going to lament its passing but I will say that I am surprised that there even was a market for it, this far into the twenty-first century. It was a product of the pre-television era and the Cold War; both of which faded in the cultural memory to the point where they are now found in history books. This looks as inevitable as the closing of Punch magazine.

Even the name of the magazine became increasingly unfunny. MAD Magazine in 1952 would have been a pun on Mutually Assured Destruction, which was the unstated policy by both protagonists of the Cold War to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons, should either of them push the button. That's probably why Alfred E Newman's catchphrase was "What me worry? I read Mad" worked, in a sort of resigned fatalistic way.

No comments: