MAD MAGAZINE taught its readers how to be healthy skeptics —a lesson that media consumers need more today than ever. At its apex in the early 1970s, Mad’s circulation surpassed 2 million. As of 2017, it was 140,000. As strange as it sounds, I believe the “usual gang of idiots” that produced Mad was performing a vital public service, teaching American adolescents that they shouldn’t believe everything they read in their textbooks or saw on TV. Mad preached subversion and unadulterated truth-telling when so-called objective journalism remained deferential to authority. While newscasters regularly parroted questionable government claims, Mad was calling politicians liars when they lied. Long before responsible organs of public opinion like The New York Times and the CBS Evening News discovered it, Mad told its readers all about the credibility gap. The periodical’s skeptical approach to advertisers and authority figures helped raise a less credulous and more critical generation in the 1960s and 1970s.
Today’s media environment differs considerably from the era in which Mad flourished, but it could be argued that consumers are dealing with many of the same issues, from devious advertising to mendacious propaganda.
Known for lampooning celebrities, movies and TV shows, Mad would change the shape of American humor, making it irreverent and sharp but with a revolutionary take on cultural commentary. Nothing was sacrosanct, and satire ruled the day. Mad would often also put out covers in the grand tradition of political satire that succinctly communicated a vicious and complex political situation.