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The Usual Gang of Idiots take on the Red State/Blue State divide . . .

Mad Goes Political for Election Day

Back when I was but-a-lad, one of my favorite covers from the glory days of the black-and-white Mad was for the mag's January 1961 issue. Designed to come out after the Kennedy/Nixon presidential election, the issue contained two covers, each featuring mascot Alfred E. Newman waving a pennant by an illustrated photo of one of the two candidates. Each cover congratulated their featured candidate for winning the presidency, ending with the tagline, "We were with you all the way!" (Bought an old copy of the mag in a Central Illinois garage sale a few years back, and you could tell the original owner's political bias by the fact that they'd penned a goatee and mustache on the Kennedy pic.) A good example of the magazine's political ethos, I suspect, that still holds true for the Present-day Gang of Idiots.

Haven't read an issue of Mad all the way through in at least a decade, but I recently received a review copy of issue #471 along with a press release plugging the fact that, with elections coming up, the magazine was pushing the political material. For years, my take on Mad was reflected by National Lampoon's devastating 1971 satire ("What? Me Funny?") of the mag, though it turns out that particular joke was on NatLamp, doesn't it? Still, the point remains that I haven't really kept up with the print mag, so I was eager to see if my perspective on it would be shaken up by the current Gang.

Long story short: my preconceptions weren't challenged much. Like the '61 issue that so tickled me when I was ten years old, the writers and artists at the present-day Mad work hard to have it both ways – look at how we stick it to both parties! – at a level that probably wouldn't overwork your average late-nite teevee monologue writer. (Since, theoretically at least, the Letterman "Top Ten" List is on after your average Mad reader's bedtime, perhaps that's perfectly okay.)

Thus we get Red State and Blue State editions of Monopoly with game pieces like a mounted deer head or a hand holding a joint attached to specific editions, a two-page spread of "Honest Political Slogans We'd Like to Hear" ("The New Democratic Party: Now Lieberman Free!" "The Republican Party: Spreading Freedom And Democracy Abroad, Even If Nobody Wants It!") and a comparison between what Conservatives and Liberals Believe featuring two middle-aged cartoon caricatures who look exactly the way you expect 'em to. There's also a one-page Ted Rall strip, but it's pretty darn toothless.

More telling is a little quarter-page piece included as part of the magazine's catch-all "Fundalini Pages": the image of our president and Condi Rice in cheerleader garb under the heading, "Good News Coming Out of Iraq Which the Media Isn't Covering" ("After a cursed, 30-year losing streak, Basra Tech is having a Cinderella run in the Iraqi NAA basketball tournament," we're told.) But with a number of conservative pundits acknowledging the current failings in that particular skirmish, even this doesn't read as all that trenchant.

Still, I'll admit that the Mad of today's youth, in general, is a mite rougher than the Mad of my boyhood. One of the mag's regular comics features, "Monroe," centers around our young boy hero being mistaken for a pedophile when he ventures into "MySpace," f'rinstance, while a two-page feature on "When Videogames Become Religious" (didn't The Simpsons do this with Rod & Todd several seasons back?) tweaks evangelical and millennialist beliefs amusingly. ("The environments in the excruciating Sims 3 will be limited to tent revivals, anti-abortion rallies and door-to-door pamphleteering.")

Decades ago, when I was in elementary school, I used to have to sneak issues of the early Mad mags into the house (kept a whole set of Signet paperbacks in the space behind my dresser drawer): if my folks then could've seen what passes for Mad fodder today, their heads would've probably imploded.

For me, though, the most risible parts of the current mag are the more lightweight pieces: good ol' Sergio Aragonés' three-page series of wordless pirate gags, a musty "TV Commercial We'd Like to See" written by old-timer Dick DeBartelo that takes maximum advantage of the mag's current color printing to make mushed-up food look really disgusting, plus a seasonal article on "The 18 Worst Things About Halloween" illustrated with lotsa cartoony fume lines by Peter Bagge. 

Another geezer, Al Jaffe, is repped with both a legitimate and a back-page ad fold-in. Never could bring myself to actually fold them pieces – the anal retentive collector in me just couldn't do it! – so I can't clearly say if Jaffe still has his stuff. Best I can tell, the new fold-in contains an anorexia joke, though, so I'll put it in the plus column.

Telling satire? Not particularly. But that Mad can continue as (to use the press release's phrase) "America's longest running humor magazine" with or without the occasional more overt nod toward topical relevance, is worth cheering all by itself. Keep it up, fellas – I'm with you all the way!

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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