“Mad spoke to me before I even realized it was speaking to me,” said Joe Raiola, a man who spent 33 years as both a writer and editor for Mad magazine. “Kids generally understand that people are full of shit… Mad confirmed everything that I was thinking but wouldn’t say to anybody else: Everyone is full of shit—and you can’t trust anyone.”
Growing up in Staten Island, Raiola first picked up a copy of Mad when he was a 10-year-old. Innately, he knew he had found a kindred spirit from the attitude and ethos of the magazine’s driving message: Always question authority.
“That was illuminating for me,” Raiola explained. “I digested the Mad voice.”
Raiola was born in 1955, the same year that Mad became a magazine (it started as comic book in 1952). He grew up on a steady satirical diet from “the usual gang of idiots”—Don Martin, “Spy vs. Spy,” Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side of,” and especially the song parodies of Frank Jacobs, which paved the way to influencing Weird Al Yankovic.
Sadly, the iconic satire magazine is ending its 67-year print run in August. Gone. Vanished. No more. But Mad will live on through how it influenced every comedic force that has ever thumbed its nose at authority, from The Simpsons and the Onion to Howard Stern, Judd Apatow and Stephen Colbert. Film critic Roger Ebert once explained how “Mad had broadened his horizons and opened his mind to the realities of movie-making.” Director Terry Gilliam wrote, “Mad became the Bible for me and my whole generation.” Punk poet Patti Smith once stated, “After Mad, drugs were nothing.”
“The Mad voice is such a part of our culture,” said Raiola. “The magazine may die, but the Mad voice certainly will not.”
Raiola didn’t initially set out to work for Mad; he started his comedy career writing at National Lampoon magazine. But in 1985, Fortuna took a spin for Raiola. After seeing an ad in The Village Voice that said Mad was looking for writers, he and his writing partner, Charlie Kadau, sent in some material and were hired immediately by legendary Mad publisher William Gaines.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” Raiola recalled. “Mad was a tough place to break into in those days.”
Raiola will never forget his first meeting with Gaines, a mythical character who embodied everything Mad was about: “He said to us, ‘I hear from Nick and John [Mad editors] that you boys are very talented… I don’t believe them.'” Gaines followed that up with, “I would like to offer you a job, and I propose to pay you as little as possible.”
“Mad is the only place in America where if you work there and you matured, you got fired,” stated Raiola. “I was never fired. In fact, I was promoted.”
And working at the Mad offices—at 485 Madison Avenue—had such perks as 90-minute lunch breaks. (“Gaines was a firm believer that the 60-minute lunch break was not enough time,” explained Raiola.) Though Gaines was known as a cheapskate, he would flip the bill and pay for the entire Mad staff, even freelancers, to go on an annual trip abroad for everyone to bond together.
“It solidified Gaines as the absolute icon, a classic crazy publisher,” said Raiola. “Who else would do that? No one. He was totally lovable, totally stubborn. Irrational. He was the unhealthiest person I’ve ever met. And the happiest person I’d ever met. He lived life completely on his own terms.”
What Raiola loved about Gaines was that he never let Mad bow to the corporate pressure hoping to dictate the subversive content within its pages.
“No one told him what to do because no one knew how he did what he did,” said Raiola. “What he did was utterly extraordinary, and no one had ever seen anything like it.”
Mad and Gaines created a cultural lexicon: “A magazine with a revolutionary satirical voice that sold two and a half million copies at its peak—with no advertising,” said Raiola. “Gaines was completely warped in his way of doing business and by any conventional standards, he should’ve failed miserably. Except he didn’t.”
One can only imagine what a comedic playground the Mad magazine editorial meetings must have been like; ideas bouncing off the walls like plates of blecch-induced spaghetti.
“You could not find a less politically correct place than the Mad writers room,” said Raiola. “It was vulgar. It was over the top. We were continually coming up with jokes and material that we could never put in the magazine. But that process would inevitably lead to sharp material. That was great in Mad. And that process really served us well.”
“I don’t know how likely a process like that would go over in the current age that we live in, but boy, we had fun,” added Raiola. “We certainly made each other laugh a lot.”
Sure, Mad was often rude, tasteless and childish, but its comedy ideology was never to punch down at targets; the staff stayed away from what they called “victim humor.”
“What fun is it making fun of people who have cancer or are sick or who have died in a natural disaster?” said Raiola. “That was kind of like our one in-house rule.”
Outright profanity was also never found inside the magazine’s pages. “I suppose we could’ve used ‘fucking shit’ in Mad—if we really wanted to—but you know, that was an editorial choice that we made. We chose not to go, go there,” Raiola explained.
Still, Mad had its fair share of controversies over the years. Raiola recalled the “Muhammad in a pancake” story, which involved the one, and only, time Muhammad appeared in the pages of Mad—in a piece Raiola wrote called: Other Religious Images and Food Currently Available on Ebay.
“We had Muhammad in the pancake, and it was based on the Virgin Mary and the grilled cheese sandwich,” Raiola explained, noting how the prophet was used as just one of many religious images found in food.
The piece was published right around the time of the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy that sparked protests and riots. After the story ran, the Mad offices got a call from an angry man in Pakistan, who didn’t directly threaten the staff but was deeply upset and offended. “Man, that was not fun,” Raiola recollected. “I mean we laughed, but we probably shouldn’t have been laughing. You never thought going into the business of making Mad that you’d be taking your life in your hands.”
Not entirely unrealistic, what truly impacted Mad’s staff was the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, in which 12 people were killed after the French satirical magazine published controversial Muhammad cartoons. Mad’s staff thought, “hey, that could’ve been us,” which resulted in extra security brought in at their offices.
Mad still managed to piss off other religious groups over the years. The Catholic Church took offense at a cartoon that made commentary on the multi-million dollar lawsuits filed against child-molesting priests.
“They accused Mad of a pattern of abuse—that was the actual phrase they used,” said Raiola. “Can you imagine that? The Catholic Church, the Catholic League accusing Mad of a pattern of abuse.”
The Catholic League issued a press release stating they were being repeatedly victimized by Mad in their portrayal of priests as child molesters. “That always meant that we were on the right track,” remarked Raiola.
Meanwhile, other entities were clamoring to be made fun of in the pages of Mad magazine. Initially, movie studios didn’t want their films to be parodied by Mad—until it became a sign of success to get the publication’s send-up. Then, movie publicist would actually approach Mad and send its writers and editors press kits.
“Basically, they’d say, ‘please make fun of our movie,'” recalled Raiola.
Nothing was off-limits in Mad’s earlier days, as the magazine would mock both Republicans and hippies.
“The voice of Mad in the ’60s was a little bit square in some way,” explained Raiola. “It was square and unique at the same time.”
The ethos of Mad was completely against and outspoken about the Vietnam war, as well as anti-Nixon, which was perfectly in-line with the counterculture. “But Mad was also anti-drug and that was not consistent with the counterculture at all,” said Raiola.
Still, that didn’t mean the ’60s counterculture didn’t love Mad.
In an iconic photo of Jimi Hendrix, he’s getting his hair styled while reading a copy of Mad magazine, issue #113 to be precise. The photo is so endearing; I’d like to think that when Hendrix played his rendition of The National Anthem at Woodstock, he was doing his Mad magazine interpretation of the song—thumbing his legendary nose at authority.
“The Mad editors couldn’t tell you much about Cream or Crosby Stills and Nash or the Strawberry Alarm Clock,” said Raiola. “They were Tin Pan Alley guys. There were older guys.”
Sure, but Mad’s contributors were a crazy, unique bunch of interesting characters with diverse backgrounds.
Before joining Mad, cartoonist Don Martin, actually designed the cover artwork for Miles Davis’ 1953 album, Miles with Horns. Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohías fled to Miami in 1960 in fear of being jailed by the Castro regime, who accused him of being a spy for the CIA. Prohías went on to make a legendary career out of his Fidel spy accusations with the cartoon, “Spy vs. Spy”—which was essentially about the futility and insanity of war.
“He was pissing off Castro,” said Raiola. “Made his way to Florida, made his way to the Mad office and pitched ‘Spy vs. Spy.'”
Another immigrant who made it big in the pages of Mad was cartoonist Sergio Aragonés, who, in 1962, made the trek from Mexico to New York City in search of work. Since he had a shaky command of English, Aragonés asked that Prohías be present for his meeting at Mad, which proved to be a mistake; Prohías knew even less English than he did.
Mad’s craziest character, however, has to be the magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman. It was once rumored that the elephant-eared cover-boy was modeled after Prince Charles. In reality, it was taken from a 1910 ad, from Topeka, Kansas, for “Painless Romine,” a dentist.
Perhaps one of the most beloved and creative figures at Mad was Al Jaffee, who, since 1964, created the hilarious back cover fold-ins—designed as a response to Playboy’s fold-out centerfolds. Jaffee, who is now 98 years old, is based in New York City and would frequently pop by the Mad offices. As recently as 2017, he would hand deliver each new monthly back cover fold-in.
“There’d be an unveiling of the fold-in,” said Raiola, “We always loved when Al came by. Al was the kind of guy who would get applause just for walking into a room.”
With Trump now in the White House, it seems like this should be yet another golden era for Mad to thumb its nose at the powers that be—with another strong battle cry to question authority.
“Mad was never more political and never more politically sharp than in the 2016 campaign,” said Raiola. “Rolling Stone called us the best political satire magazine in the country. This is a great time for Mad humor.”
So, what took down Mad in the end?
“Unfortunately, it’s not a great time for printed humor. Mad’s disappearing from newsstands. Right,” said Raiola. “Well, newsstands are disappearing…”
What does Raiola conclude about his 33 years working for Mad and its impact on our cultural zeitgeist? “Mad is a mindset; it’s a lens through which one sees the world,” he explained. “I had the good fortune to inherit the tradition, the voice, and help make it my own.”
True, that’s the lineage of what all the Mad editors did from the early days of Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein and onward—steered by the subversive vision of crazed genius William Gaines.
“We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to receive this great satiric, and uniquely American, voice that emerged out of the McCarthy era,” said Raiola. “Think about how bleak things were in the ’50s, and Mad was born from that.”
Raiola’s years at Mad have taught him to never stop thumbing his nose at authority.
“I’ll never grow out of it. It’s reflexive as is at this point,” he summarized. “It’s been a fucking marvelous ride. It really has.”
Pre-order Harmon Leon’s latest book, Tribespotting: Undercover Cult(ure) Stories, now.