A Mad, Mad, World

I was resigned to another column about the sniper. What else is there these days in journalism, even after the capture of suspects? And what else is there these days in the minds of those who watch and read the journalistic product?

I cannot ever remember a story that resulted in so much mail about the performance of the press, some of it supportive, much of it angry.

I was resigned to answering some of the questions that I did not answer in last week’s column: Did the media, in the act of reporting on the sniper, actually encourage him, or them? Did they sow fear as much as information? Did they engage in too much speculation? Did they treat the authorities unfairly? Were they used unfairly, by the authorities, to communicate with the sniper?

I would have defended the media in some cases, criticized them in others. I was resigned.

And then I found out that Mad magazine is celebrating its 50th anniversary --"50 Years of Stupidity," as the magazine itself proclaims -- and I thought that if there were ever a week to devote this space to someone like Alfred E. Newman, this is it. If there were ever a time to celebrate innocence and silliness, or at least to remind ourselves of their continued existence, the time is now.

It is hard to believe, in this new millennium, when satire and cultural criticism, most of it witless and inept, drip from virtually all of society’s pores, that there was once an era when subversive humor was as hard to find as a winning lottery ticket. The era was the 1950s, the gray flannel fifties, and Mad magazine, which began publishing early in the decade, was so subversive that the FBI actually investigated it, sometimes sending agents to visit the editors and, in the words of an FBI document, "firmly and severely admonish them."

Mad’s reaction was to draw funny cartoons of J. Edgar Hoover.

It is also hard to believe, in this new millennium, when the attention spans of young people are riveted by computer games and other forms of electronic gadgetry, that there was ever an era when a mere magazine, unmoving pictures and static words on pieces of paper, and not even glossy paper at that, could capture a generation.

But it did. I still remember saving my pennies for the latest Mad, trying to get to the drugstore a few minutes before the shipment arrived, and then grinning at the cartoons and laughing at the wisecracks and folding the back cover along the dotted lines so that one fairly innocuous picture became another, not so innocuous picture, with a surprising punch line.

And I remember staring, issue after issue, at each new picture of Alfred E. Newman, wondering how someone who looked so close to normal could on the other hand be so impossibly goofy.

When my friends and I were too young to talk about girls on the playground at recess, we were talking about Mad, appreciating all the jokes we understood, wondering about material that was a little too advanced for us and hoping we would soon grow up enough to get it.

And then, of course, we not only did, but we grew up so much that we began to find the magazine sophomoric and unsophisticated, both of which are virtues to kids but curses to grownups. Mad changed over the years, trying to keep pace with us, but the mission was doomed from the start; sophomoricism and unsophistication cannot take on more adult tones. Today, a person my age reads Mad to wallow in nostalgia rather than to entertain himself, and a child ignores it in favor of gizmos more sophomoric and unsophisticated than Mad ever was.

Or so it seems to me. Fortunately for the magazine, many others disagree, and still enjoy Mad, pleased that it is around after all these years, even though Alfred E. Newman is now old enough for AARP.

For this reason, it strikes me as a good idea this week not to write about the capture of the sniper suspects, but rather to acknowledge, at a time when so many of us are so troubled by so much, the longevity of a magazine that has now spent half a century asking the plaintive question, "What, me worry?"

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

Respond to the Writer