They were quite the unusual group, that usual gang of idiots. Darn funny, too.
You could count on seeing just about every one of them in every issue of Mad magazine. There was Mort Drucker, whose movie parodies often proved more entertaining than the movies they parodied. There was Sergio Aragones, whose characters inhabited literally every corner of the magazine. There was Dave Berg, who specialized in finding humor in the mundane.
There was also Antonio Prohias, whose "Spy vs. Spy" distilled the Cold War down to a match of wits between two witless secret agents. And, perhaps most memorably, there was Don Martin, "Mad's maddest artist," whose flap-jawed, hinge-footed heroes inhabited a world where sneakers went "SHPLORT!" and frogs-turned-princes still had 2-foot-long tongues.
Such was the world of Mad through the late 1950s and '60s, the golden age of America's favorite mass-market humor magazine. It was an age when the Mad's writers and artists of became heroes, where who was writing and drawing for the magazine was just as important as the work itself.
The recent death of Martin, who succumbed to cancer Jan. 6 at age 68, serves as a reminder that the world Mad so perfectly parodied is long gone, and the Mad franchise has been handed over to a new generation of satirists.
"There aren't too many of us left from the original group," says Berg, whose feature, "The Lighter Side of ..." still runs in Mad eight times a year. "The gang is breaking up. The people at Mad now, they call me Uncle Dave."
Other long-termers still contributing to the magazine include Al Jaffe, who does the inside-back-cover fold-ins; Drucker, whose movie caricatures (see this month's Mad take on the film "Double Jeopardy," aptly titled "Double Jerkery") have lost none of their zing; and Aragones, whose frantic drawings still pop up throughout the magazine.
But William M. Gaines, the magazine's original publisher and guru, died in 1992. Al Feldstein, editor throughout much of the 1960s, is long retired and living on a ranch in the West. Cuban expatriate Prohias died in February 1998; his "Spy vs. Spy" has been picked up by a host of artists, most recently Peter Kuper.
The changes at Mad extend beyond new faces. The magazine of today is far different from the gleefully anarchic bad boy that taught a generation it was OK to skewer sacred cows.
"The magazine has gone beyond that," says Annie Gaines, 49, Mad's managing editor and Bill Gaines' widow. "The times were so different in those days. When Mad started, there was still an innocence, you still did not question authority. Mad taught people to question authority, and to look at life in a different way. Now everybody lives that way. ...
"I think we made everybody wise to the world," she adds. "I really think Mad had a lot to do with teaching people that."
Today's Mad is far more topical than its predecessor, spends far more time lampooning current events. Its humor has moved from timeless to timely.
"The kinds of articles I used to do, they're not doing them so much anymore," says Jaffe, 78. "The things I used to do were more general: Mad crime stoppers, planned obsolescence in manufactured products -- the kinds of things that kids and families would be dealing with on a daily basis. I think nowadays, the magazine, it's more edgy, dealing with modern music, sexual attitudes, things like that."
John Ficarra, 45, editor of Mad since 1985, agrees this is not the magazine of three decades ago.
"Mad has always been a reflection of society, so as society has changed, Mad reflects that in those pages. Society has sped up, and there's been a coarsening, a willingness to talk about things one never would have talked about before. ...
"It's much harder to write for the magazine," he continues. "It's much more difficult for us to stay ahead of the curve. We could not have created scenarios that really have occurred in the Oval Office."
That sense -- where truth is more outrageous than satire -- has been building for about 20 years now, Ficarra says. "We first started noticing that around the time of Gary Hart, who swore he wasn't fooling around, then had his photograph taken with a bimbo on his knee on a boat named Monkey Business. I mean, we couldn't have made that up."
Ah, but the things the usual gang of idiots did cook up.
And no one was a better cook than Don Martin, whose knock- kneed, wide-eyed, long-faced flights of imagination became a signature piece for the magazine. Gap-toothed wonder Alfred E. Newman may have adorned every cover (his original renderer, artist Norman Mingo, died in 1980), but it was Don Martin's impossibly loose-limbed cast of characters and outrageous sound effects that kids would be snickering about the day the magazine came out.
"He was probably the first person a lot of people turned to when they first opened the magazine," says Gaines, who says she started reading Mad around 1957. "His stuff was so zany and so wacky, it was such laugh-out-loud stuff."
"Don was incredibly important," agrees Ficarra. "Don gave us a certain look and a certain style of humor that was not being done anywhere else ... is still not being done."
Martin sold his first drawing to Mad in 1956. Although editor Feldstein liked his work, he asked Martin to loosen up his style. The first results were disastrous and unpublishable. But an admonished Martin went home and, literally overnight, came up with a slapstick style that, for the next 30 years, made him a reader favorite.
"There was a quality to Don Martin's work that grew on you in leaps and bounds," says Jaffe. "He wasn't a particularly polished cartoonist -- there are so many artists who can draw better -- but his drawings illustrated his humor better than anybody could; there was no limit to what he could do with his characters. And he cultivated his readership to the point where they would accept anything he did."
That included husbands whose broad smiles turn out to be the result of coat hangers ingested while sleepwalking in a closet; newspaper reporters typing away furiously at a story that consists of nothing but spelled-out sound effects; men who, when flattened by a steamroller, are simply folded up and tucked away. (For the record, the sounds a man makes when being folded are: "SUT, FLUT, FLIT, FLOT.")
Martin left Mad in 1987 in a disagreement with Gaines over royalties and ownership of his drawings. He continued to draw, but for Mad's rival, Cracked. Even so, when he died earlier this month, obituaries unfailingly identified him as "Mad's maddest artist."
"I thought it was bad judgment," Berg says of Martin's decision to leave Mad. "He had a job here for the rest of his life. ... It was a close, family thing. He was one of us, and he left the family. It was very painful."
The magazine Martin left keeps plugging away, although it's gone from being the baddest kid on the block to being but one of many class clowns.
And while it can still zing with the best of them -- see the February issue's dead-on "How to Become a Big-Time Boy Band Producer," or the monthly "Celebrity Cause of Death Betting Odds" -- there's no denying it's a different magazine from the one so many baby boomers used to hide inside their schoolbooks.
That's what happens when the subversive becomes the mainstream; to remain subversive, the magazine has had to shift its targets and adapt its methods.
"It's a change for survival," says Jaffe, who has nothing but good things to say about the current crop of idiots at Mad. "The things that we used to do, you just can't keep doing them. The things that were shocking 40 years ago are meaningless today.
"If you're in the shock business," he adds, "it gets more and more difficult to be shocking."