You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Be Mad ... but It Helps

Most of the iconic American satire magazine's creators were of the Mosaic persuasion.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

The influence of Mad Magazine has been profound, but strangely overlooked. Only recently, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman pronounced it his “Talmud.”

Without Mad, arguably there would have been no Maus. He was not the only one. Nor perhaps would there have been Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove or the other countercultural satires of the 1960s, such as Catch 22 and M*A*S*H.

In 1955, Mad Magazine, as we know it, burst onto the scene. A high proportion of its staff was Jewish. This “usual gang of idiots,” as the magazine referred to them, included its founder Harvey Kurtzman, editor Al Feldstein, artists Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee, Will Elder and Dave Berg, and writers Larry Siegel and Lou Silverstone. In many ways Mad represented a group of alternative New York Jewish intellectuals.

Their Jewish background had a direct and important influence. Mad was very much humor in a Jewish vein (the magazine’s predecessor had been called Tales calculated to drive you MAD – Humor in a Jugular Vein). Elder, for example, pioneered the “chicken fat” method. That is he laid the schmaltz on thick, piling joke upon joke upon joke, filling the frame with details and wasting no space.

They employed a whole lexicon of Yiddish phrases, both real and imaginary: “borscht,” “ganef,” “bveebleftzer,” “farshimmelt,” “halavah.” Readers often wrote in and complained of the strange and exotic-sounding words that saturated the magazine. Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish (1968) was a required companion text.

Through aggressive, Yiddish-punctuated and often foul-mouthed satire, they articulated a brash urban Jewishness. They celebrated their deliberate outsider status while challenging the status quo, highlighting its hypocrisy and reveling in the absurdities of everyday life.

Mad’s alternative Jewish sensibility permeated the entire magazine. It was iconoclastic, held no sacred cows or golden calves. Its humor was very much that of New York City, mirroring Joseph Heller, Jules Feiffer, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.

Because Mad consistently refused to include advertisements for many years it had a freedom which other publications lacked. Having neither advertising nor strict regulation Mad could target almost anything it wished, and indeed the major icons and iconography of America came into its sights. Ironically, the magazine’s offices were located in the heart of American corporate advertising, Madison Avenue. Instead of adverts, it produced spoofs for such bogus products such as “Ded Ryder Cowboy Carbine” rifles and “Shmeer’s Rubber Bubble Gum.”

It even sent up other comics. In “Starchie” the innocent teenagers Archie and Jughead became chain-smoking juvenile delinquents. “The Lone Stranger” was transformed from western hero into a schlemiel. And “Superduper Man!” was not the triumphant superhero but a shlmazel. It also asked “What If Batman Were Jewish?” or “What If Superman were raised by Jewish parents?”

It loved to target Disney, whose founder had a reputation for anti-Semitism. His central wholesome icon Mickey Mouse became the grizzled, rat-faced, vermin thug “Mickey Rodent” whose fingers and tail were caught in mouse traps.

It provided a phrase book of “handy phrases” for American tourists travelling to Russia during the Cold War. “Waiter, there’s a dictaphone in my borscht!” was transliterated as “Vhat ar lit-teel gowrls may-de huv?”

It was not afraid of directing its satirical talents at any target, including movie stars, pop singers, presidents, politicians and even the British royal family. Even Israel came into is purview as it published “The Prayer Mitt Romney Left in Israel’s Wailing Wall.”

Mad also helped to change the nature of comedy by redrawing the boundaries of orthodoxies of taste. Earlier Jewish humor had been dominated by the “Borscht Belt” comedians, those Jews who played the kosher resort hotels in the Catskills like Grossinger’s and Concord and gently poked fun at Jewish life for Jewish audiences. Black or sick humor became fashionable, paving the way for Sahl and Bruce, as well as Ernie Kovacs and Stan Freberg who couldn’t be further disconnected from the propriety of the Borscht Belters.

But Mad was “Jewish” in another way. Underneath its rowdy surface was thoughtful social commentary as it sought both to entertain and to educate. Mad also often railed against alcohol, drugs, tobacco, licentiousness, deceit and hypocrisy. One theologian detected a Biblical morality lying beneath the magazine’s surface: “Mad is every bit as preachy as that old codifier Moses. Beneath the pile of garbage that is Mad, there beats, I suspect, the heart of a rabbi.”

Offices of Mad MagazineCredit: Cory Doctorow
Mad magazine issues from the 1980's.Credit: Dave Duarte

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