I have in my hands a copy of the July 1996 issue of Disney Adventures, a Walt Disney propaganda magazine sold at grocery store checkout aisles in the ‘90s. Along with the usual infobites about upcoming video games and Disney Channel TV shows, each issue would feature a cover story about a different movie or television show – mostly Disney, but sometimes other studios – anchored by paper-thin interviews that would, for example, ask Chris O’Donnell how he got into shape for Batman and Robin, or Robin Williams what it was like to play a crazy scientist in Flubber, or other pertinent questions.
The cover story of the July 1996 issue has a special place in my heart, because it was about Spy Hard, which, you may or may not recall, was a James Bond spoof starring Leslie Nielsen. Arriving in theatres with possibly even less prestige than Batman and Robin or Flubber, it quickly disappeared without much notice… except, of course, in the pages of Disney Adventures, which described it as “One of this summer’s big movies.” The article is framed as a Woodward/Bernstein-type piece in which the author is told to meet a mysterious movie star in a parking garage, only to arrive there and hear the sound of Leslie Nielsen’s beloved fart-machine. Jokes follow, along with cut-ups, shenanigans, etcetera.
Of course, such material was blatant PR puffery, designed to force the dubious claim that Spy Hard was a summer blockbuster on impressionable kids, but questionable journalism of this sort continues even in more grown-up publications. One of my favorite Entertainment Weekly stories was “A stroke of genius?” (note the bet-hedging question mark), a 2003 piece by Gillian Flynn; the “genius” in question was, in fact, Mike Myers, who was on the promotional trail for Austin Powers in Goldmember. Time has shown Goldmember to be a shapeless, absolutely godawful pastiche of worn-out characters who had become empty signifiers, but in the weeks preceding its release, it was a sure-to-be-blockbuster with plenty of catchphrases for entertainment reporters to plug into their articles. “Its 1999 predecessor, The Spy Who Shagged Me, grossed a rousing $205 meeeellion,” wrote Flynn. “In fact, the film made as much money in its opening weekend as the 1997 original did in its entire theatrical run.” The only thing that sentence is missing is an “OBEY.”
Friends, do we ever question our newspapers when they fire their critics but happily print box office reports? Do we stop to wonder why on earth Entertainment Tonight would interview the dog who played Marmaduke? No, we don’t – because our critical instincts have been dulled. But it’s not too late: we need a magazine that will tell us that celebrities are stupid, Hollywood movies are terrible, and that even their own writing staff is a “usual gang of idiots.” A magazine that will teach us that a “Stupid Question” like “Are you smoking?” should be met with a “Snappy Answer” like, “No, I’m practicing for my role as a volcano in our school play.” A magazine that will insert gratuitous yiddish sayings for no discernible reason. A magazine that will alter the names of movies and TV shows so that Malcolm in the Middle will become Malcontent in the Muddle. Now more than ever, we need Mad Magazine.
My face turns scarlet as I write this plea, for never has it been less fashionable to be a Mad advocate. Once the nation’s leading humor magazine, Mad has seen its readership plummet from 2.1 million to just 175,000. It has gone from monthly to bi-monthly, been forced to accept advertising, and seen “Mad Magazine-level satire” become a go-to signifier for toothless parody. And, granted, I’m being a bit hypocritical since I gave up reading Mad long ago because it was starting to seem lame and unfunny for my 14-year-old tastes (I mean seriously, one quick glance and you already know what the Fold-In is supposed to be). But still: in this increasingly ad-driven culture, where Entertainment Weekly continues to give cover stories to whatever is most popular and cable news networks report on famous breakups like it’s actual news, kids need a magazine to teach them some good, old-fashioned disrespect for celebrities, politicians, corporate culture, popular movies and TV shows, and adulthood in general.
Let’s start with the assumption that for all its Yiddish jokes, Mad is primarily a magazine for children (this assumption is based on the fact that I’ve never once seen an adult reading it). You and I, being culturally-astute hipsters, are already well aware that Justin Bieber is a pox upon society, but imagine poor little Becky-Sue on some schoolyard in some small town. As all her little school friends dance merrily to Bieber’s music during recess, poor little Becky-Sue sits alone on the front steps with her iPod full of Brahms and her heart full of sadness. This poor, admittedly unrealistically precocious child resists the crushing weight of the Bieber juggernaut, only to find herself ostracized from her peers and marginalized by the media.
Yes, it’s a sad, sad scene. So imagine the catharsis that little Becky-sue would feel when she wanders into the general store just by the ol’ fishin’ hole to see Alfred E. Neuman, Mad Magazine’s venerable mascot, dressed as Justin Bieber, next to the headline, “His stupid hair! His dumb book! His terrible movie! His awful music!” And imagine her picking up Mad Magazine #508, flipping directly to Mad’s spoof of Bieber’s autobiography (here retitled First Step 2 Obscurity), and stare shocked and thrilled at a digitally-manipulated picture of a cross-eyed Bieber. Sure, you or I, being sophisticated hipsters, may dismiss this type of photoshop comedy as being “easy” or “lame,” and we may also suspect that the “Spy vs. Spy” comic is recycled from some long-forgotten Cold War-era issue, but for li’l Becky-Sue, this is a deeply powerful and liberating moment.
Or how about another scenario: adorable little Petey picks up Mad Magazine #509 and flips to the cover story, “The 50 Worst Things About Facebook.” “Aside from Snooki and Justin Bieber, there are few things in modern life as unavoidable as Facebook,” reads little Petey aloud from the article’s introduction. Now, to you or I, the invocation of Snooki and Justin Bieber may appear to be lazy cultural references, but consider that Little Petey has never known a world without Facebook, and to see his generation’s dominant mode of communication being treated so disrespectfully will surely shock and delight him. Yes, thanks to the satire of Mad Magazine, little Petey and little Becky-Sue might now finally understand that it’s okay to mock things that grown-ups tell them they should like. They may become free-thinkers at last! (One must also assume that both are too young to have experienced Facebook and Justin Bieber-related satire in any non-Mad venue. Which I guess would make them pretty young).
So the next time you visit your local newsstand to pick up an Entertainment Weekly, or perhaps a Maxim, don’t turn your nose up at the magazine with the picture of Alfred E. Neuman dressed as Wolverine and the headline like “We claw X-Men,” or whatever. Buy it, pass it along to a nearby child, and watch his or her horizons expand before your very eyes. Remember these wise words, by no less than Pulitzer-winning critic Roger Ebert: “I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad Magazine… Mad‘s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin—of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad Magazine.”