For American kids coming of age in the early 1970s, Mad magazine was many things.
It was a guilty pleasure. An eye-opening first look behind the curtain of the adult world. Just plain fun.
For a nerdy 12-year-old in suburban Portland, it was all of the above, with just the right blend of satire and cynical humor.
By then I’d grown tired trying to fit in with the other kids who bought “Tiger Beat” and thought myself way too sophisticated for “Archie and Jughead.”
I definitely wanted something different, but wasn’t ready for the deadly serious stuff – Vietnam, race riots, Watergate – on the pages of the newspaper.
I’d heard about Mad from older friends who thought it was cool, and for months, I was tempted by the Mads in the magazine rack at my local Fred Meyer’s.
The price tag – 30 cents – had always stopped me.
But now I had my first newspaper job – delivering the Oregonian for a buck a day.
I can’t recall anything from perusing that first Mad magazine, but I do remember hiding it from my parents.
I had my reasons. Grown-ups of that age worried that Mad was a subversive influence, undermining the youth of America’s respect for their elders and faith in our hallowed institutions.
And they were right, so the Mads were stuffed under the mattress and out of sight of my dad, a 20-year veteran of the United States Air Force.
But my parents still knew, just like they knew about the Playboys I found at a friend’s house while our dads played poker and drank Budweiser.
Fortunately, mom and dad barely raised an eyebrow, because they saw Mad for what it was. It wasn’t counterculture; rather, it was counter everything.
It was always poking, but in every direction.
One of my favorite covers showed iconic Mad simpleton Alfred E. Neuman dressed as a hippie, with flowers in his hair and framed by the words of famed psychologist and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary: turn on, tune in, drop out.
Except that the words were changed to read “turn on, tune in, drop dead” – a warning to impressionable kids. Had he read it, the words would have brought a smile to my father’s face.
Another showed Neuman surrounded by hippies. As they’re preaching love and peace while simultaneously pummeling a police officer, Neuman thinks he’s at a football game.
In one picture, Mad captured the hypocrisy of the loud minority and the naivete of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority.”
And that was the beauty of Mad. When you’re hitting middle school, you don’t know what you don’t know – even if you think you do.
Thankfully, Mad was there to fill in the gaps with adolescent humor we now call “snark” – irony, sarcasm, satire and parody.
Most of all, it was empowering. Each page seemed to part the curtain into the world of adults, though only partly.
I also learned from Mad that politicians were corrupt and deceitful, that sports heroes really weren’t, and that Hollywood and Madison Avenue were selling us a lot of junk.
But I sought vainly for answers to the greater questions:
Why aren’t we winning the Vietnam War? Why are African Americans rioting in the streets while millions of whites are voting for George Wallace?
The answers, some of them, came later, but that wasn’t the lesson of Mad magazine.
Mostly, it taught me to think critically, even to the point of skepticism.
And what better career path than journalism for an up-and-coming skeptic?