Donald Trump predicted this Madness.
“Alfred E. Neuman cannot become president of the United States,” he said two months ago.
The current president was suggesting potential Democratic rival Pete Buttigieg may slightly resemble Neuman, Mad magazine’s gap-toothed mascot.
It’s easy to see how he could mistake the two, physical similarities aside, since Alfred E. has routinely campaigned as a write-in candidate in presidential elections dating back to the 1950s. And the president is clearly familiar with Mad.
But Trump’s remark actually foreshadowed the demise of the 67-year-old satire magazine. Last week, Mad editors announced next month’s issue will be its last. And generations of former adolescents are in mourning.
Most folks blame the internet, or the general decline of printed publications, for Mad’s fate. They’re not wrong, but there’s more to it than that. Two other things contributed to the magazine’s woes, in fact: The country has become even loonier than Mad ever depicted it ... and today’s young people, the magazine’s target audience, don’t see any humor in it.
In the 1960s and ’70s, when Mad was selling 2 million copies a month (for “50 cents — cheap”), it was the sharpest critic of American culture and politics. The magazine claimed it delivered humor in a jugular vein, because that’s what it was aiming for. Some of its pearls of wisdom included:
“Elections are when people find out what politicians stand for, and politicians find out what people will fall for.”
“Teenagers are people who act like babies if they’re not treated like adults.”
“Politicians are people who get sworn in and then cursed out.”
Once, Alfred E. Neuman’s write-in presidential campaign slogan was “America is on the brink of ruin! Let him finish the job!”
In regular features, Mad took aim at prejudice, religion, liberals, conservatives and just about any institution that needed a little humbling. It wasn’t always politically correct. The magazine once promoted TV bigot Archie Bunker as President Nixon’s running mate.
Some folks won’t get that reference (another problem for Mad these days), just as Buttigieg didn’t understand Trump’s jab. “I’ll be honest. I had to Google that,” Buttigieg said. “I guess it’s just a generational thing.”
Mad’s response? It simply asked “Who’s Pete Buttigieg? Must be a generational thing.”
Time was, such a gap in pop culture knowledge would have been disqualifying. Even Barack Obama paid homage to Neuman during his first presidential campaign. “It’s often been said that I share the politics of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Neuman,” then-candidate Obama said at the 2008 Al Smith Dinner.
And later, Obama’s critics said his foreign policy resembled Neuman’s catchphrase: “What, me worry?”
Alas, that was more than a decade ago. The world was slightly saner then, and Mad was still semi-relevant. These days, the lunacy of Spy vs. Spy — two Cold War-era secret agents trying to kill each other, no matter what the cost — and the magazine’s “usual gang of idiots” have a hard time being more cartoonish than:
A commander in chief who claims Revolutionary War soldiers took control of Colonial airports.
Kids who demand safe spaces, so they won’t be threatened by contradictory ideas or beliefs ... in college.
TV talk show hosts who spend years ranting about the deficit but now say nothing when it’s growing faster than ever.
It’s hard to be funny when reality outpaces the limits of satire. Today’s world makes some of Mad’s funniest bits, like “Extremely Thin Books” (“Equality and Justice in Alabama and Mississippi” and “Well-groomed Acid Rock Bands,” for example) seem quaint by comparison.
For now, Mad at least still has a presence on Twitter, where it dashes off one-liners — “If you live in Alabama remember to set your clocks back 46 years” — like a 67-year-old stand-up comic. All that’s missing is the rim shot.
But this country will miss its best satire magazine. Because the nation is in serious need of lampooning, even if most folks today are way too sensitive to take it. It’s a world gone mad. And now Mad’s gone.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.