Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Usual Gang Of Idiots

I don't know if it's really possible to describe what Mad Magazine meant to kids growing up in the 1960's.

Not only did it teach us a lot about the adult world with jokes that we didn't entirely understand, but we intuitively knew that it was on our side. To a 12-year old kid, Mad was the height of subversion, dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy and cant that assailed us every day in the form of television, movies, music, government, and advertising. Mad itself never accepted any advertising, so it never had to answer to anyone. The idiot who appeared on every cover, Alfred E. Neuman, was meant as a badge of honor for a magazine whose staff was regularly described each month as "The Usual Gang Of Idiots."

To be parodied in Mad meant that you had made it. In fact, there are some Mad parodies that I remember better than the movies they parodied.

Like TVs with 3 channels and phones that were solidly lodged into the kitchen wall, it was all we smarty pants kids had. It was the Smarty Pants Bible.

But in recent years Mad has had to make some concessions to the realities of the marketplace. Not only has it switched over to being a (shudder) color publication but it's now filled with ads. It also found itself competing in the middle of a culture where American Pie and South Park had become the new touchstones for teenage humor and have had to dial up the raunch factor, though not considerably more than any "Family-hour" sitcom.

After all this, there doesn't seem like the mag had much left to lose, but the announcement of Mad Kids magazine (for younger readers) still feels somehow like the last nail in the coffin:

"Mad Kids" will target the 6-11 year old audience with classic Mad material, as well as new content, such as Spy vs. Spy Jr. and other age-targeted stories.

Spy vs. Spy Jr.? Lord save us. Can L'il Don Martin be far behind?

"Mad" is partnering with Action Performance Companies and Great Clips to push "Mad Kids" as well. The promotion with the two partners will see the #38 NASCAR Busch Racing Cup car driven by Kasey Kahne painted in a "Mad Kids" scheme with Spy vs. Spy Jr. catchphrases. Action Performance will also manufacture premium di-cast cars and "Mad Kids" racing products. Additionally, the debut issue of the magazine will be featured at all 2400 Great Clips hair salons across the country throughout the launch period, and will contain a special coupon for discounting haircuts.

Continuing the sponsorship lineup, "Mad" is a major sponsor of this summer’s Warped Music Tour, and a promotion with White Castle will run between August 15th and September 15th. Mini magazines will be included with sacks of ten WC burgers, while October’s issue will feature a coupon for free White Castle burgers.

To see Mad gobbled up so throughly by the parties it once railed against is a sad spectacle indeed, especially for anyone who held each copy tightly to their bosom throughout their formative years.

One of the highlights of the magazine was its endless supply of song parodies and, between Mad and Allan Sherman, much of my adolescence was spent as a song parody machine, grinding out witty (so I felt), pun-soaked versions of Beatles songs as well as old standards. Many of these were passed along to my friend George, who claims to still have some of them, during class. In fact, I set a goal of writing song parodies for every song on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album and finished it, too, thereby instigating the Great Recording Session at our friend Ted Banks' house. Ted was a transistor head who built model rockets and knew what all the stuff at Radio Shack did. He had plans to build a tiny radio station that would broadcast around his entire block, so he had this thing called a "mixer" which he said would be a great help to our project.

He also had a sister named Robin Banks, which we thought was one of the funniest names we'd ever heard. "Robin" Banks, geddit?

To us, this was Noel Coward level material.

Anyway, the Sgt. Pepper Parody Sessions were to be as ill-fated as the Fabs' own Let It Be sessions. We gathered at Ted's house and, after asking "Hey, where's your sister? Robbin' banks?", we took our places in the basement and pretended we were at Abbey Road Studios. George played guitar and we would take turns singing. It never seemed to occur to us that we needed any other instruments. Meanwhile, Ted would be on the other side of the basement door, turning the three knobs on the mixer with the look of a man possessed.

The first song seemed to go ok. We listened back to it on Ted's reel-to-reel tape recorder, a large machine that lent an air of professionalism to the entire affair. Satisfied, we dug into the second track with renewed vigor. Now don't ask me the names of any of these masterpieces, as the scrubbing bubbles of senility have blessedly erased this information. But I do remember that we needed some gunshots during the fade-out of the track (I think this was our big anti-war number) and Ted had just the thing.

He dug out an LP that had some gunshot sound effects on it and, with the twist of a Radio Shack mixer knob, deftly added it to the end of our song. However, some unexpected and mournful chamber music started to come in towards the end that Ted had forgotten about and, mortified, he said "Sorry, we can do that again." To George and I, however, this was the equivalent of one of those famous studio accidents The Beatles themselves pioneered, like playing the guitar backwards or running the tape at different speeds.

"No, no, leave it in!" we cried, "It sounds just like Glass Onion!" Ted looked at us strangely, then nodded his head as if he understood. We all felt like witnesses to history. This must be what it's like to be in a real recording studio, we silently thought. Riding inspiration by the seat of your pants, using your artistic intuition as a compass as you braved the unknown.

We had passed through the fire. We were now recording artistes.

Next: The Dream Is Over


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