A new MAD Magazine anthology has been published, celebrating - errr, "celebrating" - 60 years of, as they call it, "humor, satire, stupidity and stupidity." Good old MAD. It's where we went for dumb grunting laughs before God invented Homer Simpson.
And although sometimes it's easy to forget the huge amount of satire in MAD, MAD is also kind of where we went for snarky, well-informed chuckles before God invented Jon Stewart.
AND it was our source of slightly baffled grins while we were still too young to be well-informed or snarky. In fact, MAD was making snide remarks long before "snark" was anything other than some kind of bandersnatch variant.
Here's my own history with MAD: when my brother and I were kids, in like say 1975 or so, we found my dad's stash of MAD Magazines from 1958 and '59. We immediately recognized them as transgressive and inappropriate - i.e., we read those babies TO SHREDS. We read every page - every panel of every page - and all the marginalia and all the fake ads. And did we understand what we were reading? Did we recognize the shoe-faced sad sack in the suit as LBJ? Of course not. Did we even know what "The Lone Stranger" was parodying? We did not.
Neither did Stephen Colbert or Eric Drysdale, who wrote the Introduction for the 60th anniversary cash cow celebration of satire and whatever. Let's listen to them:
Colbert: ...the first stuff I saw was the 1950s Harvey Kurtzman and Bill Elder stuff, and I just didn't get the cultural references.Drysdale: ...let's explore why we kept reading even though we didn't understand it all.Colbert: Definitely. You go first.Drysdale: Sure. Well, I think it's because no matter the level of sophistication you brought to MAD, there was always something dumb enough to keep your attention - if only the glorious weirdness of the pictures. And with any material that required deeper understanding, there was always a sense that you would get it eventually. It felt like being guided into a new, dangerous place - but in the good hands of fun-loving friends eager to share new and hilarious truths about the world.
They go on to talk about Nixon and transformative spiritual texts and stuff, but I stopped reading and flipped ahead to see if I could find the cartoon about the conformists vs. the nonconformists, and the conforming nonconformists vs. the nonconforming nonconformists - which predated The Baffler's brilliant Commodify Your Dissent collection of essays by ABOUT FORTY YEARS and managed to say it all in a two page spread.
WHY am I spending all this time on a patently let's-cash-in-on-Christmas coffee table book?
BECAUSE I picked up a kid book the other day, a book by Allen Ahlberg, a writer who sometimes writes in a distinctly Tom Waits drawling rhythm, and that book was a book of stories featuring a certain blonde-headed fairy tale miscreant, and its title is The Goldilocks Variations: A Pop-up Book.
AND YES. That is a pun on the title of BWV 988, The Goldberg Variations, a longish piece written for the harpsichord by Johann Sebastian mother-of-god Bach. And will any kid on this green and fertile planet get that joke? NO. Okay maybe the kids up the street from us whose parents are both classical musicians will. Maybe Belina and Marius will notice that that's a pun. All other kids - my kids, your kids, the kids at the library - will skip right past that pun, because who cares? It's not an important pun. It has meaning even if you've never heard of Bach. And there are many other funny things, and surprising and interesting-to-look-at things, and flat-out silly things, in The Goldilocks Variations, and maybe they'll get it eventually.
You can go as high as you like - you can write like Tom Waits sings, you can name-check a dirty old dive bar, you can draw a copy of Mothman Prophecies on a shelf in the background of a picture book - just as long as there's something at the lowest level too. A well-placed talking bowl of porridge buys you a lot of space to make puns on classical music.
The very last thing that Allan Ahlberg mentions in this video is the thing that I find the most sly: the book within this book, "Goldilocks the Play." It is fabulous. Faaabulous tiny pop-ups (nevertheless sturdy - none of your creaking flimsy paper here, Candlewick has put this book together using paper that feels like hot press watercolor block). Daaarling tiny watercolors.
But the play itself, during which Goldilocks solicits the assistance of the audience, and the whole cast dances little dances, with its cast of woodland creatures and fairy tale characters, is, as I read it, a total tongue-in-cheek spoof of those endless, pointless little plays you have to endure as the parent of a young child. Except the part with the shotgun - that part is total wishful thinking. How often have you sat in an auditorium watching each kid trudge through his or her single line wishing ninjas would swoop into the plot and dismember the main characters?
Or - whoops - that might be just me, writing my own "MAD Goes to the Kindergarten Play" parody in my head.
ANYWAY. Excellent fun. A keeper. Probably not a bad holiday gift.