MAD Magazine, after 67 years of serving as America’s gap-toothed jester-king of satire, is no more.
Oh, it’s not completely gone. Its creators say a year-end issue will come out (presumably at year’s end), along with the occasional special collection. But its days as an entertainment/cultural bellweather and influencer is done.
Make no mistake, MAD magazine—which featured a bevy of talented artists and writers (MAD called them its “Usual Gang of Idiots”)—inspired tons of people. Even Christian movie reviewers have gotten touched by a bit of MAD-ness.
My dad is an artist and was a political cartoonist who says that MAD magazine was a big reason he took the path that he did. And some of my earliest memories are of his stacks of MAD magazines. I’d go back to his home studio—basically a concrete bunker filled with easels and paintbrushes and blocks of clay—and while my dad painted, I’d leaf through his copies of MAD. I didn’t know how to read yet, but no matter: Regular feature Spy vs. Spy didn’t’ have any words. As I got older, I grew to love the work of Don Martin (my dad’s favorite artist, too), but I might’ve loved the magazine’s movie-based spoofs the best. Early on, I hadn’t seen a lot of movies that MAD satirized, but it didn’t matter. And when I had seen them, so much the better. The more I loved the movie, the more I laughed when MAD made fun of it.
MAD taught me something important, I think. You can love a thing and still laugh at it. And, as both a movie lover and a movie critic, that basic lesson has been indispensable to me. You can embrace a thing and still poke it, critique it and push it to be better.
And maybe that’s one of the reasons why MAD magazine folded: No one can agree what “better” really means these days.
In her book On Reading Well, author Karen Swallow Prior says that “Satire is the ridicule of vice or folly for the purpose of correction. … Satire mocks—but it does so with a moral aim. And that’s a problem in an age with few agreed-upon manners or rules.”
Swallow Prior says that satire depends on a set of shared values, and our culture just doesn’t share a lot of values today. In such an environment, she writes, “satire just seems mean.”
Which might explain why the Christian subculture, oddly enough, does satire pretty well.
Crazy, right? This statement might seem laughable to some. We Christians are not known for our sense of humor. And satire poses a series of particularly ticklish issues for us—issues that we grapple with all the time at Plugged In.
When I review a movie, a big part of my job is calling out all of its “problematic content:” The sex, the violence, the bad language, etc. It’s important stuff, obviously, especially for the moms and dads who want to know whether a given flick is appropriate for their kids.
Satirical works are, by their very nature, pretty problematic in this area. To ridicule vice and folly, you have to show it. Through cutting humor and often bawdy exaggeration, satires may aim for (as Swallow Prior says) “correction,” but does that mitigate all the gunk audiences see? Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street might be the best example of this odd tension between the movie’s intended message and what it actually shows on screen: Scorsese might’ve meant for the film to be a satirical take on money-crazy capitalism. But with its unremitting sexual content and (by our reviewer’s estimate) 525 f-words, Plugged In wasn’t laughing. And let’s face it: If you miss the satire—and with Wolf, lots of viewers did—even that nugget of meaning is lost. What was meant to be a scathing critique of excess becomes, instead, a celebration of it.
But the fact that Wolf didn’t work that well as a satire for Plugged In (and many other Christians) may get back again to Swallow Prior’s idea of a shared set of values. Plugged In, like lots of Christians, place a greater premium on clean entertainment than culture as a whole. And while many of us can deal with problematic content, we feel there’s got to be really solid justification for that content.
Truth is, lots of Christians deal with satire just fine. We’ve got lots of experience with it.
The Bible itself cottons to satire: Read the book of Job, for instance—one of the Bible’s oldest books—and you’ll find plenty of scathing retorts dripping with it. In 1494, Roman Catholic scholar Sebastian Brandt took on the church’s abuses in his satirical Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools). Satire, even in the context of our holy faith, is not a new thing.
The Wittenburg Door, a Christian satirical publication, was founded in 1971—not too long after MAD was stretching its wings. We’ve seen plenty of iterations since, all leading to John Crist’s YouTube takes on evangelical culture and, of course, The Babylon Bee.
Love of satire isn’t uniform in Christianity, of course. Many are discomforted by it, particularly when satire’s turned on our own culture. Some find it unfair or spiteful or are bothered, simply, by its irreverence. And I get that.
But with MAD magazine having been such a big part of my formative years, I value not only the insight satire offers, but the inherent humility that comes with it. We’re all a little laughable, after all. We’re imperfect creatures following a perfect God, and some of what we do and say is worthy of a chuckle or two. It’s like family, really. We love our moms and dads and sons and daughters—but we’re deeply aware of each’s own strange habits, foibles and shortcomings. And it’s a sign of how much we love these people that we’re able to kid ‘em a little.
That’s what MAD magazine taught me back in the day: You can laugh at what you love. And sometimes, that laughter is a sign of just how much you love it.