People often fling the epithet “out-of-touch Media Elites” at us in the entertainment/publishing world — well, I don’t know how “elite” I am, but I’ve definitely been out of touch with the economic “pain” of the everyday MAD buyer, over the last 25+ years of getting my copies free from the editorial offices. Now that I’m “MAD’s Most Ostracized Writer“ and have to buy my own issues — yikes! It’s really $4.99 a copy?!! Both MAD and MAD KIDS?!! Good Lord!
When I was a kid-MAD-reader back in the 1960s, for the longest time, a copy of the magazine cost exactly the same as one large dipped-cone at Dairy Queen, 35 cents. Which was well within the reach of any kid, even those with extra-stingy allowances. For just one less ice cream cone every month and a half, you could experience the semi-subversive pleasures of MAD Magazine! I don’t know what the DQ cone costs today, but I’m 100% positive (without even looking) that it’s nowhere near $4.99! (To look at it another way: inflation in general, measured by the Consumer Price Index, has gone up a little more than 500% since 1967, while the MAD price has gone up, uh-oh, 1,425% in the same time — and that’s WITH their accepting advertising the last several years!)
But wait: something else is going on besides just the price-gouging! (And I’m amazed I haven’t brought it up until now — this struck me as one of the more slimy DC Comics “initiatives” when I first heard of it; and one of the things the MAD editors themselves complained about — that is, before they succumbed to a case of The Stockholm Syndrome!) As the MAD guys told it, a few years ago, DC Comics decreed that there shall be fewer and fewer pages with wholly original writer & artist content in MAD; and more and more staff-written, “recycled-art” (or NO art) pieces. If you’ve ever wondered about that new waste-of-space regular feature called, “What the Heck is the Difference [between 2 slightly different versions of an old MAD cover]?“, that’s exactly what this is. So, too, with “The Darker Side of the Lighter Side,” which is just old Dave Berg spreads with new editor-written word-balloons, at about half the page-density of the originals. And pretty much anything else you see in MAD without both a writer and artist byline. When I last talked with any of the editors 6 months ago, they were being pressured from above to do even more of this!
You have to admit: from the perspective of a businessperson, this sort of “content-shorting” is absolute GENIUS; on the other hand, for MAD readers (not to mention MAD writers & artists)…it kinda SUCKS!
And, just think: if all of the above trends continue…according my calculations, by about the year 2016, a newsstand copy of MAD should cost $149.99 and have NO original content whatsoever!
In the long history of MAD, there have been a lot of practical jokes & pranks played by MAD guys upon each other, office staffers, even complete strangers. There was MAD Publisher Bill Gaines pretending to be his own evil twin-brother back in the 60s; the entire MAD group on a MAD Trip to Haiti (I think) showing up, unannounced, to beg the lone Haitian subscriber to renew his subscription; the famous recreation of the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ “Night at the Opera” for the sole benefit of Gaines (on this very same Bermuda Cruise) and many others. [BTW: If you're curious about these or other MAD-insider tales and haven't already done so, check out the excellent books by MAD writers Frank Jacobs (1972) and Dick DeBartolo (1994)]
But, to me, the greatest (and surely longest-running) MAD practical joke involved the aforementioned intern-turned-staffer Andrew Schwartzberg - starring as “The Butt of the Joke” – and a vital sub-chapter of it transpired on this 1991 MAD Cruise to Bermuda.
First, the back-story: As some MAD readers know, there have been lots of pseudonyms used as writer and artist bylines in the magazine, for various reasons. One such pseudonym is J. Prete – who is actually one of the MAD staffers (I won’t say which, in case he plans on being pseudonymous again). Everyone in the MAD offices knew J. Prete was a fictitious name — that is, everyone except for the new guy, Andrew! One day, after several months of getting to meet or talk on the phone to most of the real MAD contributors, Andrew asked about Prete. Thus, a “fish” was born…and the guys played him hook, line & sinker, doing everything possible to make him believe there actually was a live human being named J. Prete…for several years!
In the beginning, they concocted fake cover letters from Prete that were then paper-clipped to his script-submissions making the rounds of the MAD office, being sure that Andrew got to read them. They enlisted the vocal services of someone outside the staff (unknown to Andrew) to make calls pretending to be Prete, even had him gradually build up a casual, passing relationship with Andrew via the phone. But the upcoming 1991 MAD Trip presented a golden opportunity to kick it up another notch or two.
By pure happenstance, there were going to be an odd number of smokers on the trip, and since I was an out-of-town Smoking contributor who hadn’t met Andrew (or Prete, of course)…I was elected “Prete’s roommate.” Months before the trip, the editors briefed me on the entire history of the hoax, and we drew up plans which included me “dressing up” the empty half of my double-occupancy cabin to make it look, uh, “Prete-occupied.”
Once on the cruise ship for the trip itself, I unpacked my extra suitcase and stuffed the extra shoes & clothes I’d brought along into Prete’s side of the cabin. I messed up his bed. On “his” little desk & nightstand, I set out: a half-written postcard and pen; an almost-empty beer can (with spilled-beer rings nearby – Prete was obviously a slob!) – even a pack of a different brand of cigarettes from my own, with several “pre-smoked” butts in the ashtray. My favorite “touch” – made possible by a call from Andrew’s (real) roommate down the hall telling me he was on his way – was to have a fresh one of Prete’s cigarettes lit and still burning away in the ashtray. When Andrew came and asked for Prete, I had my toothbrush in hand and pretended to have been in the bathroom; I invited him in and acted surprised when Prete wasn’t there in the middle of my just-created stage-set, smoking and finishing up his postcard. “Hmm. Well, he was here — I was just talking to him. [theatrical head-scratch] He must’ve just went to one of the other guys’ rooms.” I chatted with Andrew for a few minutes (“Oh, yeah – Prete was saying he was looking forward to finally meeting you.”); and he gave up on waiting and asked me to tell Prete that he stopped by.
Since most (or all) of the other MAD trippers knew about this hoax, they were prepared to say they either had or had not seen Prete whenever Andrew brought up his name. Some even had elaborate stories about what they and Prete had done together while on the ship or the island of Bermuda.
But it was Bill Gaines himself who delivered the coup de gras, the piece de resistance: At the first dinner on board ship after departing Bermuda (before Andrew had much of a chance to start getting suspicious about still not having met up with Prete) a headwaiter strode officiously to the table occupied by Bill (and, 2 chairs away from him by prearrangement months earlier, Andrew). The Best-Supporting-Actor/headwaiter presented Bill a folded piece of paper on little silver platter. He took it and pretended to read it, then exploded in a snarling, table-pounding mock rage: “Goddammit!!! That son of a bitch Prete missed the boat!!! If that shithead thinks I’m paying for his goddamn plane ride back to New York, he’s out of his fucking mind!” It was a magnificent acting performance! And it cemented the concept of the actual existence of Prete into Andrew’s mind, for future episodes of the prank….which, according to Andrew, included a climactic appearance by the “Prete-pretender” in the MAD offices at 485 Madison, yelling and screaming about suing the magazine over something Andrew had done to one of his articles. (Don’t worry: Andrew was quickly “backed away from the window ledge,” so to speak.)
It wasn’t until after Andrew left MAD, and moved out here to Arizona to attend college, that he finally learned of the NON-existence of J. Prete, and the elaborate “punking” of him…from my stepfather Bob, who had heard all the stories and, one holiday gathering, couldn’t resist spilling the beans. Oh, well.
Actually, Andrew told me he had already had his suspicions earlier – but the beauty of this particular hoax (besides its @ 4-year duration!) was that there was always enough “evidence” to make it believable AND to make disbelief of it seem unreasonable. Think about it: when was Andrew supposed to have given in to his suspicions: when listening to the legendary Al Jaffee talk about his bar-hopping with Prete? Or Sergio Aragones recounting how he and Prete went snorkeling yesterday? Or when a “real” Prete was standing right in front him, threatening to sue his employer over something he had done?
Andrew has continued to do some writing for MAD, and remained friendly with the guys in the MAD offices, visiting them when he’s back in New York. And I’m pretty sure that he’s come to recognize it was actually kind of FLATTERING — all the sustained effort all those people they put in over the years, just to “trick” little old him. But it wouldn’t surprise me if, somewhere, deep down inside…he’d still like to kill them.
There was an interesting poll released the other day by Rasmussen Reports (generally considered one of the more accurate polling firms, especially on the days they show your candidate leading) that finds Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin is viewed “positively” by 52% of all women and 65% of all men! I understand the first figure (women split evenly), but that latter figure was kind of puzzling. Until I saw this pic that’s been landing on sites all over the Internet for several days. Now I know exactly what accounts for the gender-disparity: She represents lots of guys’ Ultimate Fantasy: a hunting & fishing buddy you can have sex with, without going into “Brokeback Mountain” terrority! (not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
(BTW: Before any of you fellas get too excited and rush out to switch party registration or something…this “NRA Sarah“-pic is somebody’s Photoshop job. Even so, just the fact that lots of people think it could really be her tells me one thing: if the Vice-Presidential Debate committee decides to go with a Swimsuit Competition…Joe Biden is TOAST!)
There was a very curious thing in the July 2008 (#491) issue of MAD that I’ve been meaning to write about, because it just struck me as particularly emblematic of “What’s wrong with MAD — Chapter VII: Why hasn’t MAD changed that much over the years?” It’s a piece entitled “G*d Damn America” [not a typo] – a lyrical lampoon of Barack Obama’s “Rev. Wright problem” of several months back, written, to the tune of “God Bless America,” by MAD’s unparalleled comic-versifier Frank Jacobs (whom I’ve always suspected must be the reincarnated soul of W. S. Gilbert, I’m so jealous!). Anyway, the piece itself is actually quite good and succinct; the thing I find “curious,” as you may have guessed, is the asterisk in the word “God” in the title, and all other occurrences of the word in the text (a decision by the editors, not something Frank, or any writer, would’ve done!).
“G*d Damn America.” Hmmm.
Now, my own recollection of the Rev. Wright story first hitting the news earlier this year was that almost EVERY news outlet used the actual words “God Damn America” rather than MAD’s “self-censored” version with the asterisk…and a recent Google search confirms my recollection: only @ 360 hits for Rev. Wright & “G*d Damn” [or "G*d D*mn"] vs. 112,000 for Rev. Wright & “God Damn” (including not only EVERY mainstream media/web outlet, but nearly every traditionalist/conservative one such as National Review, Fox News Online, Christian Science Monitor, Pat Robertson’s CBN.com (!!!), and even the LDS-owned Deseret News).
Pardon my impertinence, but this raises several questions:
Put your pencils down, you don’t need to answer those questions – they answer themselves. (I designed them that way myself. Hee hee.)
In my opinion, there are lots of reasons that MAD, despite sincere efforts, hasn’t really changed much over the years (And I’m talking REAL change, not just cosmetic design & layout changes; the kind of change where “The Simpsons” wouldn’t be able to keep making dead-on jokes about MAD’s dated and “softball” humor). In my opinion, this particular “G*d Damn”-case illustrates just a couple of the reasons:
1) the persistence of lots of seemingly random “over-sensitivities” & “sacred cows” among the editors — religion being only one of them. (Another example of oversensitivity to religion that springs to mind is how late MAD was to the “Pedophile Priest gag”-party (so to speak), and how little, if anything, they ultimately “contributed.” I personally know of 2 such premises – mine and another writer’s – rejected for the stated reason of not wanting to risk offending Catholics, rather than whether they were funny or not.)
2) the also-persistent MAD demographic of very young readers with parents constantly monitoring the “suitability” of MAD-content. Parents who like to deluge the MAD offices with outraged letters and threats to cancel subscriptions — AND even some actual cancellations! Has that threat made MAD too “gun shy” about tackling truly “edgy” topics and transitioning to a more hard-hitting, “adult” style of humor? My vote is “Yes.” (Of course, all magazines have to be somewhat sensitive about possibly offending the paying customers; but, I’m sorry: I think that in this case, the MAD editors veered way, way, WAY off to the timid, “conservative”-side of the road — I mean, really: a humor magazine being more cautious about the words “God Damn” than the Christian Broadcasting Network’s website!? Good grief!)
Regardless of who you’re voting for, or against – or even if you’re truly undecided — you have to admit that this year’s Presidential Campaign is shaping up to be the most exciting and interesting in decades! Between the two tickets, virtually every single demographic, wedge issue, and “hot button” in American politics is represented in some way — leading to an explosion of all-new “splinter” political organizations and crossover voting groups…including these ones you may not have heard of yet:
I’m not one to put a lot of faith in Doomsday theories, but I like to keep up with cultural trends, etc…especially ones that conceivably involve the end of my world, and everyone else’s. You’d hate to be completely surprised by something like that.
The “hot” Doomsday theory the past few years is that the world ends in the year 2012 – on either Dec. 21 or 23, depending on which edition of the Ancient Mayan stone wall-calendar you happen to have. There’s even a big Hollywood movie coming out next year called “2012” – by the same creative team that brought you “Independence Day” and “The Day after Tomorrow,” so you know it’s going to be scientifically accurate.
I tend to discount this particular Doomsday theory, for a couple of reasons: 1) what expertise can we really attribute to the Mayans in the field of end-of-the-world prediction? Their “world” ended centuries ago! If they had been able to predict that one, they surely could’ve taken actions to avoid it; and 2) I think people today are “reading too much into” the fact that the Ancient Mayan calendar “ends” on Dec. 21 (or 23), 2012. There are plenty of alternate explanations: the stone-carver could’ve just plain run out of space…or decided to take a break, but then got unexpectedly killed in a game of Ancient Mayan Death Ball (look it up!)…or, perhaps they were just waiting to see how that calendar “did” before they committed to starting on the next one. You never know.
So, I’m not too worried about 2012; besides, looking on the bright side: it’s still a couple years away — I could die of something entirely unrelated in that time!
But, there’s another Doomsday theory that’s a little more troubling, if only because it predicts the end of our world (plus maybe the solar system, the galaxy, or even the entire Universe!) — on September 10…which is next week! For those of you who haven’t heard (and boy, you’re lucky you stumbled onto this site now…before it’s too late!) here’s how this theory goes: See, there’s this thing in Europe called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that’s, like, the most powerful particle accelerator ever built, a massive 17-mile circular tunnel of powerful superconducting magnets designed to propel sub-atomic particles to almost the Speed of Light and then – BAM! - smash them together. Oh, and BTW: it’s supposed to (maybe) produce levels of energy and temperature not seen since microseconds after The Big Bang that created the Universe some 14 billion years ago. And this LHC is scheduled to be turned on for the first time…next Wednesday.
Some people foresee a problem with that. A group of anti-LHC scientists says, “Whoa! Hold on a sec, dudes! Are you sure that these Big Bang-type energies and temperatures aren’t going to create Big Bang-type conditions like, say, all matter collapsing into itself, or millions of microscopic black holes gobbling up the Earth, stuff like that?” And then the pro-LHC scientists — who are just ITCHING to finally get to “fire up the mother,” what with the zoning delays and all — basically shrug in response and say, “Probably not.”
I’m being facetious; actually, they wrote this big, long research paper with lots of numbers and equations and complex scientific terminology…which all boils down to “Probably not.”
But I wouldn’t worry about this one. The whole thing is in court right now…and even if worst comes to worst, it’s like the doctor always says: You won’t feel a thing!
Well, it’s been 3 months since I started this here blog, so it’s probably time to revisit the topic of whether or not I am actually entitled to use the moniker “MAD’s Most Ostracized Writer.” When I last posted about it, the first week or so, my main evidence for The Ostracization was the complete silent treatment from all the MAD Editors — leading to suggestions from some commenters (“sock puppet” or otherwise) that the idea I was being ostracized was a figment of my imagination or a phony controversy pumped up out of nothing just to drive eyeballs to this site. (Man, it’s a tough Internet out there!). So let me bring you up to date with everything on the “persona non grata front,” and what makes me suspect they might be giving me the permanent cold shoulder:
So, there it is. Unless somebody can come up with a benign explanation for the totality of the above…or another member of the Usual Gang finds a way to get The Boys even more riled up at them…then I’m sticking with my “Most Ostracized Writer!” It’s mine. I earned it. I’m keeping it.
UPDATE 9/16/08: In addition to the 4 things listed above, in the Fundalini section of MAD #494, they have a new installment of “my” long-running feature, “Celebrity Cause-of-Death Betting Odds” written by someone else (I’m guessing one of the editors). Now, they’re legally entitled to do that — they buy ALL rights to everything! — but there’s always been an unspoken (and unbroken, until now) MAD Rule that whoever originates a premise or concept gets “first dibs” on writing all future episodes of that concept. So, at least part of their running a new installment of “my” feature, not written by me, at this particular time…is their sending me a little passive-aggressive “message.” (Either that, or they imagine they’ve driven me to gnashing my teeth and calling a lawyer over the “lost” $150.00 micro-fee they’re paying for those tiny Fundalini pieces!) Regardless of which it is…it still counts as “Ostracization”…so I’m finally having the business cards printed up, dang it!