Show celebrates art by ‘Usual Gang Of Idiots’
By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
First there was “Saturday Night Fever,” the 1978 drama about New York, disco and living your dream that proved a star vehicle for a young John Travolta.
Close on its heels came “Saturday Night Feeble,” the MAD magazine parody that featured an arm-thrusting Travolta who momentarily morphs into a gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman, the magazine’s omnipresent mascot.
A new exhibit at the world’s largest cartoon museum showcases MAD’s artistic history and legacy, including illustrations and paintings by some of its most famous illustrators.
The magazine, founded by editor Harvey Kurtzman and publisher William Gaines, debuted as a comic book in 1952, then switched to magazine format three years later.
The magazine, produced by what MAD calls its “Usual Gang Of Idiots,” includes long-running features such as “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” hapless espionage antics in “Spy v. Spy,” and a back cover that once folded in on itself reveals a new image.
“Artistically Mad: Seven Decades of Satire” opened in May at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University and runs through Oct. 21.
“If you really look at the body of work, it’s sort of a cultural history of America,” said cartoonist and exhibit curator Brian Walker.
Rather than focus exclusively on the magazine’s content, though, the exhibit features original drawings and paintings by contributors, who included some of the country’s top cartoonists over the years, said Walker, who with his brother, Greg, helps continue the “Hi & Lois” and “Beetle Bailey” cartoons created by their late father, Mort Walker.
The exhibit also includes vintage MAD magazines and memorabilia such as trading cards and board games.
For some, MAD is best known for its parodies of TV shows and films, and the exhibit includes two other examples in addition to “Saturday Night Feeble,” created by longtime contributor Mort Drucker.
Those are, “Howdy Dooit!” a 1954 parody of the children’s show “Howdy Doody,” by Kurtzman and Will Elder; and “Strangely Thin,” a 2017 parody of the Netflix sci-fi drama “Stranger Things,” by Tom Richmond.
Some of the exhibit’s material came from the Billy Ireland museum’s own collections. Others were loaned by private collectors, including Grant Geissman, a jazz guitarist and Emmy-nominated composer who’s also written several books about MAD.
As a kid growing up in San Jose in the 1950s and 1960s, MAD provided Geissman his first hint that the real world might be different than the one portrayed on clean-cut shows such as “Leave It to Beaver.” It made him a fan.
In the decades since, satire has blossomed almost to the point of overload, from “The Simpsons” to “The Daily Show” and of course “The Onion,” whose sophisticated parodies of news are sometimes mistaken for the real thing.
But MAD stands alone, Geissman said, because “it’s this weird combination of words and illustrations.”
“It’s its own animal, and in that way it’s going to survive,” he said.
Nevertheless, MAD has undergone big changes in recent years, including moving its headquarters from New York to Los Angeles. MAD also expanded original content on its blog posts, launched an official MAD channel on Twitch, a streaming video platform, and debuts a podcast this summer.
The goal is to carry MAD’s voice beyond the magazine format at a time when humor and satire have never been more relevant, said Bill Morrison, the magazine’s new editor.
Walker said one of the exhibit’s high points is the chance to see original artwork, mistakes and all, as created by artists at their desks.
“It’s like going to Cooperstown and looking at Babe Ruth’s bat,” Walker said.