A Perfect MAD Man

William Gaines' splendidly zany magazine taught irreverence to a generation

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Obituaries tend to be occasions for breathless hyperbole and for reducing rich, messy lives to tidy summations. Why should this one be any different? After all, no postwar American literary institution has had a more profound cultural influence than Mad magazine, and William Gaines, the aggressively idiosyncratic impresario who launched and then ran the magazine for four decades, is a singular character in 20th century American publishing -- the anti-Luce.

For such a happily unkempt man -- he wore shoulder-length hair and bargain- basement clothes, and weighed an eighth of a ton -- Gaines' death last week seemed curiously neat: he had turned 70; his creation was turning 40; an exhaustive coffee-table-book history (Completely Mad) was in the bookstores; and, as if to reaffirm Mad's relevance, the current issues of two other magazines (Esquire and Texas Monthly) feature Alfred E. Neumanesque cover caricatures of would-be Presidents (George Bush and Ross Perot). Is there any American under 50 who did not as a youth experience Mad's liberating, irreverent rush? Without doubt a certain New York Daily News obituary editor did: WHAT? ME DEAD? was a headline -- tasteless, allusive, funny -- worthy of the man who allowed Mad to happen.

If Dr. Spock is responsible for a whole generation of spoiled brats, it was Bill Gaines who propelled baby-boomer smart-aleckism to giddy new heights. Long before the Nickelodeon cable channel (whose sensibility is significantly Mad-derived), before Father Knows Best seemed campy, before every other ninth- grader wore sideburns and shades, Gaines' magazine was the only place for children to have an uncensored glimpse behind the perky facade of '50s bourgeois life. It was where they could get clued in to the fatuousness of civics-book sanctimony, to the permutations of suburban phoniness, to grown-up dissembling and insincerely sincere hucksterism of all kinds. Mad infected children with a healthy streak of antiestablishment skepticism, a Dada- dissectionist attitude toward all media. Where else could you see Donald Duck baffled by his three fingers and white gloves?

Mad readers eventually grow up, and thus Gaines bears paternal responsibility for a large swath of pop culture from the past quarter-century. Virtually every stand-up comedy routine is a regurgitation of Dave Berg's Lighter Side strips. Underground artists from R. Crumb on have taken inspiration from Harvey Kurtzman (Gaines' editorial genius, who left after four years to launch a doomed satirical magazine for Hugh Hefner) and Mad's dense, rude cartoon style. Parodies of advertising and TV did not really exist before Mad invented the form. Ernie Kovacs, along with Bob and Ray, wrote free-lance for Gaines in the '50s, and Kovacs and Mad begat Saturday Night Live and David Letterman (who is, physically as well as spiritually, Alfred E. You-Know-Who come to life). Without Gaines and Mad there might have been no National Lampoon, no Maus, no Ren & Stimpy, no Spy.

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