From the Stars and Stripes archives
Publisher Bill Gaines says MAD still going strong after 32 years
MAD Magazine has been on the attack for 32 years now and, despite a gradual decline in circulation since its heyday in the early '70s, America's original "tasteless" comic book is still going strong.
MAD publisher Bill Gaines says he got the magazine's credo from an old New Yorker cartoon showing a man on a soapbox shouting, "I hate everybody regardless of race, creed or color."
"It really has become our motto," says Gaines. "We attack anyone no matter who or what they are. Since we don't have a point of view, we don't have to leave anyone out and that gives us a lot more material to work on."
Some of the people MAD has "worked on" over the years have taken offense at the magazine's irreverence. Gaines smiled as he recalled some of the magazine's more notable lawsuits.
"One of the first was Ava Gardner who had just finished filming `The Barefoot Contessa.' She was upset because we ran a parody called `The Barefoot No-Contessa.' Then Dentyne got after us when we ran ads for Cavetyne Chewing Gum. There have been so many threats that after all this time they sort of blend together.
"Especially when we were younger, it seemed like people got offended by these things. There were a lot of lawsuits but over the years we've always been able to jolly everybody out of it who took offense. We'd say, 'Aw, come on, this is only MAD Magazine. We're only fooling around.' We really haven't had any serious court cases in years."
He recalled the time when MAD was banned from Oklahoma for being communistic. The magazine had to go to court after being placed on what was called the state "smutmobile" by the state's attorney general.
Gaines said the attorney general was said to be a friend of an Army general in Europe who "got up in front of a group of people and told them we were tainted with Communism." The state government put MAD in the same category as all of the dirty magazines of the day. Gaines had to sue to get back on the newstands.
Another more serious lawsuit involved the magazine's parodies of songs. New lyrics are written to familiar songs and printed with the instructions, "Sing to the tune of ...." When Irving Berlin and a group of songwriters sued Gaines, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
"We made law on that one," Gaines recalled, noting that he had probably helped to pave the way for Weird Al Yankovic's parodies. "Now anyone is free to parody anything that way. You just can't publish the music."
Then there was the letter Gaines received in the late '50s scrawled on stationery from Buckingham Palace.
There was a vague resemblance between MAD cover boy Alfred E. Neuman and young Prince Charles, Gaines said, probably "because his ears stuck out. Anyway, we published something to that effect and a short time later I got this letter saying, `I bloody well don't look like him.' It was signed Charles Printemps or something like that and it was mailed from a post office box near the palace. We never did find out if it was legitimate or not."
MAD has been sued on several occasions over the ownership of Alfred E. Neuman.
"His face has been around for at least a hundred years," said Gaines. "When I was a kid I used to see it on post cards saying, `What, me worry?' We found it as early as the 1890s. He was an advertisement for a dentist in Topeka, Kan., whose name was Painless Romaine. He was used for a million things, even for anti-Roosevelt ads in the 1930s."
Gaines said MAD stole the name from comedian Henry Morgan's '50s television spoofs. Morgan, in turn, had borrowed the name from Hollywood conductor Alfred Newman. "When we took it we misspelled it and the name just stuck," Gaines said. Before that, MAD had used several names, including Melvin Paslovsky.
"We first ran him for president in 1960," said Gaines. He didn't win. Not discouraged, they ran him again in the next five elections before finally giving up in '84.
Like most other magazines in America today, MAD is capitalizing on the success of Michael Jackson. Gaines says this month's issue will feature a salute to all of the Jacksons: Michael, Kate, Andrew, Reggie ... He explained that Andrew is depicted in green because "he's been dead for well over a hundred years."
Gaines founded MAD as a 10-cent comic book. Neither he nor editor Al Feldstein expected it to sell at all well. After publishing horror stories, science fiction, war and suspense comics with his father's company, he and Feldstein "just decided one day" to create a comic spoofing all the others.
"We never expected it to achieve anything. I guess we basically just did it for our own amusement," Gaines said. "Of course, it took off and now everything else is long since gone."
Gaines says his father, Max, an advertising man, invented the comic book. Gaines senior conceived the idea of producing small, hand-lettered color pictorials for department stores to use as giveaways.
"As the family legend goes, he came up with the idea of putting a 10-cents sticker on them and putting them on the newsstand," Gaines said. The comics moved so quickly that he was able to persuade Dell Publishing Company to back him. His first comic book was called "Famous Funnies." He later came up with "Superman," "Wonder Woman" and other superhero characters.
Meanwhile, son Bill wasn't doing so well in college and was toying with the idea of going into the service.
"It wasn't a patriotic thing," he said, laughing. "I was flunking out of school and I just wanted to get the hell away from home. The only problem was 1 was a physical wreck and nobody would take me."
After being turned down by the Army, Coast Guard and Navy (he didn't even try the Marines), Gaines went back to his draft board and requested to be drafted. It worked. He was the first 20-year-old from his district to go during World War II. He was drafted into the Army Air Corps and trained as a photographer.
But after his training at Lowry Field in Denver, he was assigned to a field in Oklahoma City that had no photo facility. He was put on permanent KP duty. He loved it.
"Being an eater, this assignment was a real pleasure for me," he says. "There were four of us and we always found all the choice bits the cooks had hidden away. We'd be frying up filet mignon and ham steaks every night. The hours were great, too. I think it was eight hours on and 40 off."
Gaines was later stationed at DeRitter Army Airfield in Louisiana, Marshall Field, Kan., and Governor's Island, N.Y., before he got out of the service and returned home to finish school at New York University.
In 1947, during Gaines' senior year, his father was killed in a boating accident and he was forced by events into the comic business. Although he stayed in school, graduating as a chemistry teacher, by his graduation he had become so interested in publishing that he never worked as a teacher.
MAD was hatched in 1952. In 1955, it took on the magazine format it has today. Gaines' change in format was motivated primarily by a fear that his editor, Harvey Kurtzman, might leave. As it turned out, the change probably kept MAD alive.
Since it was no longer a comic book, MAD was able to elude the rampaging censorship of the era. Gaines says the comic-book business was subject to the same intense scrutiny that was applied to baseball in the 1920s and to movies in the 1940s.
Gaines says the strict censorship crippled the comics industry. In the '50s, he says, there were 700 separate comic books with circulations of up to 400,000. Gaines said those figures began plummeting almost as soon as the censors took on the industry. Now, he says there are only 130 titles in comic books, with an average circulation of 150,000 each.
He puts most of the blame on an industry censor he remembers only as "Old Judge Murphy."
"In a way I was responsible for the crackdown, too," Gaines admits. "Some of the stuff I was publishing at that time was so rough that they had a Senate subcommittee investigating comics. Many thought that we were causing juvenile delinquency. When you look at it now compared with the material that is being published today, that stuff was innocuous. At that time, though, it was pretty rough."
Gaines avoided censorship in another way. He has never accepted advertising in MAD and says this is the most effective way of maintaining freedom in picking material for the publication.
"I don't know if anyone remembers it anymore, but I got this idea from a newspaper called PM that was published in New York in the '40s," said Gaines. "They were liberal and I was always intrigued with their concept — a paper refusing ads so they wouldn't have any censorship problems."
PM was edited by Ralph Ingersoll, who had made a name for himself at Time magazine, and published by Marshall Field, the Chicago-based department store magnate who went on to found Field Newspaper Enterprises. The newsstand price of PM was a nickel at a time when the N.Y. Daily News sold for 2 cents and the N.Y. Times, 3 cents. It began publishing in 1939 and ceased operating in 1946.
"Ingersoll was my hero," Gaines laughs. "I did what he did only I got away with it. Seriously, though, when you consider the kind of material we publish, it makes sense not to accept ads. You can't take money from Pepsi and spoof Coke."
It's been for that reason that Gaines has never brought MAD into other forms of the media as some of his rivals — most notably National Lampoon — have done.
"First of all it's really a hard thing to do," he explains. "Many people have tried it. Look at Monty Python, who are just incredibly funny. They have never been able to do anything successful in print."
Gaines said several people have tried to put MAD into the movies or on TV but that none have been successful. "The closest was when somebody did a pretty good half-hour show a few years ago," he recalled. "ABC reportedly sank around $700,000 into it."
Unfortunately, the show had a scene in it spoofing Ford cars and ABC had just signed a big deal with Ford. Gaines says he later heard that Ford had killed it and cites it as a good example of why MAD should never accept ads.
Gaines said it usually surprises people to hear that MAD has a full-time staff of only nine. All of the writing and art work is done by part-timers. He says the organization started tiny and grew into something very big without any major changes in staff.
"All of our freelancers work for other people, too," he said. "We can't support any of them. A lot of them are into record covers, Time and Newsweek covers, TV Guide covers. Some of our writers have won Emmys in Hollywood. In their spare time they knock out a MAD article now and then."
He says most of the freelancers, too, have been with the magazine from the beginning, doing it now out of a sense of loyalty or as an alter-ego exercise. He says it takes a particular kind of crazy mind to write for MAD and new talent has not been easy to find.
"These guys are getting old now but they still think young, Gaines said. "Still, though, I guess it might be our biggest problem — that we're losing touch with our audience because of the age thing. We just can't seem to find young ones to take over."
Gaines says he misses the old days when he was an active plotter in the editorial side of his operation. With the success of MAD, he was forced out of editorial into the business end of the company. He sold the magazine to Warner Communications in 1960 and has stayed on as publisher.
His fondest memories, he says, are the days when he and Al Feldstein were putting out four comics a week. "We had a western love comic called `Western Romances' and we did a column for the lovelorn called `Chat with Chuck,' " he mused.
"We were Ann Landers types but unfortunately we didn't give her kind of answers. God knows what stupid things we said. It was a lot of fun in those days, being involved in the creative process. Once MAD came along it was business for me. Business isn't that much fun but I guess you have to have both.
"All in all, though, I have to say it's been a pretty interesting and eventful 32 years."