MAD magazine issue 101

Mention Mad and most people have something to say about the magazine.

It might be a particular cover, article, or foldout they remember. For many, though, Mad represents a time in life when the magazine's arrival at the newsstand guaranteed laughs, giggles and - sometimes - a need to stash it before your parents caught you reading it.

No matter how you want to count it, that's a lot of memories. After all, next year will mark Mad's 60th in print.

When it first launched in 1952, Mad was a 48-page, black-and-white comic book. Three years later it converted to a black-and-white magazine.

"It didn't take advertising, and it was wildly successful," Editor-In-Chief John Ficarra said.

Ficarra has seen many changes in his tenure with the magazine. When he first came on board in 1980, he remembers the publication being a pretty closed shop.

"For a long time it was a tight-knit group, made up primarily of demented men," he recalled. In fact, Ficarra's hiring marked the first new full-time staff addition since 1964.

In its decades of publication, Mad has been known for the longevity of staff and a stable of regular contributors, known as "The Usual Gang of Idiots."

Shaping the magazine's tone and content for a number of years was William Gaines, who co-founded Mad with Harvey Kurtzman, and who was with the publication from its creation until his death in 1992. Gaines shepherded the magazine even as he sold it in the early 1960s to Kinney Parking Co., the precursor to what - and we're not making this up - ultimately became Time Warner, which still owns Mad today.

Not surprisingly, many of the magazine's biggest changes came after Gaines' death.

"When Bill died there was a lot of pressure to update and change," Ficarra said.

The mid-'90s also saw increasing competition from other media, prompting Mad to find a new voice - one that could compete with the likes of shock-jock Howard Stern, "without going quite that far," according to Ficarra.

Yet the most significant change came in 2001, when, after nearly 50 years in publication, the magazine began accepting advertising - a decision that came from the editorial department.

"At that time, we were printing a paper that could easily be mistaken for something you'd find in the men's room," Ficarra said. "Someone said to me once that it looked like it was printed in Mexico in 1950."

The desire to publish in color was among the biggest factors that led to Mad's decision to accept ads, Ficarra said.

"It was either take advertising or raise the price to $10, and not even our loyal readers would go for that - even if we put the word ‘cheap' after it."

Moving to color also allowed Mad, which had been traditionally text heavy, to incorporate more creative graphics into its content.

In the years since, Ficarra said he's been diligent in maintaining a solid church and state line between editorial and advertising.

"I don't know until the end of the process what advertisers are in each issue," he sad.

‘Cradle-to-grave' publication

Mad's readership has always been heavily male, although Ficarra contends that the magazine isn't intentionally written for that audience. Mad conducted its first-ever demographics survey when it began accepting ads, and Ficarra said he was surprised by the results.

"I always figured it was adolescent boys that made up a large part of the audience," he said. "But the average age is 24, and the median age is 19."

Ficarra said many readers first pick up the magazine around 12 years of age and read it until they are about 16.

"About the time their younger siblings pick it up, they put it down, but oftentimes they'll come back years later and start reading again," he said. "For some it's a cradle-to-grave publication, and God bless those people."

The famous face of Mad, Alfred E. Neuman, has appealed to every demographic group - young and old - since he first graced the cover in November 1954. Although the freckle-faced, gap-toothed "What? Me, worry?" kid is widely associated with Mad, the image actually existed long before the publication did. It was Gaines' co-founding partner, Harvey Kurtzman, who first gave the face a name. Neuman's image has since appeared on all but a handful of covers, in roles ranging from Uncle Sam to rapper Li'l Wayne.

Content is king

Ficarra said the editorial agenda is never set in stone for the now-bimonthly pub, but his main goal is for the magazine to reflect current events.

"We set themes to some extent, but then something like Charlie Sheen falls in our lap and we're scrambling to cover it because we're about to go to print."

Contributors reside all over the world and regularly submit ideas. Very few are thrown out without some consideration, Ficarra said, because it's often the silliest concepts that go on to become great articles.

"This is one of few places where you can be rewarded for saying something stupid - and you frequently are."

Staff meetings are far from what might be considered traditional by publishers of other magazines, and Ficarra said that - just like the pages of Mad - they're no place for the emotionally or professionally fragile.

That helps when the magazine has to deal with negative feedback, another frequent occurrence, Ficarra said.

"After the April Justin Bieber issue, we got all sorts of angry emails from teenage girls," he said of the issue that poked fun at Bieber's hair, music, movie and book.

"But, I'm pretty sure Justin Bieber is big enough to take it."

Ficarra said the magazine has always followed the rule that - with the exception of victim humor - anything is fair game. Although Mad's political satires have been called into question by readers from both sides of the fence, Ficarra contends the scorecard remains pretty even, with equal jabs to both sides.

"We make use of all the stupid things politicians do and say, and oddly, we never run out of material."

The magazine's workflow is a highly collaborative process among writers, freelancers and artists, Ficarra said.

"We noodle over who should do what, artists send in pencil sketches and then we go back to them to do the

finishes - so we are working on several things at once."

Layout is in Adobe InDesign and the assembled magazine is sent via PDF to Brown Printing for production.

Personal touch

An open-door policy - fostered by Bill Gaines, who was known for letting kids come into his office for tours - has always been part of the Mad tradition, and to that end Ficarra tries to respond personally to readers as often as possible.

"A couple of years ago someone recognized me from a tour I gave him of the Mad offices when he was a kid," he said. "That was great because the guy said it remains one of the fondest memories of his life."

Another chapter of the Gaines era that Ficarra fondly recalls: the infamous Mad trips, which first got press when Gaines took a group of freelancers to Haiti in 1960 to visit the magazine's only Haitian subscriber.

"He rented Jeeps and went to this guy's house and begged him to resubscribe," Ficarra said. "The next year, one more Haitian subscribed, so Bill said the trip was a huge success."

Years later, Gaines dined with the original Haitian subscriber. It was an experience Gaines spoke of many times, according to Ficarra.

The days of lavish trips and fat compensation for contributors are a distant memory now. Mad, like other magazines, has felt the pinch of a bruised economy.

"It's very challenging in publishing right now," Ficarra said. "You see even The New York Times struggling to the point where they've had to put up a paywall."

In an attempt to exploit new platforms, Mad recently appointed a digital team, which is currently developing an iPad app.

On the social media front, meantime, Ficarra said a partnership with is in the works that will make every issue from 1952 through the early 1990s available behind the reunion site's paywall.

"You can see issues you read during a particular time in your life, or you can see the first issue that you ever read."

Mad, like many magazines, uses its website to post only highlights of articles produced in its print edition in an effort to attract more subscribers. But Ficarra said Mad will soon launch a new blog on its site to give the magazine a more immediate and timely outlet.

Among the first blog features will be a Muammar-Gaddafi-inspired edition of Mad Libs.

"It's called Mad Libyan, and readers can make their own wacky Gaddafi speech." Ficarra said. "We did all that in two days and decided it would be good for the blog."

$5.99 cheap!

Mad's current cover price is $5.99. Its current subscription price is $20 per year or $30 for a two-year subscription, which currently includes a print of Alfred E. Neuman.

"It's the very famous one of Alfred painting the road and the original sold for around $60,000," Ficarra said.

In its single-copy prime, in the early 1970s, the magazine sold 2.8 million copies on the newsstand, with another 100,000 copies going to subscribers' homes.

Today, readership is more evenly divided between single-copy sales and subscribers, with total circulation hovering around 250,000.

Mad's annual "The 20 Dumbest People, Events and Things" remains its single best-selling issue. Making the 2010 list (published in February 2011) were BP, LeBron James, Barack Obama, the iPhone and the Tea Party.

Another reader favorite are the back-page fold-ins, which are still created by Al Jaffee, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

Ninety-year-old contributors making 12-year-old boys laugh. Who else but Mad?