What ‘The Onion’ Doesn’t Understand About ‘Mad’ Magazine
It’s never a happy occasion when a humor website resorts to arrant stupidity to achieve its effects, and this is never truer than when it’s a site of genuine quality like The Onion. So you can imagine how vexed and perplexed I was coming across this slice of arrogant nonsense in which The Onion‘s A.V. Club tries to give Mad and its Breaking Bad satire the business for “bad puns,” “Borscht [B]elt punchlines,” and the tastelessness of satirizing “a cancer-stricken man dragged into a moral tailspin by the allure of easy meth money.”
There are several problems with this, one of which is that they’re satirizing not a cancer-stricken man, etc., but a fictional show about the cancer-stricken man. The difference is only all the difference in the world. It’s called pop-culture parody; it’s been around ever since Mad pretty much invented it, as it currently exists, in the 1950s; and you’d think The Onion would be more appreciative of this tradition, owing as they do their very existence to it.
As for the “bad puns and Borscht [B]elt humor”–it’s unfair and misleading to claim these are what predominate in a Mad satire, this or any other. I’m never not impressed by the puns given to character names, even when, as in the case of “Fading Bad,” none of those puns is especially hilarious. It takes real talent and industry to generate even passing puns on all of a show’s or a movie’s main characters, retaining a semblance of the charcters’ names while also communicating something crucial about their personalities. Mad does this for every single major character, every single time, and you have to be impressed at the workmanship required to sustain this crucial part of the format. Most of us don’t read Mad satire for the puns anyway–either the pun in the title or the puns in the character names–but it helps just knowing they’re there. It gives the piece an integrity, and this integrity enhances those areas of the satire–i.e., just about all of it–that reside outside bad punnery or Borscht Belt humor. When the puns happen to be genuinely funny (as they often are with Desmond Devlin, the writer on “Fading Bad”), they really add something extra.
So we don’t read Mad satire for the puns or the stray bad jokes; we read it for the good jokes, and for the art, and for the very real and substantial insight it provides into the show or movie being satirized.
Something definitely needs to be said about the art, since The A.V. Club certainly didn’t say anything about it. Tom Richmond’s caricatures brilliantly capture each character’s exaggerated essence in the Mad tradition. Hank’s goofy obliviousness, Gus’s stubborn dignity, Hector’s suppressed and silenced anger–this all gets communicated beautifully, elaborately, tenderly, subtly, and simply, with nothing more than the strokes of Richmond’s pen.
Breaking Bad might just be one of the five best television shows ever aired, but, as with every show, it’s not perfect, and Devlin does here what Mad satirists have always done, by sending up those places of flawed plausibility and internal illogic. There’s nothing at all unbecoming in this, even to people who cherish the show. If anything, we’re the ones who should appreciate it more, since we’re the ones who actually watch it. Someone who doesn’t watch the show might get most of the jokes on some basic level, but they’re not going to really appreciate them at their deepest.
This is why a Mad satire is still considered such a tribute by the very people associated with the object of satire. Another Mad writer, Dick DeBartolo, told me recently that he once explained to a miffed Alan Alda that he should be flattered that M*A*S*H got satirized in Mad, since it means enough people had seen the show to really appreciate the jokes. And George Lucas, to take one prominent example, has always openly expressed his admiration for Mad satire, even when the satire could be most merciless with Lucas’s own movies. (I should add that a Mad satire can also mean increased viewership for a work, as more people watch it precisely so that they might better understand the satire.)
In other words, if The Onion had chosen to satirize Mad, instead of just blatantly, briefly, and simple-mindedly impugning its quality and relevance, that would have been a whole different story. It would have been the kind of criticism that Mad itself could respect. Mad’s never taken itself too seriously, which, I’m convinced, is a major reason for its longevity. Another reason for its longevity is a belief in, and practice of, the basic wisdom which holds that although you don’t have to be an asshole to be funny, you should certainly be funny if you’re going to be an asshole. Mad’s been around for sixty years, but until everyone who needs this lesson receives it, Mad hasn’t been around long enough.
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