Not long ago, a gang of self-proclaimed idiots gathered in an office in New York City and attempted to craft some comedy. This is what they’ve been doing at MAD Magazine since the 1950s, after all—mercilessly mocking everyone and everything imaginable, including themselves. But on this day, they were flummoxed; on this day, they actually couldn’t figure out how to separate their own brand of cynical and often juvenile wit from reality.
The theme of this particular bit was rather simple, according to MAD’s longtime editor, John Ficarra: Did Donald Trump tweet this, or is it made up? But the problem, Ficarra tells me, was that every time they tried to come up with a fake tweet, someone would say, “I could see Trump tweeting that.” And often, when they came across real tweets, a number of people in the room presumed they were fake.
The line between the political truth and the political satire that transformed MAD into an American institution had been blurred to the point that there really wasn’t any difference. What is @realdonaldtrump if not essentially a MAD Magazine parody come to life?
“It’s pretty fricking scary out there right now,” Ficarra says.
The question, in an atmosphere like this one, becomes: How do you effectively satirize a world that already feels like a satire of itself?
You may think this is just another overzealous proclamation from a liberal magazine editor in a liberal enclave (albeit, a liberal enclave within spitting distance of Trump Tower), but the thing about MAD is that it has long been an equal-opportunity offender. Ficarra says they hammered Bill Clinton just as hard on his marital infidelities as they did George W. Bush on his numerous policy blunders—when they compiled books full of material about both presidents, Ficarra says, Clinton’s was roughly 2 to 3 pages shorter than Bush’s.
And yet even these longtime comedy writers find themselves both frightened and flummoxed by a moment that feels like a surreal MAD world unto itself. It’s almost as if Alfred E. Neuman, the dunderheaded and gaptoothed MAD mascot with the incurious catchphrase “What, Me Worry?” is now representative of the country’s prevailing mood. And it’s almost as if, politics aside, some considerable percentage of the population is just fine with living in that intellectual vacuum.
And so the question, in an atmosphere like this one, becomes: How do you effectively satirize a world that already feels like a satire of itself?
Longtime MAD editor and publisher John Ficarra with Weird Al in 2015.
This is the confounding thing about a Trump presidency: He is both an easy target and yet such a complex blend of fantastical personalities that it’s hard to even know how to get at him. Even if you don’t think he’s an idiot, it’s not hard to agree that he traffics, as a public persona, on facile thoughts and ideas. Even though we live in an age where brilliant political satire is all around us—from the Daily Show and its many televised spawns to The Onion to MAD (which finally ramped up its online presence a couple of years ago) to Twitter itself, home of a thousand Trump parody accounts—it’s still difficult to know how to attack a guy like Trump, whose own advisers often admit that his public self is largely a caricature anyway.
The instinct, for those whose job it is to speak truth to power, is to unleash easy cheap shots. For instance, anybody can refer to Trump as some variation of an “orange Cheeto,” says Bryant University English and cultural studies professor Amber Day, an expert in satire. But will that have any real effect on Trump or his supporters? Almost certainly not.
“To be fair,” Day says, “I don’t think that sort of political humor ever has much substantive effect. Rather, good satire will have to take aim at policy decisions, pointing to the hypocrisies, the falsehoods, and the cynical manipulation of public opinion.”
And this brings me back to MAD.
Like all weird and creative children of a certain age, I read MAD voraciously growing up. Hell, I did more than that: I lived by the ethos of MAD Magazine. It shaped my worldview perhaps more than anything else. In an era where Seinfeld and the Internet did not yet exist, it introduced me to the concept of irony, to a jaundiced and cynical viewpoint that I adopted. I also acquired and consumed back issues every way I could, by reading anthologies and picking up used copies of the magazine from the 1970s. And in retrospect, I absorbed far more information than I even realized. MAD was the place where I first learned about the dangers of Nixonian politics; MAD was where I first heard about the Silent Majority and the Moral Majority and Reagonomics and Voodoo Economics and about the overarching fecklessness of a peanut farmer turned president.
“It remains to be seen what happens when something serious happens in the world and Trump is in control. But this isn’t a new phenomenon for us. We’ve bumped our heads up against this for a while now. It just seems to ramp up with every administration.” —John Ficarra, MAD magazine editor and publisher
Did I understand what these things meant when I first came across them, flipping the pages past bawdy parodies of science-fiction movies and ubiquitous Spy vs. Spy cartoons? Of course not. But that, Ficarra tells me, is another thing that MAD prides itself on—even though much of their audience is comprised of teens and pre-teens (the average age of a MAD reader is mid-20s, but that may be because it’s a hybrid of young and old), they don’t ever overexplain. It’s up to you to pick up the references. It’s up to you to engage yourself.
“There’s this thing called the Google machine now where people can look that stuff up,” Ficarra says. “One of the things we never do is we never write down (to young people). If they don’t get the joke, they can look it up.”
This, Day tells me, is one of the keys to effective satire. When Stephen Colbert, while still playing the satirical character of “Stephen Colbert” on his Comedy Central show, formed a Super PAC to call attention to the overarching unfairness of Super PACs, it called attention to the issue in a way that a dry PBS debate never could. When John Oliver dives deep on a particular issue on his Sunday night HBO show, he also supplies his audience with ways to combat the problem. This is what MAD did for decades—it exposed people like me to the notion that we shouldn’t just blindly trust anyone in power, and that we should question everything.
“We all have a bunch of diffuse opinions and feelings floating around in our head,” Day says, “but the task for the satirist here is to pull or one two of them to the forefront, to underline their urgency, to remind us that we are not alone in feeling this way.”
And for the majority of the country that did not vote for the president-elect, that may be the closest thing to comfort we can cling to for the next four years.
One of two Trump-themed MAD covers that spiked newsstand sales last year.
It’s not like MAD hasn’t seen this type of thing play out before—Ficarra recalled how a number of MAD writers who worked on a Richard Nixon comedy album were subsequently (and probably not coincidentally) audited by the IRS the next year. (Day also points out that Nixon helped get the Smothers Brothers’ satirical comedy show cancelled by advocating for more government control of broadcast media.) It seems unlikely that Trump—who has reserved most of his press criticism for a mainstream media that many of his supporters now find inherently untrustworthy—would target MAD in particular. In a recent interview with TMZ’s Harvey Levin, Trump showed off a stack of magazines with his face on the cover, and the one “unflattering” cover he showed was a recent issue of MAD.
Yet Ficarra also knows first-hand that Trump arouses frightening emotions among certain of his supporters. The magazine’s circulation office recently received several phone calls from a man that were so threatening, Ficarra actually filed an official police report about a reader for the first time in his career. After the massacre by extremists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, Ficarra spoke out about the horror of it and the fear of real violence that now exists in the mind of the satirists at MAD.
“It remains to be seen what happens when something serious happens in the world and Trump is in control,” Ficarra says. “But this isn’t a new phenomenon for us. We’ve bumped our heads up against this for a while now. It just seems to ramp up with every administration.”
He and his writers are already tired of making Trump jokes, and the man isn’t even president yet. But this is the other thing about Trump: He arouses such strong emotion that there’s no way for any satirical entity to ignore him. And Ficarra, at least, is honest enough to admit that Trump is also good for his business–MAD’s circulation and subscriber base has been shrinking for decades, and when they put Trump on the cover twice last year, their newsstand sales spiked sharply. One of his goals this year is to get Trump to tweet angrily about MAD, the way he did at Vanity Fair recently, which gave that magazine a huge subscription boost.
Either way, maybe there’s some comfort in knowing that the usual gang of idiots isn’t going anywhere. Maybe we can find a certain measure of solace in the fact that a nation with a proud history of satirists will face this challenge by doing what it’s long done: Using their own tasteless stupidity to call out the larger stupidity of this particular moment.