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Mugging It
The Daily Show’s granddad enjoys a modest resurgence.

Before The Onion, before Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, even before Saturday Night Live and its “Weekend Update,” there was MAD.


The granddaddy of satirical comic books is still out there, as is Tom Richmond, an artist of Wisconsin extraction who’s drawn for MAD as a freelancer for more than a decade. A while back someone who saw a copy of MAD described it as “The Daily Show on paper,” the cartoonist recalls. “Not really,” he replied. “The Daily Show is MAD on TV.”


At the ripe old age of 61, MAD still manages to maintain a niche in a media universe that it arguably helped spawn. “It’s hard to overstate MAD’s effect on pop culture,” says Richmond. Indeed, MAD’s long-term influence on the cultural climate may be the comic’s biggest challenge.


“The world itself has become a lot more cynical and self-satirizing,” he says. “MAD taught all the people making ads to make fun of their own products. How do you write an ad parody when the ads themselves are parodies? In a way, MAD’s voice has become drowned out by so many of the voices around it.”

Yet the magazine survives and, he argues, actually is in the midst of a renaissance.


A native of La Crosse who now lives and works in Minnesota, Richmond was back in Wisconsin earlier this month as the featured presenter at the Kenosha Festival of Cartooning’s 2013 “mini-fest.” The event is organized by Anne Hambrock, whose husband, John, pens the nationally syndicated comic “The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee.”


Richmond was born in 1966 and read MAD as a middle-school student – which made him typical of the MAD audience. Yet that was a matter of happenstance. “MAD never tried to appeal to a certain demographic,” says Richmond, yet its core readers wound up being people ages 10 to 15.


“MAD always had articles that went way over their head” – social commentary, send-ups of popular culture, and poking fun at whoever was in power in Washington. And that, he says, was part of the appeal when he was a kid. “I was reading stuff adults were supposed to understand, but not me.”

MAD “always pushed the envelope,” he adds, but it also drew the line. When National Lampoon launched in 1970 – with an edgier style, uncensored language, material that ranged from the bawdy to the surreal, and much more text-focused content – “people would describe it as an adult MAD magazine.”


The Lampoon arguably made MAD look tame, but the comic chose not to follow the upstart’s lead very far. (Perhaps the closest was a cover in the early ‘70s dominated by a fist with an upraised middle finger.) MAD editors, says Richmond, “wanted to make people think more than shock them.”


When MAD first hired him as a freelancer 13 years ago, it was a singular career achievement for Richmond, who once worked as a live caricaturist, starting at the Great America theme park in Gurnee, Ill., when he was in college. Comic art has always been his ambition. “I never wanted to do anything else.”


Editors at the magazine write uncredited material. But for the most part, says Richmond, “the ‘usual gang of idiots’ has always been freelancers.” 

MAD has been through ups and downs. Its circulation peaked at more than 2 million in 1974 but  dwindled to the point that the monthly converted to publishing just four times a year. Today it’s up to a bi-monthly schedule and sells about 150,000 copies per issue, according to data collected by accounting professor Mike Slaubaugh at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. But it’s all relative.


MAD “outsells virtually every comic book out there,” Richmond says. In comics, there was a time when circulation of less than a million copies constituted a failure. “Now if you sell 100,000, you’re a raging success.”


The publication is adapting to new technology, with an iPad edition as well as a website updated daily. That allows for more topical humor. The print magazine still has to choose its subjects carefully with an eye to subjects that will have some staying power. 

Movie parodies – Richmond’s specialty – are especially challenging. Back in the days when movie distributors opened features on a rolling schedule that started in big cities and slowly worked their way out to the suburbs and then rural screens, “movies used to stay around for nearly six months,” Richmond says.


Even today’s biggest hits have a much shorter run than that, and anticipated blockbusters frequently flop and drop from sight in record time. So MAD has begun turning more of its attention to TV shows, while scheduling movie parodies around DVD release dates.

Despite such challenges, these are better times for MAD, Richmond believes. Books, like a 60-year anniversary volume published last year have extended the brand, as has a successful Cartoon Network animated show, now topping 100 episodes. (The live comedy MAD TV show that was on the Fox network from 1995 to 2008 had virtually no involvement with the magazine beyond a licensing deal for the name, he notes.)


The newest challenge? DC Comics – MAD’s corporate parent – recently announced plans to move editorial offices from The Big Apple to Burbank, Calif. Richmond isn’t sure how that will ultimately affect the magazine’s sensibilities. “All the editors are lifetime New Yorkers,” he notes. Will they move? Will they be able to maintain at least a token office in the city? He’s not sure, but hopes for the best.


MAD’s not going to stop publishing,” he says. “It’s at a popularity level it hasn’t seen in 15 years.”

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