“All around me are familiar faces. Worn out places, worn out faces . . . no expression, no expression.” “Mad World,” Gary Jules
I heard the new today, oh boy. Mad Magazine, that bastion of irreverent, sometimes imbecilic humor, turns 60 this year. I hadn’t realized Mad was still being published, much less that it’s lasted this long. Alfred E. Newman, pictured above, hasn’t looked a day older than, 16 since I used to read Mad religiously in the ’60s.
As I came of age, I moved on to other sources for literary laughs–National Lampoon, Spy, and, today, The Onion. But I never forgot Mad. It’s iconic features like the Cold-War classic–Spy vs. Spy, the spot-on TV and movie parodies, Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side, and all the rest remain comedy touchstones that influenced generations of humorists and infused them with the Mad sensibility for the absurd, the ironic, and, yes, the insightful. The magazine taught generations of readers to filter the “truth” through humor’s unflinching lens. Could Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and The Simpson’s have wielded their political, social, and cultural rapiers if there had been no Mad? No way.
Mad’s contribution to our warped world view is undeniable. Less remembered is Mad’s enduring contribution to the law. As hard as it may be to picture Alfred E. in a three-piece pinstripe and tassel loafers, the irrepressible nudnik had a star-turn in the courtroom that shaped copyright law and paved the way for tuneful satirists like Weird Al Yankovik.
The year was 1964, and Beatlemania had gripped the land. Yet Mad was in a nostalgic mood, running parodies of classic songs. The piece provided Mad-ingly twisted lyrics and instructed readers to sing them “to the tune of” the targeted song. In this way, Mad skewered 25 songs. Among them was a parody of Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” which Mad retitled “Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady.”
Readers thought this and the other song parodies were a scream. Not Irving. Althouth he was known for such comedy gems as “Snookie Ookems,” Berlin, apparently, had no sense of humor when it came to others poking fun at his expense. So he unleashed his lawyers to go after Mad, crying foul and claiming irreparable harm. Fortunately for life, liberty, and the pursuit of laughs, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, resulting in a ruling that went down in legal history as “the Mad exception.” The Court wrote:
the plaintiffs have not asserted that the music-buying public could have had any difficulty in differentiating between the works of plaintiffs and defendants. Neither is there a claim that defendants’ parodies might satisfy or even partially fulfill the demand for plaintiffs’ originals; quite soundly, it is not suggested that ‘Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady’ might be an acceptable substitute for a potential patron of ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.’
Stripping away the legalese, the Court said that Mad’s creative expression trumped Berlin’s rights. While copyright is important, even more important is free speech. After all, a society that can’t laugh at itself is doomed, if not to fail, then to bore itself into oblivion. And we have Mad to thank for reminding us of that for the last 60 years. Hopefully, Alfred E. Newman will continue to shine his gap-toothed countenance on us for generations to come.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “The U.N. is a place where governments opposed to free speech demand to be heard!” Alfred E. Newman