In 21st century North America, it’s the online website The Onion that most people think of when it comes to satire, but for decades, Mad Magazine has been one of the venerable institutions of this fiendishly clever and difficult form of comedy. So it’s an unexpected, pleasant surprise when something like Mad’s Greatest Writers lands on the desk.
Touted as being the first volume of a series, the title says it all. Mad’s Greatest Writers is a “greatest hits” book that compiles the best work of Mad Magazine’s alumni over the years, and for this opening title, they’ve gone with Frank Jacobs. Jacobs has contributed to the magazine from its earliest years, and in many ways is one of the seminal voices that informed the biting, scathing style of the magazine. It’s telling that “Weird” Al Yankovic has written the introduction for the book, as one of Jacob’s great strengths has been song parodies asking readers to imagine the lyrics set to some of the great show tunes of popular culture. It’s enormously difficult to craft a series of lyrics that fits so perfectly with a well-known melody that it “sings” itself in the reader’s head. Jacobs makes it look easy.
The breadth of work Jacobs has contributed over the decades is enormous, with the book starting in the 50s of the 20th century and ending with the 00s of the new millennium. Nothing is sacred to Jacobs, and he runs the gamut of merciless insights into Western culture, with classic pieces such as fairy tales interpreted by psychoanalysts and union leaders, or obituaries for classic comic and news strip characters that depicts their life and death taking their character and history to its logical extreme. The work here might be all comedy, but the range and method of comedy tackled is almost intimidating.
The book is not just a testament to Jacob’s own prolific body of work, it’s a fascinating—sometimes brutally honest—time capsule of cultural highs and lows. For example, casual, institutional racism was has, at times, been an everyday component of American culture. Where companies like Disney white wash this by pretending that movies like Song of the South don’t exist, Mad bravely includes satirical pieces pointing out racism that still use words like “nigger” to get the point across. No one would write this now, but in the 70s, it was perfectly acceptable to use this un-ironically in everyday writing and Mad is willing to acknowledge that they did too.
Of course, as a book documenting over 50 years of popular culture, it has a certain historical value, but for pure entertainment purposes, that can work against it. Pop culture is, after all, trends, concerns and fashions of a given era. Most people of the 21st century don’t need any coaching about who Justin Bieber is, or why a joke lambasting him is funny, but famous politicians of the 60s re-enacting a United Nations version of West Side Story will probably require the kind of explanation unneeded 50 years ago, when everyone was aware of who these people were, what the political situation was, and the lyrics to “Maria.” In the same way that some Dreamworks animated features dated themselves by making pop culture references during the 90s, skewering the concerns of the day over the decades will inevitably require a bit of a history lesson, especially for a new generation that never knew a world without an Internet.
Despite the danger of some humor being too timely or specific to a decade, this compilation also contains a lot of universal wit and wisdom that comes from the very best comedy. Mad Magazine has been a seminal influence on a lot the comedy we enjoy today, and Frank Jacobs has probably stuck in more people’s minds than they realize. Now they can remember exactly how.