Few Americans shaped modern culture as much, but have received so little recognition, as Al Feldstein. The longtime Mad magazine editor, who died last week at 88, was the guiding force behind the magazine for decades, and was responsible more than anyone else for creating its irreverent style of humor and then pushing it into the American mainstream. Without Mad, it’s difficult to imagine “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” or “The Colbert Report.” Teachers and parents in the 1950s feared Mad would warp children’s minds; instead it gave generations of readers new language to think incisively about their world.
The magazine that Feldstein took over in 1956 bore little relation to the behemoth it would become. He gave Mad a more cutting satirical tone, and hired new artists like Dave Berg and Don Martin — the collection of talent known as “the usual gang of idiots.” In a stroke of genius, he also made Alfred E. Neuman the magazine’s permanent cover boy. Circulation skyrocketed, along with criticism from all right-thinking people.
The magazine’s popularity proved something: even in the supposedly straitlaced 50s, there was an unmet appetite for humor with sharper edges. Mad’s style of humor subjected the popular and powerful to ridicule, but with a zaniness that kept it from sliding into mere cynicism. It’s a formula that American satirists have been repeating ever since.