For decades a key influence on parodists and satirists in all entertainment media, Mad began in 1952 as a full-color Comic Book, Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad, published by EC Comics. Harvey Kurtzman, the founding editor and writer, began by satirizing popular comic book genres of the time (horror, crime, SF and adventure), but soon found his niche concentrating on parodies of specific comic books and strips, TV shows, films, and classic literature, as well as broader satire of American pop culture. EC artists, such as Jack Davis, Will Elder and John Severin, accustomed mostly to drawing in a "serious" style, were encouraged to cut loose for Mad, resulting in panels filled to capacity with outrageous caricatures, physics-defying antics, gross-out humor and innumerable background signage gags.
In July 1955, with issue 24, Mad became a black-and-white magazine (only to become color again in the 2000s). Contrary to popular belief, EC did not do this in order to escape the Comics Code. Rather, Kurtzman had received an offer from the more lucrative magazine market, and so EC publisher Bill Gaines proposed the change in format in order to retain him. Nevertheless, the new medium benefitted from the lack of censorship, as well as the broader range of subject matter and media available (including prose and photo features). By late 1956, Mad had become EC's only surviving publication. As history shows, it was more than enough for the company to prosper with.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mad began to take on its most familiar (and commercially successful) form, with a long-lasting team of core writers (Jerry DeFuccio, Dick DeBartolo, Frank Jacobs) and artists (Don Martin, Al Jaffee, Dave Berg, Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Antonio Prohías) and a willingness to take on any target it felt it could get away with (see above quote). More recent contributors (since the 1980s) include writers Desmond Devlin, Arnie Kogen, Michael Gallagher, Charlie Kadau and Joe Raiola, and more recent artists include Tom Bunk, Rick Tulka, Tom Richmond and James Warhola.
After 67 years, Mad (now published by DC Comics) lacked the circulation and cultural impact (and some would say quality) it had at its peak, and the company announced that the August 2019 issue would be the last regular issue with new content and the last issue available on newsstands.
- Actor Allusion: In the movie / TV parodies, there are many jokes related to this.
- American Accents: Exaggerated Beatnik Speak and Hippie Speak.
- Animated Adaptation: For its first few years on the air Mad TV aired animated bumpers featuring Don Martin characters and "Spy vs. Spy".
- Anime Hair: Monroe of the Monroe and... series had two antenna-like hair protrusions, making him one of the only examples that is western and non-Animesque.
- Artifact Title: The 'departments' listed at the top of each article. This is a leftover from the days when Mad was a color comic book in the 50's, when it actually had things like "Western Department" or "Horror Department" depending on the article's subject matter. Now (and at least since the 60's) it's little more than a throwaway gag and usually Just for Pun.
- Ask a Stupid Question: The premise of Al Jaffee's recurring "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions."
- Author Tract: Mad has had quite a long-running relationship with The Simpsons, prompting the former to regularly launch take thats against Family Guy for perceived plagiarism and causing the latter to regularly feature Mad (with one notable episode having it be integral to the plot).
- Badass Beard: William Gaines and Al Jaffee. Jaffee's signature is a caricature of himself, with "Al Jaffee" in place of the hair.
- Badass Mustache: Dick DeBartolo and Sergio Aragones.
- Big Damn Heroes: Subverted in one early feature, in which in the "real life" version of the scene, more Indians arrive instead of the cavalry, overwhelming the settlers.
- Black Comedy: "Celebrity Cause-of-Death Betting Odds" is but one example.
- Bowdlerise: This trope gets parodied mercilessly in Harvy Kurtzman's and Jack Davis's sketch Book! Movie! about the many changes made for a book's Live Action Adaptation.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Also in the movie / TV parodies.
- Butt Monkey: Monroe
- Calvin Ball: 43-Man Squamish. Also an example of Defictionalization, as one group in Canada actually formed a 43-Man Squamish team.
- An earlier example is an article for a board game called "Gringo," written back in the 1950s, with intentionally silly rules.
- Which they also did later with "Three-Cornered Pitney".
- An earlier example is an article for a board game called "Gringo," written back in the 1950s, with intentionally silly rules.
- Catch Phrase: "What, me worry?", "Price: $x.xx (Cheap!)", "Fa! Fa! Fa!", and "The Usual Gang of Idiots" (used to describe the creators on the credits page of almost every issue).
- Censorship by Spelling: In one "Lighter Side Of" strip, the parents are talking about their son's bad report card in front of him; the mother is reluctant but the father says "just spell it." So they have the conversation, which ends with:
Mother: I-M W-O-R-R-I-E-D T-H-A-T H-E M-A-Y B-E S-T-U-N-T-E-D I-N-T-E-L-L-E-C-T-U-A-L-Y.
- Cobweb of Disuse: Done frequently, particularly in Sergio Aragones' "A MAD look at _____". If a person bought something that sits in disuse, you'll see it sitting on a shelf or in a closet with spider webs.
- Cool Old Guy: Lots. Most of the magazine's old guard are in their seventies and eighties, and Al Jaffee turns ninety in 2011.
- Creator Killer: Invoked MAD is relatively quick to label works as this.
- Creator Thumbprint: Harvey Kurtzman had some odd attraction to the name "Melvin": an overwhelming amount of stories from his reign as writer have one of the characters named Melvin in them. The name's even on the first cover.
- The Dark Age of Comic Books: "If Truth in Advertising Laws Applied to Comic Books" skewered a lot of trends that plagued comic books in the Nineties.
- Deconstruction: One of the older issues dealt with how a movie cowboy "Lance Sterling" would be different from a real life cowboy, "John Smurd". In the movie, Sterling defeats his rival in a long fistfight and gets the girl. Smurd, however, misses several shots in a shootout, gets knocked out for some time after being hit with a chair, and shoots his rival dead after taking him by surprise, but gets hanged for murder.
- Depending on the Artist: Most artists who drew front covers stuck close to Kelly Freas's design of Alfred E. Neuman. Sergio Aragones's two covers were closer to his loose, sketchy style, and John Caldwell's cover was closer to his squiggly style. (He drew a second cover in 2001, but it was changed at the last second because his original cover art was deemed possibly offensive after 9/11.) Lampshaded in Frank Jacobs' anthology of Mad covers, where Jacobs recalled a conversation with Aragonés over one of his covers: Jacobs said that it was one of the only Alfreds not to follow Freas' style, but Aragonés protested it was "the best [he] could do".
- Deus Ex Machina: Many parodies are like this, such as their Desperate Housewives parody, which ended with Dr. Phil visiting the wives.
- Disney Death: Frequently mocked in parodies, especially if the writers know the death will be reversed.
- Divorce Requires Death: In the parody of The Godfather Part II, when Kay demands a divorce from Michael, he refuses because it is against God's will. He then turns to family consigliere Tom Hagen and orders a "hit" on her. Hagen then tells Michael he is a good Roman Catholic for not divorcing her.
- Downer Ending: Every entry in the "Monroe and…" series has one.
- Early-Bird Cameo: Many artists and writers submitted one-offs well before they became regulars. Examples include:
- Al Jaffee, who first illustrated for the mag in the 1950s, jumped ship to Cracked and returned by the 1960s.
- Sam Viviano drew a cover in 1980, four years before any of his other work appeared in the mag. By the late 1990s he was promoted to art director, and what little illustration he did after that was typically credited to Jack Syracuse.
- Early Installment Weirdness: The early issues (of the magazine format) were very different. The humor was "lighter and softer", the tv/movie satires were less biting, and most notably, they had contributions by famous humorists of the day (Bob and Ray, Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Andy Griffith, Stan Freberg, etc.). It wasn't until the sixties until it gained its traditional format it's most known for.
- Emphasize Everything: Dialogue in the magazine tends to have several words bolded for no particular reason, and almost every sentence ends in an exclamation point!
- Everyone Knows Morse: Spy vs. Spy contained one token line of code, "BY PROHIAS", the author's Morse signature.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: One recurring sketch in the "Fundalini Pages" (a slapdash collection of mini-gags at the front of the mag) involves randomly adding monkeys to certain famous photos. Taken Up to Eleven with an entire issue featuring nothing but monkeys.
- Fan Service: Dave Berg's and Mort Drucker's women, or at least until old age took its toll on Dave's drawing skills.
- The Grey Spy as well. Yow.
- Bill Elder was drawing hot chicks since the book's start. The lady in red in "Dragged Net!" in #3 is a good example.
- Don't forget Wallace Wood's women, either. The preface to the 2002 re-release of The Mad Reader goes out of its way to point out all of the fanservice contained in Wood's Flash Gordon parody.
- Far Side Island: A frequently-used trope in Don Martin's work.
- Flipping the Bird: The cover of Mad #166, which was nothing but an illustration of someone doing just that, captioned by "The Number One Ecch Magazine". Many newsstands refused to display this issue.
- Fractured Fairy Tale: One of Frank Jacobs' favorite tropes was to write satirical versions of Mother Goose rhymes, typically in some sort of theme.
- Funny Background Event: The main premise of Sergio Aragones' "Drawn Out Dramas" in the margins. Many of the parody artists tend to do this as well.
- Gag Words: "Fershlugginer" and "potrzebie" in the early years.
- Gambit Pileup: In Spy vs. Spy.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Although the magazine had become more vulgar in the 1990s, it has usually refrained from using "fuck" and "shit". Usually. (The F-bomb is to the left of the cardboard box.) Al Jaffee snuck the word "shit" into an article entitled "Who's Who at a Comics Convention" and Aragonés drew barely-visible uncensored penises in the graphics accompanying a Frank Jacobs-penned parody of "We Are the World".
- Sergio got away with female nipples a whole lot of times.
- A parody of Archie has Betty hurl herself at Archie. As she does so, several syringes and bottles of pills spill from her handbag, and this was a strip from the fifties!
- "Woman Wonder!" saw the titular character change her outfit inside her invisible jet with it implied her boyfriend was watching her. He keeps a horrifically lecherous face through the next few panels.
- They've never been afraid of the Stealth F-bomb. For instance, their parody of Welcome Back, Kotter included the exchange
Minus five percent? How can you get -5% on an exam?
- Hotter and Sexier: The magazine got considerably more vulgar in the late 1990s, leading to the departure of some veterans such as longtime artist Jack Davis. Lampshaded in the first "hotter and sexier" issue, which had Alfred E. Neuman photocopying his ass.
- In That Order: The send up of "Conquering the Planet of the Apes", as the intelligent ape addresses his army:
All right! If we're going to win against the humans you need to listen up and stop embarrassing me! For example, when I tell you to put on your shoes and socks, I don't mean in that order!
- Just Between You and Me / Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: In a feature discussing how movie scenes happen in the film and in real life, one scene had Lance Sterling and his girlfriend at the mercy of some mobsters. Instead of just shooting them, one mobster decides to take them outside to avoid drawing suspicion to the others (justified), then proceeds to tell him the entire plan (stupid) and then gives him a chiclet as his last request (completely unnecessary), allowing Sterling to jam his gun, defeat him and destroy the gang. In the real life version, Sterling and his girlfriend get shot on the second panel.
- Lampshade Hanging: Especially in Kurtzman's early deconstructionist parodies.
- Last-Second Word Swap: One feature showed how to turn an offensive statement into a non-offensive one, often the complete opposite of what was about to be said.
- Long Title: The original title of the comic version was Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad: Humor in a Jugular Vein.
- Ludicrous Gibs: Used frequently in Spy vs. Spy ever since Peter Kuper took over. Also, many of the Tom Bunk/Michael Gallagher collaborations.
- Mascot: Subverted with the ugly Alfred E. Neuman.
- Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Averted; Mad Magazine often likes making fun of or criticizing even recently deceased people. Discussed in the Lion King parody (when Simba, watching Scar flee into exile, tells his subjects to never speak well of him again, and The Simpsons in attendance note that people spoke well of Richard Nixon after his death) and the Michael Jackson death, in which MAD denounces the world essentially canonizing him as a saint and calls his death the stupidest event of the year.
- No Dialogue Episode:
- Sergio Aragones' A Mad Look At... almost never uses dialogue; if a character needs to speak, it's usually represented through pantomiming or icons in a speech balloon, or very rarely, a "gesundheit."
- And Spy vs Spy, of course.
- No Fourth Wall: Quite often, the characters in movie and TV parodies are blatantly aware that they're in a parody.
- Obvious Object Could Be Anything: Given the surreal nature of the magazine, this is usually inverted.
- Old Shame: Trying to follow in the footsteps of National Lampoon's Animal House, Gaines authorized a teen gross-out comedy called Mad Magazine Presents: Up The Academy to be made, complete with an actor in an Alfred E. Neuman mask bookending the film and a statue of the same as the Academy's founder. Horrified at the resulting film, Gaines forced the film company to re-edit the movie, taking out all of the Mad references. A two page parody appeared in the magazine shortly after called "Mad Magazine Resents Throw Up The Academy" which basically apologized to the audience for Mad's role in the creation of the film.
- Once Per Episode: Nearly every issue since the 1960s has featured a Mad Fold-In and A Mad Look At..., with several other recurring features coming and going over time. Also, Alfred has appeared on almost every cover.
- The Other Darrin: After Antonio Prohías left the mag, Spy vs. Spy went to other artists. George Woodbridge drew it for one issue, and then handed the art over to Bob Clarke, who in turn passed it on to Dave Manak. Both artists worked with Duck Edwing as the main gag writer. (Manak and Edwing also handled a very short-lived Sunday Strip adaptation in 2002.) Peter Kuper has drawn the feature since 1997, and does about 90% of its writing.
- This has also shown up in Monroe and..., which was originally drawn by Bill Wray. After a short retirement, the feature was briefly revived with Tom Fowler as the artist before retiring again. The change in artists was supposedly because Wray (who, like most of the staff, has plenty of work outside the magazine) had very little time to draw and color the strip on time, meaning that he had to do a rush job.
- Also present in the Star Wars parodies. Dick DeBartolo and Nick Meglin co-wrote the A New Hope parody, with Harry North as the artist; the next four had just DeBartolo writing and Mort Drucker drawing. Inexplicably, the last one switched to David Shayne for the writing and Hermann Mejia for the art.
- The Parody: Duh again.
- Parody Commercial: Duh yet again.
- Parody Names: Duh for the last time. Notably averted in the Seinfeld parody.
- Perfectly Cromulent Word: "Potrzebie" was a Running Gag in the magazine's first decade. A fan (Donald Knuth!) made a "Potrzebie System" of weights and measurements which got published in the magazine.
- Prom Baby: One issue has a series of fake magazine covers, including one called "Prom Mom" with articles like "Drinking the spiked punch: What the hell, it's not like anyone expects good judgment from you at this point!"
- Random Events Plot: Some TV show satires are like this. Others go through plot points in a given season, and still others make an entirely new plot.
- Rapid-Fire Comedy: Many of the comic book issues managed to overstuff every panel with little gags. Gary Hallgren and Tom Richmond, who have drawn several of the movie and TV parodies, seem to be carrying on in this tradition, as do stalwarts Mort Drucker and Angelo Torres to a lesser extent.
- It originated with Will Elder's work in the 1950s, when Mad was still a comic book; Elder and Kurtzman called these little gags "chicken fat." Kurtzman was reportedly pretty bad about forcing the other artists to follow Elder's example.
- Reality Ensues: A recurring theme for humor.
- The Reveal: Some of the parodies have one of the heroes turning out to be the main villain.
- A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside An Enigma: One white-paper front cover for the magazine greatly exaggerated this phrase for laughs.
- Right Way, Wrong Way Pair: "Melvin and Jenkins". Jenkins, a nerdy-looking chap, is polite and intelligent and always tries to do his best; Melvin, on the other hand, is a gangasta wannabe hoodlum who delights in petty mischief.
- Running Gag: Over time, the magazine has adapted a large number of icons that appear at random spots, such as a skinny bird named Flip, a potted plant named Max, a zeppelin with "MAD" written on it and the poiuyt.
- The table of contents lists the articles in the magazine as being from various departments whose titles are various plays on words. The two constants through the entire run are the letters section, which is listed as being from the "Letters & Tomatoes Dept.", and "Spy Vs. Spy" from the "Joke and Dagger Dept."
- Sadist Show: Monroe and..., where something bad always happened to the title character.
- Self-Deprecation: The masthead's listing of the creative team as "the usual gang of idiots".
- The magazine has done this a lot over the years, and they sometimes take their own affected self-deprecation to the extreme: In an article on how to make a food poisoning victim throw up (in issue #256), reading Mad magazine to him is described as the very last resort, because it's so effective that he'll drown the house with puke.
- Their Christmas-season magazines suggest giving a subscription to Mad as a Christmas present. The ads rip the magazine as dumb and unpleasant, but conclude it's good to give to someone because it's a cheap present.
- Even Bill Gaines, the magazine's owner, was constantly mocked in the magazine due to his stinginess and obesity.
- Occasionally the parodies lampshade the fact that MAD's love of Parody Names is taken to such ridiculous extremes that a casual reader can't tell what the original character name was supposed to be.
- Shout-Out: Many, such as the frequent cameos from Peanuts characters early on. Schulz later returned the favor by giving Alfred E. Neuman a quick appearance.
- Spin-Off: Mad Kids, a magazine with similar content for younger audiences.
- Stay in the Kitchen: Nivlem forces the Woman Wonder to do this, as he turns out to be her boyfriend and is jealous of her superior skills.
- Suicide as Comedy: Frequently done, especially with completely outlandish suicide methods (such as eating until you become heavy enough to cause an elevator to exceed the weight limit).
- Symbol Swearing: Shows up from time to time (most notably in the Deadwood spoof), because the magazine usually steers clear of certain profanities. However, since the writers (most often Arnie Kogen) leave in at least one letter in each swear, it's often blatantly obvious what words the grawlixes represent.
- Lampshaded in the parody of ET's "penis-breath" scene. Elliot's Mum: "That's it! I will NOT have any asterisks, ampersands, or percentage signs spoken in MY house!"
- Take That, Audience!: They often imply that anyone who actually reads their magazine has to be a moron (this of course goes hand-in-hand with their constant Self-Deprecation). They also insult just about anyone who writes them a letter when it appears in their "Letters and Tomatoes Department".
- Teeth Flying: A Running Gag in "Spy Vs. Spy". Whenever one spy is caught in an explosion, an entire set of teeth come flying out of the blast.
- Telephone Exchange Names: Much of the Mad content invokes the 1950s and 1960s, so reflects the telephone numbering pattern of New York City in that era. A number like "PEnnsylvania 6-5000" (the Pennsylvania Hotel in Manhattan) would have been written as PE6-5000, not +1-212-736-5000, in those days.
- Top Ten List: A staple of the Fundalini pages.
- Twist Ending: Especially in the EC Comics era. Most movie parodies end with an altered version of the film's ending, sometimes revealing something about the plot that had been concealed all along. In "A Booty-Filled Mind", it's revealed that "Mash's" wife is also a hallucination, and "Drek-ula" mocks the 1992 adaptation's huge Romantic Plot Tumor when the title character is transformed by The Power of Love into the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. To make matters worse, Disney's lawyers arrive to sue Francis Ford Coppola and company for ripping off their movie, and they'll probably win!
- Viewers are Morons: Usually done jokingly.
- World's Shortest Book: They occasionally had a shelf of these, usually political- or current events-themed. A few examples:
- "Etiquette" by Lyndon B. Johnson
- "Truths I Have Told" by Richard Nixon
- Write What You Know: Dick DeBartolo was working for Mark Goodson Productions when he was tapped to write the Family Feud parody. Naturally, he took that opportunity to knock down every trope that show presented (and submitted the parody under a pen name).
- Written Sound Effect: Don Martin was very fond of atypical ones, such as "Dingalinga" for a bell ringing, "Ferrap" for shuffling cards, etc. Sometimes he would use Unsound Effects: "Don't Walk," "Applaud," etc. He even had a vanity plate reading "SHTOINK." There's also a dictionary of them.
- Yiddish as a Second Language: Most prominently "fershlugginer," but plenty of Yiddish appeared in the mag's early years.
- From the Popeye parody: "Right in the kishkas!" Also an example of Getting Crap Past the Radar.
- A few issues later, after the votes were counted, Pikachu was killed via inserting a stick of dynamite into its behind