Nick Meglin wasnt in on the very beginning of MAD magazine, but he was close. He started writing for the satirical magazine as an art student in New York and then joined the staff as an editor, serving for nearly 50 of MADs 60 years before retiring to Durham a few years back.
Hell be at the Cary Barnes & Noble 4 p.m. Sunday to discuss all things MAD in regard to two new books: Mort Drucker, Five Decades of His Finest Work (about the artist whose visual style defined the magazine, featuring a foreword by actor Michael J. Fox) and Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity.
Q: What brought you to Durham?
My daughter moved here, and she has my grandkids. Visiting them, I fell in love with the area, and I was attracted to the aliveness it has with theater, museums, art, music, the N.C. Symphony. I can enjoy what I loved in New York even more because theres not the hassle and the prices and everything else. My friends up there figured Id be barefoot in a tobacco field with a weed in my mouth, but its an oasis of culture here.
Q: How did the magazine pick its mascot?
Oh, dont ask me about Alfred E. Neuman. That story is so old and so meaningless. Does the average Playboy reader care about where the rabbit came from? Its just a symbol that lets you know whats on the inside. Its just a name we made up; we had 20 and thats the one we settled on.
Q: Did you think youd be there as long as you were?
No, it was a two-year plan. I didnt create MAD, I just worked there, and I never overshadowed the real talents: the artists and writers. Theyre why MAD is in the Smithsonian, in the time capsules. Theyre why Michael J. Fox wrote the foreword for the Drucker book. Fox was asked by Johnny Carson how he knew hed made it, and he said, When Mort Drucker drew me in MAD magazine.
Q: Did you ever hear from targets of the magazines satire?
Sometimes legal firms representing people or companies have no sense of humor. We got a letter from the firm representing George Lucas Productions saying that our takeoff on Star Wars was defamatory. They wanted damages, the book off newsstands, all this legalese. We didnt bother having our lawyer answer that. We just sent a copy of a letter that George Lucas himself had written two weeks earlier saying he liked our satire better than his screenplay, with a note: Thats funny, George liked it. Never heard from them again. It would have been hard for them to sue us anyway because satire is covered by the First Amendment as fair commentary.
Q: How does a magazine last as long as MAD has?
Satire allows you to stay fresh by focusing on whats current in politics, society and culture. It keeps changing. But the opposite side of that coin is, how do you stay fresh and do something different when its making fun of the Kardashians or Donald Trump? They beat you to it by being who they are, which is more comical in their very existence than anything anyone else could create. Its getting to be the same thing in politics, too. Some politicians, you cant even satirize because theyre so busy satirizing themselves by self-destructing. Keeping up with reality is the hardest part today.
Q: What part of editing MAD did you like best?
Seeing a film with one of our writers and laughing at all the wrong parts. Thered be a scene where the rest of the audience might even be crying, and were cracking up because were already thinking of gags were gonna do. For example, Demi Moore got breast implants and she was very proud of them, showing them off constantly. Then she did this movie where she became a Navy seal, and during the training theyd toss them out of helicopters to see if theyd survive in the water. And of course, I was immediately going: Is that too tough? Nah, she can float for a week with all that silicone. Those are the kind of gags that come to you immediately.
Q: Is there a future for print magazines like MAD?
I dont know. Its not easy, and theres not much going on in print anymore. Most young people do it electronically, online. Theres still an intern program at MAD, which has produced five major editors over the last 20 years. But no school gives courses in how to be funny, because its no different than athletics. You have to have natural talent. If you had the money to hire the greatest baseball hitter ever to train you, you still couldnt do it if you didnt have the talent. Thats where it has to start, and then you grow by the doing, the experience.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat