MAD magazine editor Nick Meglin, an influence on cartoonists and satire, has died

"Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity."
"Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity."

Nick Meglin, the longtime editor of MAD magazine who retired to Durham, has died.

The cause of death was a heart attack Meglin suffered on Saturday, according to numerous media reports. He was 82 years old.

Before Meglin moved to the Triangle in 2005 to be closer to family, he worked as an editor at the humor magazine for 48 years — 20 of them as the head editor. Under his watch, MAD influenced multiple generations of cartoonists and satirists including News & Observer editorial cartoonist Dwane Powell.

"MAD was such an influence on me and most cartoonists of my generation, and I never dreamed I would meet and become friends with the man whose creative talents made it such a wonderful outlet for satire," Powell wrote in a Facebook appreciation on Sunday. That was just one of many tributes written in recent days.

Nick Meglin as drawn by MAD magazine cartoonist Mort Drucker. Courtesy of Nick Meglin

Meglin spoke with The News & Observer in 2012 about a couple of then-new books about MAD that had just come out. It's funny in retrospect that, four years before Donald Trump was elected president, Meglin was already citing him as an impossible-to-parody public figure. Here is that conversation.

Former editor reflects on his MAD life

By David Menconi

Dec. 2, 2012

Nick Meglin wasn't 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 MAD's 60 years before retiring to Durham a few years back.

He is part of 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?

A: 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 there's not the hassle and the prices and everything else. My friends up there figured I'd be barefoot in a tobacco field with a weed in my mouth, but it's an oasis of culture here.

Q: How did the magazine pick its mascot?

A: Oh, don't 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? It's just a symbol that lets you know what's on the inside. It's just a name we made up; we had 20 and that's the one we settled on.

Nick Meglin, left, with MAD cartoonist Mort Drucker.

Q: Did you think you'd be there as long as you were?

A: No, it was a two-year plan. I didn't create MAD, I just worked there, and I never overshadowed the real talents: the artists and writers. They're why MAD is in the Smithsonian, in the time capsules. They're why Michael J. Fox wrote the foreword for the Drucker book. Fox was asked by Johnny Carson how he knew he'd "made it," and he said, "When Mort Drucker drew me in MAD magazine."

Q: Did you ever hear from targets of the magazine's satire?

A: 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 didn't 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: "That's 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?

A: Satire allows you to stay fresh by focusing on what's 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 it's 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. It's getting to be the same thing in politics, too. Some politicians, you can't even satirize because they're so busy satirizing themselves by self-destructing.

Q: What part of editing MAD did you like best?

A: Seeing a film with one of our writers and laughing at all the wrong parts. There'd be a scene where the rest of the audience might even be crying, and we're cracking up because we're already thinking of gags we're 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 they'd toss them out of helicopters to see if they'd 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?

A: I don't know. It's not easy, and there's not much going on in print anymore. Most young people do it electronically, online. There's 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 it's 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 couldn't do it if you didn't have the talent. That's where it has to start, and then you grow by the doing, the experience.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi
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