learned at home that you can't make fun of your parents. I learned
at school that you can't make fun of your teacher. But it was
Mad Magazine that taught me the most important lesson of all:
you can make fun of the president.
In the circumscribed world of a child, there are few rights.
Sure, children hear about the capital-R rights in social studies
class, but in their own lives they have only the right to take
out the trash and the right to keep their rooms clean.
Learning that public figures are fair game for satire was
an empowering realization. I don't think it's an overstatement
to say Mad Magazine contributed greatly to my political and
cultural awakenening. Not only did Mad kind of blow my head
open, it laid the ground work for my understanding of the First
Today I see the same thing happening with my kids, but it's
not Mad Magazine that's exposing them to the possibilities
of freedom of speech. It's the Daily Show with Jon Stewart
and the Colbert Report. And of course, there are differences
between Mad Magazine in its heyday and these two shows today.
The subversive power of Mad back then is impossible to replicate
today in a pop-culture atmosphere where even the cuddliest
cartoon characters are snarky. Still, though, The Daily Show
offers children much more than just mockery of public figures.
What Mad did with caricatures and goofy wordplay, The Daily
Show does with real footage of politicians and pundits either
contradicting themselves or making no sense whatsoever. With
insightful wit and generous helpings of potty humor, these
shows forge paths of sanity through the wilderness of self-important
media outlets and blustering politicians, both of whose disdain
for the public is palpable. Kids, media-savvy far beyond their
parents, eat up this kind of thing. They can see right through
adult bullshit, even if some of the more disgusting adult references
go whizzing right over their heads.
And though they might not get all the homoerotic and scatalogical
humor, my kids know there's something naughty going on. That's
another great thing that reminds me of my early experiences
with Mad Magazine. A lot of the movies it spoofed were ones
I wouldn't see; they were rated R. But I knew that the sly
drawings and incomprehensible double entendres meant something.
Something naughty. Maybe even dirty. And though I often had
no idea what the joke was, I felt pretty sophisticated when
I even realized that there was a joke.
I'm inclined to ignore the flag wavers and historians who've
been boo-hooing about a recent poll showing more Americans
can name the five Simpsons characters than can list the First
Amendment's five rights. Contrary to popular belief, this does
not indicate the fall of civilization. It's actually a good
sign. We don't know the first Amendment rights (one out of
five Americans, for example, thought that rights for pets are
included) because we take them for granted. We have the rights.
Most Americans feel the First Amendment in their bones.
Just as children know exactly what is and isn't fair, Americans
would know exactly which, if any, rights we lacked. We'd find
out the hard way, when we tried to criticize the president
and when we tried to worship our gods. (For the record, the
five rights of the First Amendment are, in this order: freedom
of religion, speech, press, assembly and Maggie.)
But the times they are a-changin.' Until recently you could
wear a T-shirt with a dissenting message and not be dragged
away from a political event. And you knew with some confidence
that your phone calls were private. If someone had prevented
you from wearing the T-shirt or was illegally listening to
your conversations, there'd be hell to pay. The law would back
you up on that.
Well, not really. Even in the pre-"executive privilege" days
that was a rather naive contention. But at least
back then the government pretended to protect our rights. It's
enough to drive one into the arms of the pop cultural metaworld,
to use a trendy prefix. The politically charged humor of Mad,
The Daily Show and, yes, The Simpsons helps us reconcile the
cognitive dissonance between America, the myth and America,
My 9-year-old has lived one-half of his life in the shadow
of 9/11. His 12-year-old brother has lived one-third of his
life since then. If we think it's been stressful for adults,
imagine what it's been like for kids to grow up in a country
where every topic is framed by the threat of terrorism and
the reality of war.
Mad Magazine and the two Comedy Central shows perform a kind
of public service for children stressing about the world. Kids
know a lot about what's going on here and abroad. No matter
how young minds learn about world events --- from thoughtful
dinner-table conversation or from CNN's real-time war footage
--- they can seem daunting and even overwhelming.
I remember being gripped with anxiety during the Vietnam War
and anxious about money when the recession coincided with the
founding of my father's new company. What would happen if business
didn't pick up?
It was in the pages of my mothers' Mad Magazines that I found
solace. There, life went on. Politicians, army generals and
actors --- all caricatured within an inch of their lives ---
looked like buffoons in the deft hands of Mad's artists and
writers. Today I see my kids finding a similar reassurance
from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. "If the grown
ups are laughing," the kids think, "how bad can it