Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: Literature Page 1 of 5

Mad, and getting Realist about humor

The first issue of The Realist.

When I was a kid, like 10 or 11 years old, My Uncle Robbie was the youngest, and coolest, of my uncles. He had a motorcycle. He went to Woodstock. And he read Mad magazine.

I never had a motorcycle. The Woodstocks I attended were the paler, anniversary ones in 1994 and ’99. But I did read Mad.

After 67 years, the magazine has announced it will soon cease publication, although that “cease” is kind of vague, as it appears Mad will continue to re-issue old content. And some of its legendary contributors said a few days ago that new material may even be published on yet-to-be determined platforms. Platforms that likely contributed to the cause of death: The internet, where anyone with a keyboard has the potential to create brilliant satire in this target-rich era.

Internet humor: A primary suspect in the death of Mad magazine.

Following the announcement of Mad’s approaching death, the tributes poured in. From celebrities including Weird Al Yankovic, fondly recalling how Mad shaped their own humor.

So yes, of course, I read Mad as well. Did, as in past tense. Maybe if I had bought a few copies over the last four decades, it wouldn’t be going away now.

But other culture was creeping into my brain. Mad gave way to National Lampoon. I saw R. Crumb and Zippy the Pinhead as philosophers, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were teachers. The comedy albums I listened to, the mainstream of Bill Cosby, gave way to the edgy non-sequitur humor of The Firesign Theater and Monty Python. I could find Monty Python on television as well – thank you, PBS – and in the movie theater.

The two things I remember laughing at the hardest in my late-teen years, laughing to the point that I couldn’t breathe, were National Lampoon’s “High School Yearbook Parody” and the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur de-limbs The Black Knight. “Just a flesh wound.”

We move on with time, and it can be a dangerous passage. My Uncle Robbie is in his late 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s hit him a few years ago. Now he doesn’t even recognize his wife.

The brain evolves, devolves. I was reminded of how far my own pursuit of the darkest humor went when I read this week of the passing of Paul Krassner, the iconic, counter-culture writer. Krassner wrote freelance pieces for Mad in the late 1950s. But he recognized that Mad was humor for teenagers. And he was an adult. An adult consumed by the oncoming political unrest. So he channeled his taste in anarchy by creating an underground humor magazine, The Realist. This was a proper vehicle for Krassner and his ’60s Yippie cohorts, known for pranks such as nominating a pig for president. Even Norman Mailer, Richard Pryor and Joseph Heller wrote for The Realist.

Krassner and The Realist may have been humor, but they were dead serious about it.

The Realist was over-the-top outrageous. Pornographic. Obscene. Satire is a killer. Why would a humor magazine publish a cartoon depicting dozens of Disney characters such as Snow White and Donald Duck engaged in a massive orgy? I suppose the message might have been one that is the highest duty of humor: to expose hypocrisy and corruption. And to do so with a tenacity that goes beyond a flesh wound. Was the obscenity of the Seven Dwarves engaged in anal sex – a perversion of many people’s definition of All-American entertainment – any worse than the Vietnam War we were watching on our televisions?

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The Critical Mass


photoThe morning walk with the dog is generally uneventful. I do keep watch for the woman walking her dalmatian.  He’s fat, his body shaped like an overstuffed Navy duffel bag, and he never looks happy. I usually cross over to the other side of the street with Abbie when I see the dalmatian and his handler heading our way. But sometimes an encounter is unavoidable. As we approach, he is at the end of his leash, straining hard, a low, diesel-like rumble coming from behind bared teeth. “Oh, they really want to play!” she says.

“Yeah. well….” I move on, pulling Abbie along behind me.

A couple of mornings ago, we came upion what I thought at first was a massive trash pile at the end of someone’s driveway. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a yard sale. We paused. Abbie sniffed at an old coffee pot. I walked along the tables, examining the family detritus. Sports equipment, board games, odd pieces of wood, shoes, baseball caps, pens, exercise DVDs… you know what it looks like. Every item appeared to be broken or missing a piece.

Except this. A familiar face. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., staring at me from  the cover of a vinyl record album. A 1973 spoken-word recording of the author reading from his greatest work, Slaughterhouse-Five. It had one of those heavy plastic covers on it like libraries used to do to help preserve their records, with a slot for the check-out card in the back. In fact, I could see from the markings that it used to belong to the Monroe Community College library. I was ecstatic. I paid the lady a buck and almost skipped home the rest of the way.

It’s just one record, so most of Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t there. I put it on the turntable and set the needle in the groove. The speakers crackled, and the words came to life. He starts with the book’s seventh paragraph: “I would hate to tell you what this lousy book cost me in money and anxiety and time….” Vonnegut, speaking from the dead.

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Ray Bradbury’s worlds were never this bad

images-slides-1960_2Bad news today. I could be moaning about the failed attempt to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. That news only confirmed what I’ve already known for a while. That the most-important election demographic isn’t “undecided” voters, but what’s charitably called “low-information voters.” Dumb people who can be convinced to vote against their own self interests. And I already knew that the most-important tool in any election is the lie. Walker lied his way back from the brink.

No, the bad news today was Ray Bradbury has died at age 91. He wrote 50 books in his day, and two of them I remember quite well from my younger reading: Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. I read others as well, but those two stick out.

He seemed literary to me, where a lot of science fiction does not. It’s unfortunate that, politically he evolved into a bit of a right-wing political parrot in his later years – he thought George W. Bush was “wonderful” – but Bradbury earned a little wiggle room in his time with us. I picked this quote off the Internet, in which he defended science fiction in an interview:

The mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time — developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species — have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.

That’s the truth. Fiction is often more honest, and generally gets to the heart of the matter, with more clarity than non-fiction, with all of its official filters and biases.

Science fiction looks forward, and tries to guess where we’re heading. It tries to warn us where we’re heading. The future looks bleak. I find it it amazing that this country is stumbling backward on so many fronts. Serious political ideologies are being set in place by leaders who act as though they don’t have to live here; they’ll keep their heads above water while standing on the backs of the rest of us.

Last week I counted three news stories about separate incidents of cannibalism. As dystopian a world as Fahrenheit 451 was, Bradbury was never as outright shocking and nauseating as the real world can be.

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