William Gaines and his usual gang of idiots unveiled their nutty magazine this week in 1952

By Geoff Williams
Updated October 06, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

What — me worry?” It was a question few Americans needed to ask in the early 1950s, a bountiful time when milk was delivered to doorsteps, doctors made house calls, rock & roll was used to describe landslides, and TV was still a novelty. But by October 1952, a funny thing was happening at the newsstand: A little 10-cent publication that called itself Mad and featured comic-book stories spoofing popular fiction of the day was slowly gaining attention — and threatening to expose the goofy underbelly of an idyllic era.

Mad was the first to lift slapstick satire to an art form, and its launch was appropriately anarchic: The issue — written entirely by its first editor, Harvey Kurtzman — was dated October-November but actually hit the stands in late July. ”This was a way of conning the newsstand dealers to hold the issues on the stands longer,” says senior editor Nick Meglin, a staffer since 1956. In April 1953, with founder and publisher William M. Gaines’ fourth wacky issue, parodying Superman, Mad became an unqualified success. It lampooned everything from film (”Flawrence of Arabia”) to TV (”The Phewgitive”) to its own staff (”the usual gang of idiots”) and introduced the likes of cartoonists Don Martin, Jack Davis, and Mort Drucker. Embraced by adults as well as adolescents, Mad became a bit of Americana — the only institution that belongs in an institution — and in 1955 introduced as its loopy mascot gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman, whose likeness had first appeared in a dentist’s ad of the 1890s.

Lambasting tradition wasn’t always the way to win friends in the repressed ’50s. In 1955, Mad dropped its comic-book format to skirt the ”comics code,” set up after the U.S. Senate made Gaines’ oeuvre the target of an investigation into juvenile-mind corruption. And parents who worried that Mad was rotting their children’s brains had a point. Grant Geissman, author of Collectibly Mad, thinks the magazine fueled passions that led to the turbulent ’60s. ”The message from the beginning was to question authority and not to believe everything you read,” he says.

Mad (circulation: 500,000) is still true to its roots. Just this past June, Lois & Clark‘s Dean Cain, 29, who grew up reading Mad, was skewered in a story entitled ”Lotus & Cluck.” ”It was surreal and strange to see myself drawn that way,” he says, ”but it’s an honor. I thought it was funny.” And on Oct. 14, Mad TV debuts on Fox TV. Nonetheless, not everyone is sure true Madness can survive the computer era. Meglin warns, ”We’re not going to be an illiterate country, but aliterate — people who just don’t care about reading.” What — them worry?

Time Capsule
Oct. 6, 1952

Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us made waves atop the nonfiction list; Patti Page wooed listeners with ”I Went to Your Wedding”; Gary Cooper’s lofty presence graced High Noon; and The Perry Como Show lulled early couch spuds.