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A personal tour of MAD magazine, in the crucible of a young life

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Twenty-five years ago today

The front door was as white and blank as a new refrigerator's, its only sign a small, typewritten label taped above the vertical mail slot by the the doorknob:

PLASTICMAN ENTRANCE

"This must be MAD," said my father.

Inside the lobby of MAD magazine was an orange naugahyde couch, an old standing ashtray next to it, like the kind in train stations when people dressed up to travel, and a larger-than-life statue of Alfred E. Neuman, patron saint of adolescent parody, in a pith helmet and safari fatigues. Dad approached the nonplussed receptionist and, with all the insincere aplomb of the 1960s campus subversive he is and always will be, said directly, "We're here for the tour," and waited for the answer.

We got it.

It was June 25, 1991, 25 years ago to this day. I had just graduated high school, and Mom and Dad's gift to me was a two-week tour of Major League Baseball in the northeastern and midwestern United States. That included two games in New York, giving Dad and me an afternoon in Manhattan in between and, from reading the addresses out of the front page of my favorite comic books, we went to midtown to see the home of the superheroes.

At Marvel, then 387 Park Avenue South, no luck. No tours without prior arrangements. At DC Comics, 666 Fifth Avenue, a very apologetic woman told us tours were on Friday (this was a Tuesday) and sent me along with brick-thick stack of their latest issues.

That left MAD, about a block away from DC, then at 485 MADison Avenue. Dad and I (Mom was home, supervising a kitchen renovation) sat on the waiting-room couch, perusing the latest MADs, locking eyes with Safari Alfred and his vacuous, careless stare. Then someone in the back told the confused, cheerful receptionist to let us in. We breezed into a back office with windows looking down at 52nd Street.

meglin

My childhood's summers are a perfect postwar postcard of driving vacations all over America, and in the hamlets we tucked into — Metropolis, Ill., Cooperstown, N.Y., Wartrace, Tenn. — Dad, who published our small town's paper, would strut into the local newspaper office, announce himself, and shoot the shit with the other executive. By the same methodology we were introduced to MAD editors Nick Meglin and John Ficarra. Meglin's business card read "Tennis Editor."

(Ficarra's said "Hot Shit.")

mad 1986

Meglin apologized that publisher William Gaines, the magazine's bearded, bespectacled Jerry Garcia-looking patriarch, who famously faced down Congress 37 years before, was out on vacation to France with his wife. But Meglin offered to show us his office. It was simply unreal. I guess at one point it actually had windows, but there was no natural light in there. Instead there was a giant King Kong head and arm bolted to the wall as if reaching through the window to abduct Gaines or whomever sat at his desk. The room was dully lit, like a $5 stud table at a Fremont Street casino. Dad went to Gaines' desk, picked up the mail and papers on it and leafed through them. ("Oh yeah, I did that whenever I was in someone's office and they weren't in town," he said when I brought this up a month ago.)

We left Gaines' office and went into a large, high-ceilinged composing room, somewhat like the one at Dad's paper. "I remember feeling at home," he told me. "It was just another ratty printing office with all the usual shit scattered around. And people starved for interaction and validation."

Dad is a newsman, and a charter subscriber to National Lampoon. When I turned 11, he took me and my brother to our first parentally sanctioned R-rated movie (Beverly Hills Cop, highly recommended). Three weeks later, for Christmas, he and Mom gave us a subscription to MAD, with Eddie Murphy right there on the cover. It was more than a spoof magazine, or a license to swear, or to talk openly about things like sex and alcohol and drugs. It was a challenge to think critically about popular culture and marketing, to question all of their smarming insults to the intelligence, and fire back at at all their insubstantial replies with eviscerating wit.

My school grades sucked in those days, so I figured out an alternate path to head-patting approval, and it was adult humor. That didn't mean scat jokes or sex language, per se, but political references and sophisticated asides definitely did the trick. Like, "That actor has the dramatic range of a platter of cold cuts," was a guaranteed cocktail-party applause line. That was stolen from MAD (said about Prince, in a quip about his lesser-known stinker of a film, Under the Cherry Moon).

My brother and I can quote MAD panels like a religious text: "Listen, I'm a sadist, not a mathematician!" (Darth Vader, in the Return of the Jedi spoof of 1983). "AH-AH-AH-HOON!" (Iron Man sneezing inside his helmet, per Don Martin, the master of the onomatopoeic); "I can't do this script! It's crap!" (the late John Ritter, in a "Things Celebrities Never Say!" photo feature).

panel from Mad Magazine’s Return of the Jedi satire, 1983. DC Entertainment

In 1986, MAD destroyed North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in a 60 Minutes parody illustrated by Mort Drucker, a kind of put-us-on-the-map moment for a state then lacking any major sports franchise. That's to say nothing of the magazine's many wordless absurdities, like Antonio Prohias blasting the teeth out of White or Black Spy, or a Sergio Aragones panel in which a circus ringmaster grandstands while an obviously costumed bear rides a unicycle. Then backstage, the snickering showman removes the bear mask to reveal the real performer: a horse.

After a short walk around the nondescript facility, Meglin, the "Tennis Editor" invited us into his office, where Dad mentioned he was also a USTA-certified umpire who worked the U.S. Open. (He still does.) That brought a flurry of excited queries. Meglin asked if Dad called the pets OUT! for the evening. Ficarra wondered if the family dinner involved me pouncing on a stray potato and rolling it back to the chair, like a ball boy. I mumbled coy replies, but it was apparent this was the bullshitting approach they took when presented with any subject for the magazine.

At some point the great Angelo Torres knocked on Meglin's door to turn in the next big movie spoof: "Hackdraft." It felt almost out-of-body, standing there, appraising the jokes on the page and hearing Meglin and Ficarra critique them. "Nah. That's OK. Oh, that's good."

hackdraft

Dad and the editors talked about the U.S Open and getting them what was, then, a ridiculously difficult ticket. (In 1991, before the opening of Ashe Stadium, the National Tennis Center sold only 20,000 or so tickets, the capacity of Louis Armstrong Stadium, despite all of the surrounding courts and their seating. A much more accommodating amount is sold today.) Then I had to pee, so I asked to use the restroom. Ficarra pointed it to me, off to the side of the composing area.

I learned a lot from this tour, and it wasn't just about MAD, or the people who worked there, or how they coped with an absurd world. It was about how to go to places you shouldn't be. That is, if you act like you belong somewhere, people will usually let you in and possibly even do things for you.

That same day, Dad told me how to sneak into the Shea Stadium press box (wait until the sportswriters jam the elevator after batting practice), and I made off with some hot dogs and media guides despite not having a credential. Three years later at N.C. State's student newspaper, I drove all the way to Georgia Tech without telling our photographer that I hadn't requested media passes, and I still managed to bluff us both onto press row at the will call. (Complaining loudly that "I expect this kind of thing at Wake Forest" may have helped.) My senior year, a friend and I went to N.C. Central Prison for an execution just to eat the free food at the news conference. Three years later I got into a major sports event dressed like a ref (this was before 9/11) and then, in 2008, I got into E3 without any pass whatsoever.

MAD's toilet was barely a closet, lit by one uncovered bulb. I walked out, looking for a place to wash my hands. "There," Nick said, pointing at the wall. The sink was outside in the composing room, for some reason. I ran the faucet and held my hands under the water. There was a small, typewritten label taped above the knobs:

NIXON PISSED HERE.

This must be MAD, I thought.

Correction (Aug. 2): I was contacted today by Ficarra, who gave a little clarity to my recollections, some details of which were conflated or mistaken:

• His business card was a one-off joke, made by a colleague, and not the one he gave out professionally. But it did say "Hot Shit."

• The restroom was also not in the office itself, but there was a sink in the composing room with the Nixon sign.

The author regrets the errors.

Roster File is Polygon's column on the intersection of sports and video games.