Intro to Mad magazine's Movie Parody Issue (August 1998)
I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine. I learned a lot of other things from the magazine too, including a whole new slant on society. The magazine supplied the first ironic humor to appear in my life. One day I was a trusting, credulous youth who approached the Princess Theater with pennies and nickels grasped in my sweaty palm, eager to see the latest matinee adventures of my heroes Lash LaRue and Whip Wilson. The next day I was a Mad reader, and could look down with scorn upon my classmates who sat goggle-eyed through cliches and stereotypes.
Mad's parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin--of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same dumb old formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe. Studying each issue carefully, I learned about standard dialog and obligatory scenes, cardboard characters and giant gaps in plausibility, and Scenes We'd Like to See. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad magazine.
Today's moviegoers are surrounded by a sea of cynical media. It was more innocent in the far-off days of my youth in downstate Illinois. It was in Mad magazine, for example, that I was first exposed to the very notion of a foreign language film. I thought all movies were in English. After all, everyone I knew spoke English, didn't they? And had I ever seen a subtitled film? Certainly not. I knew theoretically that in places like France they spoke another language--but even there I figured they had to understand at least enough English to go to the movies.
Mad ended my illusions with an article satirizing inaccurately-translated foreign subtitles. A hooker under a street lamp made proposals that looked steamy in the drawings but were completely innocent in the subtitles. Come to think of it, that might also have been the first place where I learned about hookers. In my bucolic hometown, surrounded by waving fields of soybeans, the only people who stood under street lamps were waiting for the bus.
I am particularly pleased that this first collection of Mad movie parodies focuses on the contributions of Warner Bros. (I know that the studio and the magazine are owned by the same giant conglomerate, but, hey, coincidences happen.) Every studio had its style, and Warner Brothers always had the best hard-boiled crime melodramas--a tradition extending right up to modern times in movies like "Dirty Harry" and "Lethal Weapon." The studio's tone was set early on, when founding brother Jack L. Warner called a meeting of his producers and writers and told them, "Don't give me any more pictures where they write with feathers!"
The greatest of all Warner Bros. movies is without a doubt "Casablanca," which Mad manhandles in a parody that begins with the observation that, at Rick's Place--excuse me, Reek's Place--no one could look at the owner's brooding face and ask if there was a happy hour. When the Marx Brothers announced plans to make "A Night in Casablanca," Warners threatened to sue them, charging that the title ripped off their classic. Groucho fired back: "You probably have the right to use Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were."
Mad's parodies not only destroyed my innocence, they also helped to demythologize the Hollywood movie star. When Mad was born, people still took stars seriously. They were treated like gods, or royalty. People actually asked them to sign scraps of paper! Within a few years Mad had so completely warped the national value system that matinee idols were laughingstocks, and the only actors who could get work looked like extras from a Dickens novel. Tab Hunter was out, Anthony Perkins was in, and Mad gets the credit.
My only regret is that more moviegoers don't learn from Mad's movie parodies. Study this book and never again be taken in by "Mars Attacks!" Mad and its influence has simply made some kinds of movies impossible. "Scream" and "Scream 2," for example, are a tribute to Mad: Horror movies have started making fun of themselves as a preventative measure.
The proof that Mad has good taste in movies is that, generally speaking, the magazine hasn't satirized bad ones. This volume targets such films as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Right Stuff." Pretty good choices. I love the whole furshlugginer thing. Congratulations to the usual gang of idiots.