MAD: 20 Dumbest People, Events & Things 2009 pulls no punches. Its acerbic reframing of the life and world of 2009, its madcap, non-jaded look at the motives of personalities who found themselves in the limelight and its tireless pursuit of the innate satire of darker times really does live up to the magazine’s branding as ‘humor, in a jugular vein’.
It has been a slow crawl through most of the first decade of the millennium, even through much of the 90s, but 20 Dumbest marks a return to the politically-astute satire of 80s-era MADs. And with it, 20 Dumbest of 2009 marks MAD’s return to the position of jester-in-chief of mainstream culture.
20 Dumbest, issue 502 cover-dated January 2010, comes replete with MAD literary staples. The “Letters And Tomatoes Department” offers up old familiars like “Envelope Art” and “MAD Celebrity Snaps”. Readers will find well-worn favorites like the “Joke and Dagger Dept.‘s”, “Spy Vs. Spy” and the now comforting art of ‘Serge-in General’ Sergio Aragones. Along with these recognizable magazine regulars, a new crop of staples has emerged. Readers more familiar with the work done by MAD editors and creatives in the first decade of the millennium, will recognize the now-familiar “Fundalini Pages”, the “In Blog We Trust Dept.‘s”, “Planet Tad” and the by-now almost-endearing exploits of Monroe. Dave Croatto’s parody of the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers (as “Ice Cream Truckers”, men who experience ‘soft serve, hard lives’, as the tagline reminds us) earns more than a few chuckles.
But issue 502’s centerpiece remains the “The MAD 20”. And with its centerpiece feature MAD Editor John Ficarra and Art Director Sam Viviano shift up a gear. Beyond the humorous, but also mildly passé satire of the earlier and subsequent sections (like “Celebrity Cause of Death Betting Odds for Kate Gosselin”, “Melvin & Jenkins’ Guide to Personal Health” and “The Godfrey Report”), “The MAD 20” offers a sharp focus on the politics and personalities of 2009. While the year itself has offered more than sufficient material, the creatives pull no punches. This is a MAD return not only to the political mainstream, but a full reintegration with popular culture.
Each hit on the Top 20, parodies through highly recognizable pop culture imagery, a single event from 2009. This is hard satire. A view from the outside at the inner ridiculousness of the life and world of 2009. It is hard not to share the outright skepticism and perhaps growing cynicism of contributing artists and writers. The full emotional weight and dawning sense of perhaps having been suckered is driven home with such hits as “#2: Corporate Bailouts: Keeping Bad Companies”.
The image is overwhelming. President Obama, Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner can be seen raising a flag in the parody of the historic image after the retaking the island of Iwo Jima. But instead of the 50 stars, the Star-Spangled Banner lists corporate logos for Chrysler, Citigroup, AIG and Goldman Sachs among others. The copy for this parody reads: ‘In a real capitalist society, when companies fail, they go out of business. But in the US some companies are designated as “too big to fail” and get special treatment. These behemoth institutions are actually allowed to steal money, screw investors, post record losses and still pay out millions of dollars in bonuses to the greedy, incompetent, reckless, white collar, criminal executive scumbags who run them. President Obama was so upset about this that he gave a disapproving speech to Congress before signing off on a multi-billion dollar bail-out plan. Ain’t that America!’
While the characterization itself is unfair, the emotional weight of the message is clear. Bailouts just seem wrong. Although carefully-researched works like Andrew Ross Sorkin’s remarkable Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of how Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—And Themselves and William D. Cohan’s House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street would delve deeply into the necessity for bailouts of companies that really are lynchpins in the national and global economy, bailouts really do just seem wrong. That is where MAD hits at its hardest. The editors and creatives find the emotional core, often forcing readers away from what intellectually they know to be true.
The “Top 20” continues in this vein. Governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged sale of President Obama’s Senator seat is parodied with the promo poster for Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables. Here Sean Connery’s famous line is remixed to produce: ‘They put one of theirs in the White House, you put one of yours in the Senate. That’s the Chicago way!’ The fiasco around the public divorce ending Jon & Kate plus 8 is parodied with Seth McFarlane’s animated series as “The Family Guise”. Kanye West is awarded a VMA-Hole Award for interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech in the “Talk is Creep” section. And Sarah Palin’s yearlong skirmish with Dave Letterman is parodied as “Blunder Woman” in “The Flaking of Palin 1, 2, 3”.
But MAD’s 20 Dumbest’s greatest triumph also proves to be its critical failing. In hitting home on the emotional core time and again, the “Top 20” in some senses breaches satire and transmutes into pure commentary (albeit heavily by way of parody). While this is the very best of ‘humor in a jugular vein’, MAD 502 fails as satire. It becomes something more, a comfort in dark times.