MAD About You: An Open Letter to MAD’s “Usual Gang of Idiots”

Congratulations, you Usual Gang of Idiots, you broke Hunter S. Thompson. Hunter was safe, Hunter was comfortable. It was warm there, in the shadow of his writing. Not so much the crazy, wilder, Hunter who became that iconic, cult figure. Not Hunter the demigod who spoke truth to power with that gonzo zeal. But the Hunter who wrote for a mass audience in Rolling Stone. The Hunter who was learning to become that icon. The Hunter who was cruel, and reckless, and carefree, and deeply passionate. The Hunter who died on the inside when he witnessed the police beatings at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago ’68. The Hunter who wielded a typewriter like a gun in Fear & Loathing on the ’72 Campaign Trail. The Hunter who cared.

That was a great Hunter. That Hunter was all the Hunter any of us needed. That was the Hunter who would simply Appear in the popular imagination, at some crisis point of national conscience. That Hunter would cast a jaundiced eye, then he’d weave his magic with words.

It was easy to fall under the spell.

His writing was rich, deep, thought-provoking. He saw something wrong in that world and his writing would simply swallow it up. And somewhere in that flow of thousands of words we’d understand. That was the magic. We’d understand and we’d care about. And we’d keep reading. We’d get drawn deeper in. It’s hard not to share in Hunter’s first wife Sandy Thompson’s regret (expressed in the documentary Gonzo: the Life and Times of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) when she says that more than ever this world needs a Hunter who’s “together”. A “together” Hunter comes to us as a magnetic north. He was our compass star, our measure, our secret map to the pirate’s gold of truth. And yet.

And yet, how did we ever manage to work ourselves free from Hunter’s ornately laconic web of wonder? The sad truth is, we never really did. No one in my generation, at least. By the time Hunter reached us, he was already fully-formed, already the Patron Saint of Truth-Telling. The wonder of him lay in the alacrity he communicated through his language. His Gonzo journalism was everything to us. And as removed from the issues he wrote of as we were, Hunter had sadistically been reduced to entertainment by some Unseen Hand. We couldn’t do the things his writing so clearly showed needed doing, but we sure could enjoy his writing about them. Somewhere, somehow, Hunter had been stolen from me and my entire generation.

Then there’s you, you Usual Gang of Idiots.

Everything you do comes in the cloak of entertainment. Everything is just one laugh after another. Except somehow, your work seems to never let me go. Hunter’s become a cerebral appreciation, literally his books grace the top shelf of my bookcase. It’s where I can go and leaf through its pages any time I like. But your work, your work… It’s there in my mind. It’s with me at 3am when I cannot sleep and the demons come, when Tom Waits’ “Little Drop of Poison” plays on loop in my mind.

You should write jokes, one-liners, your work shouldn’t get me thinking for myself, and keep me thinking. I should be able to laugh and then put you aside. I can do it with Letterman, with South Park, with Stewart and Colbert. So why won’t you let me do it with you?

Take your “20 Dumbest of 2011” issue. “Sheen Lantern” hits at #6. “Sheen Lantern”! In one fell swoop you dismantle not only Charlie Sheen’s public meltdown, but also the culture he’s railing against. And to top it off there’s an almost-unnoticed jab in there about superhero movies flagging at the box office. It takes Bret Easton Ellis 4,000 words to get there. You get there with “Sheen Lantern” and the tagline “‘Winning’ isn’t everything”.

Or your “MAD Look at Protests”. In a year that we’ve seen the rise of the concept of hacktivism, in a year when your sister-publication, TIME, names its Person of the Year as the anonymous “Protester”, you come up with throwaway cartoons that illustrate both the passion of the Occupiers and the pure, human crazy of their tactics. How do you make fun of both sides of the argument and leave me with nothing but a pure critique of the situation?

Or #12, your parody of NetFlix CEO Reed Hasting’s memo to customers. Did you realize you’d foreshadow the furore around Congress’ hearings around the Stop Online Piracy Act. An Act that if passed, will present serious Constitutional challenges to the First Amendment, certain scholars have argued. An Act that threatens the freedom of speech we all enjoy currently via the internet. An Act that now, even Sony, a former chief supporter, has withdrawn from.

I know who’s to blame. It’s that rabble-rousing Editor of yours, John Ficarra. He can tell me that the crazy starts right at the beginning of the year. He can say, “I open a file on Dumb Things on January 1st”, but I can see through that to what he’s really saying. He’s saying he’s slow and methodical and deeply focused on finding the humor in everything. He’s saying what Anthony Bourdain (1) said about Chinese cooking being “the Mother of all cuisines on this planet”. That in Chinese cuisine there’s a tradition of peasants needing to work with flavor to make peasant dishes more palatable, and simultaneously there’s an imperial tradition of gastronomic engineers toiling tirelessly to produce that one stroke of genius innate to the dish they’re working on. John’s saying that you toil tirelessly to find that vein of true critical thought in everything you do. He’s saying you’re the true philosophers, before the Libraries and the Universities got a hold of them.

So, how dare you, you Usual Gang of Idiots, how dare you? How dare you hold my Freedom of Speech to a higher standard by equipping me with Freedom of Thought? How dare you make me see, so flawlessly, not the world in front of me that simply doesn’t work, but make me see the world that could be so much better? You’ve not only broken Hunter S. Thompson, you’ve broken satire. You’ve simply undone any kind of avenue I’ve had for kicking back and mistaking satire for entertainment.

My world’s bigger now. I can finally take the kind of action that changes things.

Thanks a lot, you Usual Gang of Idiots.

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(1) Anthony Bourdain speaking with Marc Maron on the very excellent podcast WTF the episode is available for free download. The conversation around Chinese cuisine plays at around 1:13:40 of the episode.

RATING 10 / 10