When I was about 9-13 years old, I was obsessed with Mad Magazine. I subscribed, but mostly I read old issues. My mother would often go to antique stores and I would quickly locate the one guy selling back issues of Mad for a quarter or 50 cents. And then I would spend my whole allowance ($2/week) on Mad, both the magazine and the trade paperbacks that often had new content. In doing so, I acquired a detailed knowledge of the social, political, and cultural world of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I knew more about Watergate than pretty much anyone else born in 1978, and I understood the election of 1964, for example, better than I understood the election of 1988. I knew more about the Saturday Night Massacre than I knew about Tianenmen.
The thing about Mad is that it was produced on Madison Avenue, by people who lived next door to the real world Mad Men (and, I assume, worked in advertising). These pages were dense with allusions to the world of 3-drink lunches, office smoking, trains to Greenwich, crazy parties with nubile secretaries, and the occasional hippie, civil rights protester, experimentation with pot, and lots and lots of advertising. It was a weird world, and I was deeply immersed in it. Mad Magazine was well written, and skillful in making it seem real. But my immersion was private; no one else I knew read Mad. I stopped reading Mad in about 1992, and now, 20 years later, everyone is suddenly fascinated by this world, via Mad Men.
I feel an intense sense of recognition when I watch Mad Men. It’s the same Madison Avenue I grew up with - in back issues of Mad. And most interestingly, it’s portrayed from the same cynical perspective. Mad Men sees it through the cynical eyes of the 21st century, Mad saw it through the cynical eyes of astute social criticism. Much of the criticism is stinging, and much of it is identical. In fact, it’s so similar, that I have wondered whether Matthew Weiner grew up reading Dave Berg, Al Jaffe, and ‘the usual gang of idiots’. I wonder if the name of the show is a tacit admission of this fact – Mad Men was the term that Mad writers used to refer to themselves back in the day. In any case, I love the TV show, and I’m certain a large part of it is nostalgia for my own childhood, technically in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, but spiritually in a Madison Avenue ad firm.