I learned at home that you can't make fun of your parents. I learned at school that you can't make fun of your teacher. But it was Mad Magazine that taught me the most important lesson of all: you can make fun of the president.
In the circumscribed world of a child, there are few rights. Sure, children hear about the capital-R rights in social studies class, but in their own lives they have only the right to take out the trash and the right to keep their rooms clean.
Learning that public figures are fair game for satire was an empowering realization. I don't think it's an overstatement to say Mad Magazine contributed greatly to my political and cultural awakenening. Not only did Mad kind of blow my head open, it laid the ground work for my understanding of the First Amendment rights.
Today I see the same thing happening with my kids, but it's not Mad Magazine that's exposing them to the possibilities of freedom of speech. It's the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report. And of course, there are differences between Mad Magazine in its heyday and these two shows today. The subversive power of Mad back then is impossible to replicate today in a pop-culture atmosphere where even the cuddliest cartoon characters are snarky. Still, though, The Daily Show offers children much more than just mockery of public figures.
What Mad did with caricatures and goofy wordplay, The Daily Show does with real footage of politicians and pundits either contradicting themselves or making no sense whatsoever. With insightful wit and generous helpings of potty humor, these shows forge paths of sanity through the wilderness of self-important media outlets and blustering politicians, both of whose disdain for the public is palpable. Kids, media-savvy far beyond their parents, eat up this kind of thing. They can see right through adult bullshit, even if some of the more disgusting adult references go whizzing right over their heads.
And though they might not get all the homoerotic and scatalogical humor, my kids know there's something naughty going on. That's another great thing that reminds me of my early experiences with Mad Magazine. A lot of the movies it spoofed were ones I wouldn't see; they were rated R. But I knew that the sly drawings and incomprehensible double entendres meant something. Something naughty. Maybe even dirty. And though I often had no idea what the joke was, I felt pretty sophisticated when I even realized that there was a joke.
I'm inclined to ignore the flag wavers and historians who've been boo-hooing about a recent poll showing more Americans can name the five Simpsons characters than can list the First Amendment's five rights. Contrary to popular belief, this does not indicate the fall of civilization. It's actually a good sign. We don't know the first Amendment rights (one out of five Americans, for example, thought that rights for pets are included) because we take them for granted. We have the rights. Most Americans feel the First Amendment in their bones.
Just as children know exactly what is and isn't fair, Americans would know exactly which, if any, rights we lacked. We'd find out the hard way, when we tried to criticize the president and when we tried to worship our gods. (For the record, the five rights of the First Amendment are, in this order: freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and Maggie.)
But the times they are a-changin.' Until recently you could wear a T-shirt with a dissenting message and not be dragged away from a political event. And you knew with some confidence that your phone calls were private. If someone had prevented you from wearing the T-shirt or was illegally listening to your conversations, there'd be hell to pay. The law would back you up on that.
Well, not really. Even in the pre-"executive privilege" days that was a rather naÃÂ¯ve contention. But at least back then the government pretended to protect our rights. It's enough to drive one into the arms of the pop cultural metaworld, to use a trendy prefix. The politically charged humor of Mad, The Daily Show and, yes, The Simpsons helps us reconcile the cognitive dissonance between America, the myth and America, the reality.
My 9-year-old has lived one-half of his life in the shadow of 9/11. His 12-year-old brother has lived one-third of his life since then. If we think it's been stressful for adults, imagine what it's been like for kids to grow up in a country where every topic is framed by the threat of terrorism and the reality of war.
Mad Magazine and the two Comedy Central shows perform a kind of public service for children stressing about the world. Kids know a lot about what's going on here and abroad. No matter how young minds learn about world events --- from thoughtful dinner-table conversation or from CNN's real-time war footage --- they can seem daunting and even overwhelming.
I remember being gripped with anxiety during the Vietnam War and anxious about money when the recession coincided with the founding of my father's new company. What would happen if business didn't pick up?
It was in the pages of my mothers' Mad Magazines that I found solace. There, life went on. Politicians, army generals and actors --- all caricatured within an inch of their lives --- looked like buffoons in the deft hands of Mad's artists and writers. Today I see my kids finding a similar reassurance from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. "If the grown ups are laughing," the kids think, "how bad can it be?"