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The Cracked Came Back

When did Cracked get funny?

When I was a kid, maybe ages 8-12, I read Mad magazine. Its glory days were long past; Kurtzman’s successors just weren’t as good, but it was still funny, on-and-off—Al Jaffee was just crude, and Dave Berg was stiffly formulaic, but Mort Drucker did silly little things in the margins of his panels, and Sergio Aragones put (and still puts) silly little things in the margins of the pages. The basic message—“Authorities lie, and the media (including us) feed you crap, kid. Think for yourself.”—no longer had the edge, nor did it serve the same function, as it had at the magazine’s founding, in the sugar-coated fear of the late ’50s and early ’60s, but it still resonated, as it always will, with adolescents and precocious pre-adolescents.

If Mad was a deflating self-parody of a satirical magazine, Cracked was a cheap knock-off of a deflating self-parody of satire, copying the barf-and-fart jokes without snagging any of the “think for yourself” subtext. There wasn’t any subtext at all. Cracked was pure crap, and bored me at age 8, when barf-and-fart jokes were still pretty funny.

So the face-lift Cracked has received in transforming itself to online magazine is a real shock. Now, it’s still not high art. I drifted into an article titled “The 7 Biggest Dick Moves in the History of Online Gaming,” which should give you almost as good an idea of the level we’re operating at as the on-page link to another article titled “Is Shia LeBeouf and Idiot?” But it’s…literate. It uses words like “Sisyphean” as though it’s no big deal. The writers (sometimes) do their research: an article on accidents of game design contains several curiosities I didn’t know, such as the difficulty curve of the original Space Invaders being a product of the accidental shorter cycle of animating fewer and fewer aliens. It’s (occasionally) thoughtful: an article on art the creators regretted put the infamous execution photo from Vietnam into a surprising and enlightening context.

The cynicism that made the original Mad stand out in a hypocritical world has crept back into Cracked by a peculiar back door: the back door of being universal. Plenty of grown-ups today were born after Watergate; Gen-X considers it less a terrible scandal than simply business as usual. Gen-X is writing today’s editorials, and op-ed writers are even more cynical than the general crowd. The “think for yourself, kid” message isn’t just suitable for kids; it’s suitable for everyone. And if adults are reading it, I guess we can have adult writing to cater to that market.

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