But Mad’s influence went deeper than aesthetics; it had a comedic sensibility, a view of the world as a hilarious cavalcade of hypocrisy and folly — an attitude embodied by the insolent simpleton’s grin of Alfred E. Neuman, a figure whose origins are untraceable, that seems to have arisen from the collective moronic American unconscious.
By the time most of us hit adolescence and learn that the world is unfair, exploitative and brutal, and that most people in it live in shocking poverty and squalor, and that we’re all somehow implicated in this even though it wasn’t our idea, plus there’s no God and we’re all going to die and the grown-ups have been secretly having sex the whole time, you feel ripped off. You feel lied to.
So you turn to art that rips the facades off everything, exposing adults and their institutions as swinish and rotten. Humor is adolescents’ reflexive defense against all the unpleasantness they’re confronting for the first time. It’s a distinctively adolescent form of humor we now call “snark” — irony, sarcasm, satire and parody — whose agenda is to mock and tear down and caper gleefully upon the grave of everything sacred and respectable.