The story of how the crass comics magazine Cracked was brought back to life begins, of all places, at a white-shoe law firm in New York.
A pudgy young lawyer named Monty Sarhan had been giving life to the dreams of Internet entrepreneurs by helping them with finance deals when he caught the entrepreneurial bug himself. He decided to leave the legal profession and "go for the brass ring" by acquiring a media company.
He found that brass ring in the form of Cracked, the juvenile comics rag known for its bathroom humor that had always played second fiddle to Mad Magazine as the top time waster in the nation's study halls. Even he wasn't convinced it was a good idea at first when a friend suggested he consider buying Cracked.
"I said 'not interested. It's comics. It's for little kids,'" Sarhan recalls. But the seed had been planted and "for the first time I stopped thinking about Cracked for what it was and started thinking about Cracked for what it could be and what the potential was."
That potential will be revealed when the new Cracked hits newsstands on Tuesday after a two-year hiatus. It had a press run of 100,000 and has a cover price of $3.99. True to its heritage as a lampooner of pop culture, its debut cover features a doctored photo of Tom Cruise's head pasted onto the body of Steve Carell and asks if he is "The 44-Year-Old Virgin?"
More like "Lad mags"
But the glossy new version bears little resemblance to the Cracked of old, which relied on hand-drawn cartoons and comic strips. Rather, it resembles the modern breed of "lad mags" like Maxim, Stuff and FHM. It even spoofs the similarity with a gratuitous full-page photo of a scantily clad woman and the caption: "Here is a picture of a skinny blonde model with big breasts."
"It's not so much that I modeled the style after Maxim, it's that I modeled the style for today's tastes," says Sarhan, pointing toward the magazine's short-form writing and busy graphical layout. It's targeted at the 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, a bit older than its original audience but about right to attract the now full-grown juvenile delinquents who enjoyed the magazine in its glory days.
Sarhan, who is 33, has gathered a stable of contributors that includes writers for "Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central's "Chappelle's Show," as well as the satirical author Neal Pollack and the actor Michael Ian Black, co-star of the former NBC comedy "Ed" and snarky commentator on VH1's "I Love The..." series.
Sarhan won't say how much his group of investors paid to acquire the struggling Cracked in 2004 from former Weekly World News editor Dick Kulpa, who had bought it from tabloid publisher American Media Inc. in 2000.
After taking over, Sarhan killed its last issue before it was published, "cleaned house" on its masthead and set about re-imagining the comedy magazine, or Comedy Mazagine, as it has kept the traditional misspelling on the cover.
Industry experts say Sarhan has his work cut out for him, given the many already established lad mags and the limitless distractions that the Internet, video games and cable television offer to its target audience.
"They are entering at the end of the cycle of the laddie magazine market and it's going to be very tough to break into that market nowadays," said Samir A. Husni, author of Samir Husni's Guide to New Consumer Magazines and a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi. "Yeah, they may have a great archive, but it doesn't really mean much in terms of a brand in the marketplace."
Sarhan counters that young male readers are tiring of lad mags because they've become so predictable.
"I would like to think of Cracked as the next big thing because we talk about society, pop culture, politics. There's more of a mix there that you won't find in Maxim and the lad mags," he said.
Extending the brand
The debut issue is pretty thin on ads. Sarhan says it bartered the back page to RCA in exchange for some free electronics to give away in promotions. But he hopes to create a buzz that will bring in more sales a few months down the road.
Cracked Entertainment Inc.'s midtown New York office, where a staff of 10 mostly twentysomething men in T-shirts toil away, is surprising tidy and professional. And Sarhan, clad in jeans and blazer, is surprisingly serious and cerebral when discussing his ambitions for Cracked.
He whips out a plastic-sheathed issue of the magazine's first volume from 1958 that he bought on eBay last year for $150. On its cover is a drawing of a cracked Earth covered with caricatures of icons of the day: Stalin, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, the atom bomb and mushroom clouds. He wants to return Cracked to its heyday as a counterculture force, with a peak circulation in the neighborhood of 1 million, not the unfunny cartoon magazine it had become when he canceled its last issue.
Like 1958, readers of today have a dual fixation on celebrities and Armageddon, he says.
"It was commentary on our world, on society, it was commentary on celebrity, on politics, on starlets, all that stuff," he says.
Sarhan hopes to extend the brand to television and film, though no projects are in the works yet. Cracked's ad-supported Web site, which he says gets about 50,000 to 75,000 visitors a day, does feature a collection of short humorous videos.
In the debut issue of the magazine, Pollack helped work on a nine-page parody of ESPN the Magazine that features the sports channel's Steven A. Smith lamenting the lack of black cars, let alone black drivers, in NASCAR.
"I think the magazine parody is a good place for them to go," said Pollack. "Because of the glossy format, they can satirize magazines very well."
"They couldn't get away with silly comics like Darth Vader picking his nose or something, which is the type of thing they used to do," said Pollack.
Representatives of Mad, a unit of Time Warner Inc.'s DC Comics, did not respond to requests for comment about the relaunch of their old rival, so it's not known if they feel threatened.
But Mad's omnipresent cover boy, Alfred E. Neuman, has always operated under the mantra: "What, me worry?"