What? Somebody wrote about gay porn (and its obvious appeal to would-be magazine advertisers like Disney and Procter & Gamble) in this space yesterday? Did I understand that correctly? So much for my plans to review Black Tail this morning. You people and your delicate, puritan sensibilities can only handle so much.

So I found myself forced to make an unexpected trip outside the parameters of my booby-trapped apartment, my first in weeks, to grab a replacement title. At the local magazine stand, I happened upon the "special premiere issue!" of Cracked. Which confused me a little itty bit, as I hadn't been aware that it had gone away.

During my blissful Jer-Z childhood, Cracked ranked behind only The Sporting News (back then, box scores were a big deal) and Mad on my reading list. My childhood sense of humor was considerably more sophisticated than my adult one: anything involving slime, insects or slimy insects garnered giggles, and Cracked had all three in spades. Were there stickers or trading cards involved? I've burned through quite a few brain cells since those halcyon days.

Cracked now finds itself reinvented as "the comedy magazine," which strikes me as a slight perversion of the original brand. Pop-culture-related humor isn't exactly hard to come by nowadays -- an entire network, the funny-as-a-staph-infection VH-1, is devoted to it -- so the new Cracked totters on the cusp of irrelevance from the get-go. In theory, anyway.

In execution, most of the September/October issue made me laugh, early and often, starting with a killer cover shot that superimposes a beatifically grinning Tom Cruise onto the "40-Year-Old Virgin" movie poster. The magazine's first half, devoted strictly to parody, was obviously put together by some sharp folks with double-ninja-sharp senses of humor.

The wit skips easily between the absurdist (an illustration of Prince fighting a gang of pirates) and the snarky (a Condoleezza Rice online-dating profile, complete with the ethnicity of "white" scribbled out). The mag's writers don't hesitate to flash their versatility: A single front-of-the-mag page offers predictions for the upcoming season of "Lost" ("mysterious new characters named Tom Kant and Merv Nietzsche will appear in the trees and heckle Rousseau"), back-to-school products from around the world (Adidas A3 Garnetts in the U.S., a shovel in Afghanistan) and a "thinner mustache, deadlier dictator" comparison.

Yes, the magazine comes close to plagiarizing The Onion at times. The "Douchebag Hall of Fame" cover story recalls the online 'zine's infographic of "celebrities who need a good cock-punching" (not surprisingly, Bono made both lists), while the "opinion" column -- ostensibly written by an old guy opposed to "horsin' around" -- apes any number of similar Onion pieces. The difference between Cracked and the endless parade of Onion imitators, however, can be summed up in three words: Cracked is funny.

The mag also knows its way around a good prank, attempting to get Civil War reenactors to enlist for the battle in Iraq. Its "investigative" piece boasts my favorite faux-serious headline since the days of Spy ("Mexican Boys: Surprisingly Expensive!"); the review of "mobility-assistance scooters" replicates the dopey-promotional copy of other such product roundups to enormously entertaining effect.

The September/October issue falls apart, however, in its "But Seriously" latter half, in which the mag suddenly transforms into a slightly wittier version of Giant. There's nothing wrong, per se, with the interviews (Ed Helms and Rob Corddry from "The Daily Show," the "South Park" guys) or the reviews. It's just that the first half of the magazine features smarts and creativity in abundance, and the second half is, well, like Giant. Vince Vaughn movie quotes, a "laugh audit" of the Bill Murray oeuvre (FWIW, "Meatballs" is not overrated, dammit), an Isla Fisher photo that appears to have been taken without a flash -- this is all fine and good, but it has a decided so-what? feel to it, especially after everything that comes before it.

Overall, though, Cracked is the rare magazine relaunch in which version 2.0 could ultimately exceed the original. I have no idea how long the Cracked folks can keep it up, but it's the first magazine I've discovered via this gig that I'll check out every month.

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