In 1952, Harvey Kurtzman, under the auspices of Entertaining Comics (formerly known as Educational Comics, otherwise known as EC), published a new magazine called “Tales Calculated To Drive You MAD”. The subtitle was “Humor In A Jugular Vein”. For the first four years, Kurtzman wrote every single story but in 1956, he moved on. (There are conflicting accounts of WHY, EXACTLY – Harvey was famously cantankerous, so there’s that – but MAD survived the loss of its creator and became a bona-fide cultural institution of long-standing on the strengths of the creators that came after him. Y’know, the “Usual Gang Of Idiots”.
Practically every single comedian of the last forty years, every comedy writer, every cartoonist, has experienced MAD Magazine. The attitude of it – that everything is crappy, that everyone is lying to you all the time, that grown-ups and authority figures have no idea what they’re doing, that the world is full of stupid contradictions and hypocrisy and utter outright bullshit that they try to sell to you as “mashed potatoes” – this is the comedic sensibility that gave us the Simpsons and Jon Stewart.
So who were these idiots, who ran around in a usual gang? Taste is subjective but these are my Top Five.
MORT DRUCKER’s expert caricature skills and gift for facial expressions brought to life cruel parodies of every movie blockbuster for decades. If you and your friends have ever riffed and ragged on a crappy movie, Congratulations! You learned to do that from MAD Magazine. From pointing out logical inconsistencies to ridiculing goofy plot-points or calling out the shitty acting or the terrible script, right down to the utter stupidity of an audience that would bother to watch crap like this. It’s a surreal experience to watch a movie you’ve never seen but have read the MAD Magazine parody of and going “Hey, they were right. This movie sucks.”
Can we talk about DAVE BERG? I heart Dave Berg. I heart the Lighter Side Of … . (Man, he really hated hippies but he hated stuffed-shirt hypocrites too.) Simple set-up/beat/punch-line, nothing fancy. Excellent line-work, though – his draughtsmanship was impeccable and his figures were varied and animated and approachable. I always had a crush on a certain type of Dave Berg Girl. And he gave little kids their first taste of observational comedy, spiced with the almost-extinct spirit of Vaudeville.
AL JAFFEE. What else can I say? I’ll say it again – AL JAFFEE. He did the Fold-In. Yeah. That was all him. And if that’s the only thing he ever did, he’d still be the best in the business. But he did so much more. He was a machine and one of the first artist/writers in the magazine. His figures had a roundness to them, almost as if they were inflated with a bicycle pump to just the right pressure. They were plump and bouncy and alive. His masterpiece, for my money, is obviously Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions. This book was more important to me than the Bible when I was a kid.
If you saw something like “One Fine Day At The Barbershop” at the top of the page, you knew you were in DON MARTIN country – full of loopy, elongated, floppy-footed cartoons of corny yuks that were old in the Year Dot. Again, ancient gags, repurposed to a bunch of stupid kids who had never heard them before but given a fresh new spin by an immensely talented and totally unique cartoonist. Sometimes, it ain’t the song, it’s the singer.
Rounding out my personal Top Five is SERGIO ARAGONES. He drew those crazy little pantomime cartoons in the margins. For years, people thought he couldn’t speak English because of this. Of course, he could but he played along and pretended he didn’t because he knew you learn a lot if you listen more than you speak. What can anyone say about Sergio Aragones, who can tell a story – beginning, middle and end – silently, with just a few lines and shrunk down to fun-size and jammed into the margins of the page? I don’t use the word “Legend” lightly but Sergio (who DOES speak English and knows what that word truly means) is definitely one, even though he’d incorrectly claim it didn’t apply to him. The man created Groo The Wanderer. He’s a damn Legend.
That’s another thing – MAD always had a self-deprecating editorial slant. The Letters Column was a giant snark-fest on Opposite Day, where they more a correspondent claimed to hate a particular feature or article actually meant that they loved it. They’d make fun of their own articles pre-emptively. They called themselves “The Usual Gang Of Idiots”. They took the words “Don’t take yourself too seriously” to heart.
And the thing is, these guys had no idea they were shaping the future of comedy. To them, it was just a job. (At least Drucker got to see free movies.) But their work impacted on an infinite number of smart-asses and class clowns and misfits and weirdos, generation after generation. When you speak English, you call that a “Legacy”.
Was it Brian Eno who said that thing about the Velvet Underground, that only a thousand people ever bought their records but that everyone who did formed a band? Well, millions read MAD Magazine and while not everyone of them became a comedian, you sure wouldn’t have Conan O’Brien or David Letterman or David Cross or National Lampoon or the writing teams of the Simpsons and SNL without MAD Magazine.
One of the most prestigious awards in the comics industry is called the Harvey. And rightly so.