Mad About MAD: An Iconoclast Comes to the Norman Rockwell Museum

By Linda H. Davis / Special to the BJV

“Spy vs. Spy.” “MAD’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” “The Lighter Side of….” Movie and TV parodies so marvelously drawn they shout from the page. The “What, Me Worry?” resident fool, Alfred E. Neuman.

For those of us who grew up in the age of MAD Magazine – the 1950s and up – MAD embodied the fun of breaking the rules without ending up in detention after school. If parents considered MAD a blight on their children, their children loved it.

Titled “What, Me Worry? The Art and Humor Behind MAD Magazine,” this exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge will run through October 27. With original art by MAD’s core talent, known as “The Usual Gang of Idiots” – Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee, and Don Martin to name a few – along with such later contributors as Teresa Burns Parkhurst and Emily Flake, the show promises to be both comprehensive and fun. It will include interactive features, fan letters, and cover art starring the vacant-eyed, gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman. 

Why now?

The BJV talked to the Rockwell’s chief curator, Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, and satirist and artist Steve Brodner, co-curator.

Stephanie Plunkett cited MAD’s place in our culture and its cultural influence, its nonconformity in the best sense: MAD was anti-smoking, and never in the pocket of advertisers. (For its first 44 years, with a brief exception, MAD made its own ads, satirizing such well-known brands as Crest Toothpaste – Crust Gum Paste, featuring a toothless punk.) It was sensitive about racial issues, Plunkett added, and able to make a point without being sexually explicit. “MAD was an aid toward greater mental health for millions,” said Steve Brodner.

From the beginning, MAD’s humor was fundamentally Jewish. Judith Yaross Lee, an American humor scholar, author, and adviser to the MAD exhibit, noted that the artists, including Al Jaffee (“Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”) were all born in the 1920s. Some had been in the Army during the war. They had “had first-hand experience with antisemitism.” But they were “Americanized, not religious,” Lee added.

Steve Brodner, who got his own start doing caricatures at bar mitzvahs, explained that MAD appeared in the post-war era, after the Holocaust, when there was great goodwill toward Jewish Americans and a flowering of Jewish humor. Think of the Marx Brothers, Sid Caesar, and Milton Berle. There were Yiddish writers and actors, and Jewish humor – “this fatalistic idea that it’s all going to shit and we can make jokes about it” – was funnier then, said Brodner. He cites Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman. “Jews were responsible for a huge vein of humor in America,” he said, adding that there was “a tremendous amount of satire” on TV.

You could trace a direct line from the 1960s, and the TV show “Laugh-In,” to the 1980s and beyond: “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.” (Bart Simpson passes a city building housing the MAD offices. He gasps with pleasure, and enters. MAD is located on the same floor as a Methadone clinic.)

Judith Yaross Lee said that Art Spiegelman credited MAD’s influence for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus, based on his father’s experiences during the Holocaust. An early version of Spiegelman’s book, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, was a “tiny, less stylish” forerunner.

Not bad for an illustrated magazine born as a 10-cent comic book series. Titled “Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad,” MAD managed to elude the comic book censors of the 1950s by reinventing itself in the format that most fans remember best. Its 55-year run, from 1952 to 2007, exceeded 550 issues. With a peak circulation of 3 million, MAD reached its height during the anti-Establishment 1960s.

Actors and American presidents; musicians and physicians; the sacred and the criminal – all were MAD fodder. Norman Rockwell’s iconic portrait of a Thanksgiving dinner, “Freedom from Want,” became a meticulously drawn 2001 homage to the popular TV show, “Survivor.” In place of the aproned grandma presenting the turkey, grandpa dressed in a suit behind her, stood a woman in a sports bra framed by a bare-chested man. A portrait of Alfred E. Neuman laughs on the wall behind them.

Nixon slumps along the edges of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” called “Alfred E. Neuman’s What Me Worry Band.” Ronald Reagan is a senile king in ermine.

Always an equal opportunity offender, MAD ran a far more brutal take-down of Hillary Clinton. Borrowing from Andrew Wyeth’s stirring “Christina’s World,” “Hillary’s World: Carpetbagger for Senate” shows the blonde candidate from behind, clawing the grass as she regards the lofty Senate building on the Hill. (Richard Williams drew her unsparingly, with heavy calves and an ample posterior.)

Unapologetically sexist, a boys’ club with no female artists until its later years, MAD got no protest letters to speak of, though the magazine did run afoul of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI – first with a story about a draft dodger (readers were told to write to the FBI for a membership card certifying that they were “a full-fledged draft dodger”) and again when they printed a fake extortion letter.

If the humor was of the stringing-toilet-paper-in-the-trees variety, it could also be seriously witty. A fine 1994 oil painting by Richard Williams, “Washington Cross-Dressing the Delaware,” showed America’s first president in a long pink dress, white fur wrap, and pearls; George Woodbridge’s 1991 drawing of a battered eagle in a wheelchair, titled “The Hymn of the Battered Republic” from 1991 seems depressingly timely.

MAD was, and remains, unique. Though it had many international editions, even today, said Judith Yaross Lee, there’s nothing like it anywhere.

Is it any wonder that MAD was a buoyant place to work? Type “MAD” into YouTube and old interviews with laughing men in dated long sideburns appear. Cartoonist Teresa Burns Parkhurst described her contributions to MAD as an utterly happy experience: She would come up with an idea and a number of ways to support it with the text. She enjoyed the collaborative experience, which forged “a real relationship” with her editor, with whom she remains in touch. (MAD also paid “really well,” by the page, the most money she’d earned at that point.)

Who didn’t love MAD? Last fall, when the Rockwell Museum team was kicking around exhibit ideas, and MAD popped up, they knew they had a winner, Stephanie Plunkett told the BJV.

MAD’s what-me-worry humor comes to the NRM at a time when we’re all worried. And the exhibit’s setting, in a museum devoted to the art of illustration, seems fitting, she added, as Norman Rockwell himself was “extremely funny.”

The great American illustrator was meticulous about his details. (He wouldn’t just draw a comb. Fine hairs would be coming out of it, noted Brodner, which could be as much a part of the storytelling as the primary image.)

In the marriage of MAD and Norman Rockwell, the talents are well-matched, the view of America balanced. Smirky MAD offers a sassy counterpart to the seriously patriotic Rockwell.

In its advertising for the exhibit, the NRM uses a homage to Rockwell’s famous triple self-portrait by the brilliant Richard Williams showing Alfred E. Neuman smiling into a gold mirror as he paints his own self-portrait. Except for his red sneakers, he’s dressed like Rockwell, wallet and handkerchief protruding from his back pocket. Paint and paintbrushes litter the floor. But in place of the flag-bearing American eagle on Rockwell’s mirror sits a cuckoo bird.

Linda H. Davis is the author of three biographies, including Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. She lives in Pittsfield with her husband, Chuck Yanikoski.

Read the related BJV article, "An Appreciation of MAD and Its Usual(ly Jewish) Gang of Idiots."

Image Credit: Richard Williams, Alfred E. Neuman and Norman Rockwell, 2002. Cover illustration for Mad Art: A Visual Celebration of MAD Magazine and the Idiots Who Create It. [James Halperin Collection, Courtesy of Heritage Auctions, MAD and all related elements ™ & © E.C. Publications. Courtesy of DC]