BEHIND THE COMMEMORATE BALL DEPT.
Today marks the 91st birthday of MAD founder and original publisher William M. Gaines! We chose not to bake a birthday cake, because with 91 candles, it would contribute to global warming! (Also, he passed away in 1992.) Instead, we direct those who want to read more about the most unlikely and eccentric businessman ever to read The MAD World of William M. Gaines, written by longtime MAD writer (and a bit of an eccentric himself), Frank Jacobs! It’s available at Wowio.com! Tell them The Idiotical sent you!
For the last few weeks, we've been posting excerpts from the essays Frank Jacobs wrote for our 60th Anniversary book, Totally Mad: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity. We've already shared "Who Was Bill Gaines?", "Has MAD Ever Been Sued?" and "What Were the MAD Trips?" Today we delve into the early days of our moronic mascot, Alfred E. Neuman.
“It was a kid that didn’t have a care in the world, except mischief,” Kurtzman recalled. The boy soon made his way into the pages of the magazine, though he was as yet unnamed.
Kurtzman had been using the Neuman name mostly because it had the ring of a nonentity — although there was a Hollywood composer named Alfred Newman. Misspelled, with the added “E,” it too was integrated into the magazine.
When Al Feldstein replaced Kurtzman as editor, he decided to link “Alfred E. Neuman” with the face of the idiot kid. The idiot kid made his official debut in 1956 as a write-in candidate for President on the cover of MAD #30, and the magazine now had an official mascot and cover boy. In the next issue, Alfred made his second cover appearance pictured as an addition to Mount Rushmore.
Though others had their doubts, Nick Meglin, then an assistant editor, believed that MAD should continue to use Alfred as the magazine’s cover boy. “You’ll have to convince me,” said publisher Bill Gaines, who had veto power over all MAD covers. Playing up to Gaines’ interest in archaeology, Meglin submitted a rough sketch of Alfred in an Egyptian tomb (MAD #32) and one or two others that emerged as cover illustrations later. Having been convinced there were endless possibilities, Gaines agreed that Alfred should reign as the magazine’s icon.
The Neuman face was created by Norman Mingo. Curiously, none of MAD’s artists, though extremely versatile, has been able to render accurately the Mingo prototype. When Mingo died in 1980, his obituary in The New York Times identified him in its headline as the “Illustrator Behind ‘Alfred E. Neuman’ Face.”
What is the source of the “What — Me Worry?” Boy? MAD asked its readers to help out and was deluged by suggestions and theories. The kid was used in 1915 to advertise a patent medicine; he was a newspaperman named Old Jack; he was taken from a biology textbook as an example of a person who lacked iodine; he was a testimonial on advertisements for painless dentistry; he was originated by comedian Garry Moore; he was a greeting-card alcoholic named Hooey McManus; he was a Siamese boy named Watmi Worri. One reader dug up a 1909 German calendar bearing a version of the inane smiling face.
By far the most pertinent correspondence came from a lawyer representing a Vermont woman named Helen Pratt Stuff. She claimed that her late husband, Harry Stuff, had created the kid in 1914, naming him “The Eternal Optimist.” Stuff’s copyrighted drawing, she charged, was the source of Alfred E. Neuman and she was taking MAD to court to prove it.
Thus began the great Alfred E. Neuman lawsuit. The stakes were not small. If MAD lost, it would be liable for millions of dollars in damages. And Alfred no longer would be permitted to show his worriless countenance in any MAD publication or property...
Each week for the rest of the year, we'll be posting excerpts from the essays Frank Jacobs wrote for our 60th Anniversary book, Totally Mad: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity. We've already shared "Who Was Bill Gaines?" and "Has MAD Ever Been Sued?" Be sure to come back next week to read the (partial) answer to the question "Who is Alfred E. Neuman?"
By 1960, MAD had become an oddball national institution, and Bill Gaines wanted to keep it that way. His method was to create what came to be the MAD Family, made up of the editorial staff, steady contributors, even the magazine’s attorneys and accountant. The glue that held the group together was the annual MAD trip. Many of the writers and artists had never met. What better way for everyone to get to know their brethren than to fly them, all expenses paid, for a week or two in a foreign clime? These vacations, with their anticipations and memories, would knot the family ties even tighter. Especially if the trips were stag.
“I never met two wives who could get along with each other,” Gaines said at the time. “Bringing wives on the trips would divide the convivial MAD group into cliques. The wives would spend so much on clothing trying to outdo each other that it would cost the boys a fortune, and I can’t see any point to that.”
Two of the magazine’s mainstays, editor Al Feldstein and illustrator Mort Drucker, passed up the trips because of the all-male edict. The other MADmen accepted readily, eager to get a break from the typewriter and drawing-board. Skeptics might point out that Gaines, divorced at the time, was not burdened with the problem of leaving a wife at home. It would take 20 years before the stag rule was relaxed.
The first trip took the travelers to Haiti, one of Gaines’ favorite watering holes. The tone was set the first day. Discovering that the magazine had one subscriber in Port-au-Prince, Gaines piled his charges into five Jeeps, drove to the lad’s home, and presented him with a renewal card.
The next four trips were to the Caribbean, but Gaines was not happy. The West Indies bored him — especially Puerto Rico, where he spent most of his days reading and napping in his room or ordering a snack on the shaded terrace. Occasionally, in a neighborly gesture, he would tread cautiously across the beach to where the rest of the MADmen were sunning. After a few pleasantries, he would shuffle back to the hotel, relieved to be away from the sun and surf and the picture of grown men actually enjoying the stuff — sometimes, even, exercising in it.
There were better places to go with better things to see and better food to eat, and in the fall of 1966 Gaines loosened his belt and took the group to Paris, and then to Surinam, Italy, Kenya, Athens, Japan, London, Copenhagen, and the Soviet Union — to every continent save Australia and Antarctica, 27 trips in all.
The tone was set early on. In Florence, the vacationers were grouped on the steps of the Duomo Cathedral when a shouting parade of striking local laborers stampeded by. In the middle of the marchers, carrying an appropriated picket sign with his clenched fist raised high, was Sergio Aragonés.
In Venice, Nick Meglin scrutinized his admission ticket to the Palace of the Doges. “What does it say?” he was asked. “It says,” answered Meglin, “you may have already won this palace.” At the Vatican, Dick DeBartolo looked at the opulence and remarked, “God isn’t dead. He just can’t afford the rent.”
In Moscow, Gaines was continually stared at by the local populace. At first it was thought that this was because of his beard and massive mop of hair. It was later learned, however, that to Muscovite eyes, at least, Gaines resembled Karl Marx. The abundance of beards in the travelers prompted one observer to remark that the MAD gang looked like a road company of Benjamin Harrison’s cabinet.
Gaines himself climbed — yes, climbed — to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and there placed an “Alfred E. Neuman for President” poster. It was rumored, but not confirmed, that the tower leaned an inch or two more after that.
Each week for the rest of the year, we'll be posting excerpts from the essays Frank Jacobs wrote for our 60th Anniversary book, Totally Mad: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity. Last week we posted "Who Was Bill Gaines?" Today we delve into MAD's early legal troubles. Be sure to come back next week to read the (partial) answer to the question "What Were the MAD Trips?"
During Bill Gaines’ reign as publisher, MAD was probably the only publication that included “Lawsuits” on its masthead along with the name of its chief attorney. This was a service offered to offended readers so they would know whom to contact when they sued.
An example was the complaint of one Cynthia Piltch, then a freshman at Brookline High School in Massachusetts. The cause of her displeasure was an item in “Protest Magazine,” a 1966 MAD piece spoofing the protest movement. Writer Larry Siegel had included this item:
Cynthia Piltch and her parents felt the similarity in names was too close for coincidence and sued MAD for $250,000. Cynthia had been “injured in her reputation and health” and had “suffered damage to her feelings, mental anxiety and annoyance.” It was a coincidence, of course, but a pesky one. MAD’s attorney Jack Albert suggested that Gaines settle the case out of court. Gaines refused. To him it was cut and dried. MAD was a magazine of satire and was not obliged to check out every made-up name it used in its articles. If anything, the piece had raised Cynthia Piltch to a position of some fame in her school. Furthermore, another Piltch, namely Annabelle Piltch, of Flushing, NY, was delighted to see her family name in the magazine. Wrote Annabelle:
“The success of your satires, I feel, is due to your imaginative choice of fictitious names. The most hilarious name thus far…is Yetta Piltch. I trust that all your readers have as fine a sense of humor as we do.”
Gaines pondered it all. It seemed that one Piltch’s meat was another Piltch’s poison. He reconsidered and decided that perhaps MAD had hurt the Brookline Piltches. If this were so, MAD should make amends, and so MAD did, settling out of court for what may be described as a modest sum.
Almost all the lawsuits involving MAD would wind up no more than footnotes in law journals. One case, however, changed the face of American pop culture.
Part of MAD’s business model was to publish “annuals.” These issues contained previously published articles but were sweetened with an item that no true MAD fan could pass up. Sometimes it was a small-size recording featuring an original song, or a thingamajig mobile such as the MAD Zeppelin. For one of the annuals in 1961 the choice was “Sing Along With MAD,” an inserted mini-magazine containing parodies of popular songs.
Larry Siegel, myself, and the editors collaborated on 57 parodies. The lyrics were almost completely distorted as were most of the song titles. “Easter Parade” became “Beauty Parade,” a spoof of beauty pageants. “Cheek to Cheek” was turned into “Sheik to Sheik,” a commentary on oil-rich desert potentates. Song after song became parodies to reflect “the idiotic world we live in today.”
The songbook was well received by MAD’s readers. It was not, however, well received by the Music Publishers Protective Association, which felt that 12 of its member publishers had suffered copyright infringement. MAD, the association charged, had marketed versions of songs, without any authorization, which “caused substantial and irreparable damage” to the publishers and the composers and lyricists of the songs.
The plaintiffs were not small-fry. Among them were such giant corporations as Irving Berlin, Chappell, T.B. Harms, and Leo Feist. Twenty-five of their songs had been parodied — songs by such greats as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and, of course, Irving Berlin.
The association was playing hardball, suing Gaines and everyone connected with writing, illustrating, editing, and distributing the songbook for one dollar per song per each copy the magazine sold. More than one million copies had been sold, which meant that Gaines and his codefendants were being sued to the tune of $25 million.
The mysterious giant head statues lining the coast of Easter Island recently underwent excavation, and it was revealed that the monoliths have complete bodies that are decorated with cryptic symbols. The organization behind the digging, the Easter Island Statue Project, has spent many years and countless dollars to make this discovery, but they could have saved themselves a lot of time and money by simply reading MAD! We predicted this finding not once but TWICE in years past, and we even gave some answers regarding the ancient structures' true purpose.
Click each image to make 'em bigger!
Over the years, MAD did a lot of takeoffs on “The Family Circus”. Keane always enjoyed them and laughed along with us.
Here’s just a small sampling. Thanks for the inspiration, Bil.