From The Smirking Chimp
“What — me worry?” was the moronic mantra of Alfred E. Neuman, the grinning, gap-toothed and mirthful mascot of Mad magazine for nearly 60 years. Longtime Mad editor Al Feldstein died on April 29 at his home in Montana. He was 88.
Feldstein served as Mad’s editor for nearly 30 years, overseeing a talented staff of satirical writers and illustrators listed as “the usual gang of idiots” in each issue of the magazine. He also pushed for the fictional Neuman to be the cover boy on each issue, a tradition that continues to this day in Mad’s print editions and on its website.
Feldstein became Mad’s editor in 1956, just as the periodical was transforming from a comic book to a magazine format. He told early Mad artists Norman Mingo and Kelly Freas that Neuman should have a “devil-may-care” attitude and look like “someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him.”
The face that gazed out from the cover of the magazine in 1956 soon became an impish icon of the Eisenhower era and today is known around the world as an emblem of American humor.
Alfred E. Neuman’s grinning face was seen across the nation in 1964. When Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater flew to San Francisco to accept his party’s nomination, some in the crowd held aloft placards showing Neuman’s face. The TV cameras recorded the scene and Mad fans laughed from coast to coast.
For decades since the 1950s, Alfred E. Neuman has appeared in many guises on the covers of Mad magazine. He has been depicted as Uncle Sam, George Washington, Adolf Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, Che Guevara, the Mona Lisa, Dennis Rodman, Santa Claus, President Obama and as a flower-power hippie in 1968.
During the Iraq war, The Nation magazine produced a parody poster of President George W. Bush as Alfred E. Neuman. The poster became a fixture at protests against the war. During the Vietnam War, Mad artist Kelly Freas painted a mordant cover for the satirical National Lampoon magazine that depicted disgraced Army soldier William Calley as Alfred E. Neuman posing in a military uniform above the words “What — My Lai?” National Lampoon itself had skewered Mad with a parody of the older humor magazine called “What — Me Funny?”
Despite the put-down by the National Lampoon, Mad magazine was funny, and under the editorial leadership of Feldstein and his successors it has kept America laughing from the Cold War of the ‘50s to the Computer Age of today.
Feldstein hired and encouraged Mad’s “usual gang of idiots,” including top humor writers and cartoonists like Mort Drucker, Don Martin, David Berg and Jack Davis, an alumnus of the University of Georgia right here in Athens.
Though cartoons and caricatures were Mad’s drawing cards, its writers could tickle the funnybone of America whether writing under their own bylines or by penning quotes attributed to Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman. Jeff Rovin was a master of the one-liner who wrote gems like “Modern art is to art what alphabet soup is to literature,” and “Rednecks may not be the missing links in evolution, but they’re certainly the weakest links.”
Mad magazine is a major part of the crazy quilt of American humor and Al Feldstein helped to sew it all together during his many years of service as the magazine’s editor and guiding force. Mad was more than just a humor magazine. Tom Hayden, the 60s-era activist who was a defendant in the Chicago 7 show trial of American dissidents during the Vietnam conflict, credited Mad magazine with helping to foster the anti-establishment attitude of the countercultural young people of his day.
Al Feldstein shaped America by making it laugh. His magazine inspired such imitators as Cracked and Zany and influenced such satirical TV shows as “That Was the Week That Was,” “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and “Saturday Night Live.” Feldstein will be remembered as an editor who used humor to puncture the overinflated balloons of politics and pomposity.