[19 February 2014]
Dave Berg’s Mad Magazine fixture “The Lighter Side of…” was anything but. It’s funny, goofy, and sometimes unapologetically cornball, but more often than not it’s so gleefully twisted and true, one can’t help but nod and think of all the people they know just like that. Each of Berg’s sneering children or boorish dolts is someone we know, and his work reveals the true motivations of those people, their selfishness and greed, and their utter ridiculousness in the face of every imaginable subject.
Mad’s Greatest Artists: Dave Berg: Five Decades of “The Lighter Side of…” includes many early Berg works before the main attraction. His first Mad piece, “Modern Furniture”, appeared in August of 1957, but the Brooklyn native had already worked in comics and illustration for many years, including work for Captain Marvel, EC Comics, and Timely Comics (the precursor to Marvel). In an essay on her father’s life, Berg’s daughter, Nancy, writes that he even painted cheesecake portraits on the nose cones of P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes during his stint in the Pacific in World War II.
Berg’s early work already shows an interest in the themes and subjects he’d go on to explore for the rest of his career. There’s a ridiculous piece about the prevalence of parking meters throughout the city, and another about pizza’s rise in popularity. His October, 1959 piece, “Playgrounds that Prepare Kids for Adult Life”, shows kids being forced into identical cookie-cutter molds on “The Socially Acceptable Merry-Go-Round”, and “The Constantly Out of Reach Swing” depicts a boy with his arms stretched out in order to teach him “to face life’s frustrations”.
These pieces work well, but they lack the punch of Berg’s later work. He had yet to boil down each idea to its essential element, and there’s a sense of searching in these pieces, like he was looking for that one good idea to put him over the top.
Finally, in October of 1961, Mad published the first of 333 installments of Berg’s “The Lighter Side of…” The strip began with Berg riffing on a single subject, from issues of the day like the Generation Gap of the ‘60s to broad subjects like water, television, finances, collecting, and relationships. The list goes on and on. It’s incredible to read so many of these strips in one sitting.
Not all are laugh out loud funny, of course, but Berg’s ability to consistently find humor in mundane subjects was impressive. His ability to do in in three or four panels for 40 years is mind boggling.
Take this example from January, 1990. We see a husband sitting in his easy chair, apparently watching TV. His wife says, “Norman, I don’t understand how you can just sit there and watch that garbage!” In the next panel, we see the man is actually looking out the window at trash sitting on the curb. He says, “It’s all I have until my TV comes back from the repair shop!”
So it’s not Bill Hicks philosophizing or Stephen Colbert satirizing, but it’s telling the truth, goofy as it is. The simplicity of the humor is its appeal, but it’s not bottom of the barrel material. Berg’s strip functioned in the same way as observational comedy in pointing out the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of everyday life.
Included in the book is a January, 1970, interview with Cartoonist PROfiles in which Berg details the work he put into creating his strip. Hours of interviewing, eavesdropping, and general observation generated ideas, personalities and even lines which eventually found their way into Mad. His skill at the drawing board is obvious, but it’s this research which shows the skill of Berg the writer. “I don’t like being an artist, I get no thrill out of it… I think it’s a lesser thing,” Berg said in the interview. “But the thing I admire is writing.”
In October, 1980, Berg turned his focus on multiple topics in a single article. This streamlined the strip into a constant joke factory, leaving the duds from a given subject on the drawing room floor. The strip remained this way until Berg’s final installment in November, 2002.
For Mad readers, the loss of Berg meant not only the loss of a beloved feature, but the loss of a familiar face. Berg often included his fellow members of The Usual Gang of Idiots in his strips, including himself. For years, Berg appeared as Roger Kaputnik, a schmuck’s schmuck with a pipe and increasingly dated safari leisure suit. With his pipe clenched in his teeth or, more often in his later years, sitting in his doctor’s office, Berg-as-Kaputnik was more than just another everyman character for the artist to poke fun of. He was poking fun at himself, and we all laughed along with him.