[29 May 2014]
Al Feldstein died last month. Feldstein was editor of MAD Magazine from 1956 until 1985. Before that, he had written, drawn and edited many of the great books published by EC Comics. When he took over MAD from Harvey Kurtzman, he transitioned the comic book (“Humor in a Jugular Vein”) into the black-and-white magazine that I read as a kid (“40¢—Cheap”). Depending on who you ask, he either ruined the publication or turned it into the huge success that it was in the ‘70s. In those days I read every page of MAD even the table of contents, usually multiple times. You never knew where you would find a joke. So, even then, I knew who Al Feldstein was. His name came right after the publisher: William M. Gaines.
While Feldstein’s MAD lacked the zany creativity of Kurtzman’s (which I read in the late ‘70s when MAD published reproductions of some early issues as inserts in their MAD Specials), he did manage to oversee a stable of creative artists and writers who would forever put a mark on a generation’s sense of humor: “the usual gang of idiots”. Don Martin put his jug-headed and hinged-footed monstrosities in bizarre, yet recognizable, situations. Dave Berg exposed the “Lighter Side” of mid-‘70s social woes, from the energy crisis to the youth movement. Al Jaffee introduced crazy inventions and the corny, yet transcendent, fold-ins. Mort Drucker parodied all of the great, and not-so great, movies and television shows.
To tell the truth, without MAD’s movie parodies I would have missed out on much of the popular culture in my growing-up years. I didn’t see Jaws until adulthood, but I knew most of the characters and story beats from the MAD satire.
MAD Specials and Super Specials were particularly wonderful. They reprinted older materials (“the usual garbage from past issues”) along with a few new items. (I’m sure that I learned about the Watergate scandal five years after the fact by reading reprints in the Super Specials.) Sometimes, they included a bonus insert, like the reprints of the old MAD comicbooks. Sometimes, you got stickers, like the wonderful Don Martin sound effect stickers that came in MAD Special #23 (“POIT!”). Sometimes, you got posters, like the “MAD Collectable Connectables” from #29 that for a while adorned my bedroom wall. Sometimes, you got 45 rpm records.
MAD Super Special #26 is my all-time favorite. It included a 45 rpm recording of the song “Makin’ Out”. The music on the record was written, arranged and produced by Norm Blagman, and featured “SMYLE” with vocal assists by Jane Gennaro and Alfrieda Norwood. The lyrics to “Makin’ Out” were written by Frank Jacobs, a regular contributor to MAD Magazine from 1957 on and someone whose name I recognized for his many song and poetry parodies that were featured in the magazine.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Jacobs is most famous as the writer of parody song lyrics that MAD published as a 20-page booklet inserted into the 1961 best-of issue. The booklet was titled “Sing Along with MAD” and was clearly a parody of the “Sing Along with Mitch” television program. The songs included the insurance industry spoof “Blue Cross”, to be sung to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies”.
When a very high
Fever I ran,
They told me I
Took the wrong plan!
Berlin sued MAD and the rest is history. The courts ruled that MAD’s parody of the songs was legally permissible fair use. The decision has served as a standard protecting humorists ever since.
The cover of MAD Super Special #26, which was what had drawn me to the magazine in the drug store, was by Mort Drucker. At the center is a 45 rpm record emblazoned with the likeness of Alfred E. Neuman. It is surrounded by caricatures of many of the important characters from my childhood, engaged in what the record refers to as “makin’ out.” I’ll never forget taking the book home and carefully removing the surprisingly square 45 from the center of the magazine and playing it on the portable record player that I kept in my bedroom. Would a square record even play? How could that be possible?
I was shocked by what I heard. Shocked. And changed forever.
After the first play, I was careful to make sure that my parents were out of the house before I played it again. My biggest thrill was taking it, and my record player, when I went to spend the night, along with my cousin Barry, at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents both slept without their hearing aids, so we were usually free to make all the noise we wanted. I played the record for Barry. We snickered at the lyrics printed on the inside of the magazine. We ogled the front cover illustrations. Then we played the record again. We were eleven.
Set to a catchy disco beat, the song doesn’t seem all that scandalous to me today.
I wanna break out loose and swing.
Have myself a crazy fling,
Till those bells ring ding-a-ling loud as can be –
But I never hear them chime,
‘Cause I chicken out each time,
And I know the only ding-a-ling is me!
Then the chorus,
Makin’ out! Makin’ out!
I tell myself I could be, should be makin’ out!
But all I’m makin’ out from all this makin’ out
Is that ev’ryone’s makin’ out but me!
These lyrics clearly represent the genius of MAD Magazine in the ‘70s. They are mostly innocuous, but just naughty enough to make eleven-year-olds feel as if they are getting away with something, as if they are reading something, listening to something that their parents would object to. I don’t know if this was an intentional strategy on Feldstein’s part or just a product of the fact that he was using the same writers that had been on staff since the ‘50s. Material that might have suited young adults in the earlier era, was pretty juvenile by the standards of the mid ‘70s.
The age of MAD readers kept decreasing until they hit the sweet spot of 11-year-olds in 1978. In any case, Jacobs’ lyrics were just right to my young ears. They exposed me to something that I was just beginning to think about, but then let me identify with the singer who, like me, wasn’t getting in on the action.
The song is full of references to mid-‘70s popular culture, including the Ford Maverick (my grandparents’ drove one), the Oakland Raiders, Ralph Nader, Jacques Cousteau, pet rocks, and Archie Bunker. Most significantly for me, however, was the way that it referenced figures important in my kid-world. The lyrics, combined with Drucker’s cover illustrations, blew my mind. Suddenly characters important to me were sexualized in a way that I had never seen them before.
In “Star Wars,” you know Darth Vader’s makin’ out!
And, on the cover, Princess Leia really seems to be into him! This was prior to the big reveal about Darth Vader’s identity, but it was shocking enough even before I thought of Leia as Vader’s daughter.
I’ve even seen a Muppet that is makin’ out –
Except that, on the cover, Miss Piggy is makin’ out, not with Kermit, but with Cookie Monster!
Superman, without his cape, is makin’ out!
King Kong, when he is goin’ ape, is makin’ out!
Now Frankenstein, though still in shock, is makin’ out!
I’ve even heard that Mister Spock is makin’ out!
Ev’ryone’s makin’ out!
Granted, I had seen hints of sex on television and the big screen, but Drucker’s illustrations somehow put it over the top: the Frankenstein monster’s lewd expression; Dracula’s victim’s randy smile; Archie and Edith Bunker’s knowing grins. The Fonz? Sure. But, Charlie Brown and Lucy? Dear God, do you see the way that dolphin is looking at Jacques Cousteau?
Maybe I was a late bloomer, but this was pretty startling stuff to me in 1978. I’m not sure if I’ve recovered to this day.
So, thank you Al Feldstein, for your great work at EC Comics. Thank you for the cover of Weird Science #12, an image that I later chose as the cover for one of my books. But mostly, thank you for MAD Magazine, especially that Super Special from 1978 which introduced me to the movie The Exorcist (“The Ecchorcist”), pointed out the lighter side of the energy crisis, made fun of the Bible (“Bible Rave Magazine”), exposed my parents’ faults (“Parental Non-Sequiturs”), and provided me with “a handy guide to recycling garbage”. Thank you for Mort Drucker, for Dave Berg, for Frank Jacobs, for Al Jaffee, for Sergio Aragones, and for Don Martin. Thank you, especially, for Frank Jacobs and Norm Blagman and the members of SMYLE. Thank you for the square 45 rpm record and that great Drucker cover.
Thank you for giving me a kick in the pants, for making me open my eyes to what I was missing, for pointing out the obvious that I had somehow overlooked, for revealing the truth that every young person has to learn on the way to becoming an adult: ev’ryone’s makin’ out but me!