Mad, again

Last week I wrote about our latest national disaster — Mad magazine going out of business.

OK, so as far as disasters go, it can’t match the Hindenburg. Then again, since almost no one today knows about the Hindenburg, much less would care about it if they did, the death of Mad is clearly a disaster.

And more’s the pity. Where else could we see so much laughable bungling and stupidity, without following the news? Nowhere, that’s where. So maybe Mad never made the world a better place, but it sure made it a funnier one. And who among us can’t use extra laughs – especially at others’ expense? Not me, certainly.

Surprisingly, I got a bunch of replies to that column. His Royal Highness, King Bunk the Last, was a devoted Mad fan from Way Back, and I’m sure Mad not only inspired Bunk’s career as a cartoonist, but shaped his world-view as well.

Dr .Jennifer Small is a second-generation Mad fan, her dad Dave having been the first. And Jennifer is no mere dabbler — she actually subscribed to it.

Stacey Allott is also of a two-generation Mad family. She was the first, and her son Sam carried on the tradition. But Sam didn’t just read Mad, he lived it. Stacey said when Sam was little he looked so much like Mad’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, that he dressed the part for Halloween. And it wasn’t mere costume — he was, for real, missing a front tooth.

And speaking of Alfred E: On Monday, I got an email from my old office mate, Kirk Peterson. He said he thought I’d had a misspelling with Alfred.

Misspell Alfred? How could I do that? I couldn’t, and that’s all there is to it. Granted, I could’ve made a typo, but never a misspelling. So I did the only sensible thing — I banished him and his nit-picking from my mind. I had some serious issues to deal with – issues that involved Alfred E, no less.

The Stuff of legends

Sometime in my dim and distant past I’d read of Alfred E’s rise from the mists of history to becoming an almost universally-recognized cultural icon. It was a long and complicated tale, involving all sorts of twists and turns, including, finally, a case before the Supreme Court.

Originally, when Harvey Kurtzman, Mad’s editor, decided to have Alfred in the magazine, Alfred wasn’t Alfred. First he had no name, then he had various ones, among them the mundane handle Mel Haney, and the colorful one, Melvin Coznowski. But in every case, he was known as the “What – Me Worry?” kid.

But the image of Alfred wasn’t original; Kurtzman saw it on a postcard someone’d sent him. The postcard drawing was old-time, but how old time no one knew. It was also much less artful than the Alfred E we’ve come to know and love. That’s because Kurtzman hired a portrait artist to do justice to the mildly loony lad, which the artist clearly did.

Beyond that, no further thought was given to Alfred or his origins. At least not until Mad found itself embroiled in a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

Remember that postcard Kurtzman got, with the proto-Alfred on it? Well, that one wasn’t copyrighted. But apparently another postcard image of him was. A woman named Helen Pratt Stuff and her late husband had copyrighted the image in 1914 as “The Original Optimist.” They sold a couple thousand postcards till 1920, and none after that. But Good Old Helen renewed the copyright in 1941 and then in 1965 had Mad in her sights for copyright infringement.

It was a scary predicament. If GOH won the suit, not only would Mad be out a great mascot, they’d probably be out millions of dollars, and maybe out of business as well.

Mad’s lawyer then went on full attack mode. Mad’s winning the case hinged on one of two things. First, while GOH had previously sued for copyright infringement six times, and won them all, if there were examples of that image being published without her having pursued an infringement case, she couldn’t nail Mad. Or second, if Mad could find published examples of that image before 1914, they were off the hook, since the Stuffs had obviously copped it from someone else.

Mad won on both counts. It turned out GOH hadn’t pursued all cases of publication, so Mad won on that count. And even better, that image had been around long before the Stuffs started selling their stuff (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

In fact, that odd little lad with the weird grin and the missing tooth had been used all over the place, starting in the late 19th century. Apparently, it had commonly adorned dentists’ signs, even with the wording “What — Me Worry?” It was a subliminal plug for painless dentistry — an oxymoron for 19th century dentistry, I’m sure.

As I said, its use was widespread as Alfred’s grin; examples were found on advertisements for patent medicines, for sodas, for restaurants. There was even a World War II bomber with him and “What — Me Worry?” on it.

The proof is in the reading

All of this brings me back to Kirk Peterson and his email. Later that afternoon I read a bunch of Mad history, and when I did, I realized he was right — I did have a misspelling with Alfred. But it wasn’t Alfred, itself — it was his last name. In the column, I’d spelled it Newman, but the official spelling is Neuman.

I know why I did it. I knew Alfred E. was named after Alfred Newman, a man who wrote music themes for movies, among them “How the West Was Won.” He was also the father of Randy Newman, the musician (who wrote that classic, Short People). And because I was familiar with both Alfred-no-E and his son, and because their last name and Alfred E.’s are pronounced the same … well, you can figure the rest out.

But what really took me aback was that I’d read Alfred E. Neuman in print, over and over, decade after decade, but had never noticed it. Yet Kirk did. And you know why? It’s because he’s a much better proofreader than me, and always has been.

Kirk and I go way back. We started at PSC in 1973, each of us teaching freshman composition. Teaching English comp has all the status and cachet of being the chief of the cleanup crew at the freshman dance. It has similar duties too, though the frosh crew’s cleanup is literal, and the comp teacher’s is figurative.

But there’s a huge difference: There’s only one freshman dance, but with comp, you’re on cleanup duty your entire career. This means, if you stick with it, you’ll correct, not hundreds of papers, not thousands of papers, but tens of thousands of papers. And believe me, podner, you may learn to correct them more efficiently and more effectively, but never easily.

While Kirk and I started as comp teachers, he did a career shift. After a bunch of years in the trenches of comp, he got a Master’s in Spanish, became fluent and well-traveled in Mexico and Central America, and parlayed it into becoming PSC’s Spanish teacher.

Ultimately, I figured Kirk made the change because his delicate disposition, coupled with his superior proofreading skills, caused him unbearable suffering. He saw too many mistakes, saw them too well, and took them to his bleeding heart. I, on the other hand, weaker in proofreading and far more callous, was bothered less by those atrocities.

So due to his superior sensitivity and proofreading, he became a genteel Spanish teacher, while I stayed a lowly PFC in the Great Lost Cause of English comp.

Then again, there may be a simpler reason for his switch: He’s probably just be a lot smarter than me.