NEW YORK — Before “The Daily Show,” ‘’The Simpsons” or even “Saturday Night Live,” Al Feldstein helped show America how to laugh at authority and giggle at popular culture.
Millions of young baby boomers looked forward to that day when the new issue of Mad magazine, which Feldstein ran for 28 years, arrived in the mail or on newsstands. Alone in their room, or huddled with friends, they looked for the latest send-up of the president or of a television commercial. They savored the mystery of the fold-in, where a topical cartoon appeared with a question on top that was answered by collapsing the page and creating a new, and often, hilarious image.
Thanks in part to Feldstein, who died Tuesday at his home in Montana at age 88, comics were more than escapes into alternate worlds of superheroes and clean-cut children. They were a funhouse tour of current events and the latest crazes. Mad was breakthrough satire for the post-World War II era — the kind of magazine Holden Caulfield of “The Catcher In the Rye” might have read, or better, might have founded.
“Basically everyone who was young between 1955 and 1975 read Mad, and that’s where your sense of humor came from,” producer Bill Oakley of “The Simpsons” later explained.
Feldstein’s reign at Mad, which began in 1956, was historic and unplanned. Publisher William Gaines had started Mad as a comic book four years earlier and converted it to a magazine to avoid the restrictions of the then-Comics Code and to persuade founding editor Harvey Kurtzman to stay on. But Kurtzman soon departed anyway and Gaines picked Feldstein as his replacement. Some Kurtzman admirers insisted that he had the sharper edge, but Feldstein guided Mad to mass success.
One of Feldstein’s smartest moves was to build on a character used by Kurtzman. Feldstein turned the freckle-faced Alfred E. Neuman into an underground hero — a dimwitted everyman with a gap-toothed smile and the recurring stock phrase “What, Me Worry?” Neuman’s character was used to skewer any and all, from Santa Claus to Darth Vader, and more recently in editorial cartoonists’ parodies of President George W. Bush, notably a cover image The Nation that ran soon after Bush’s election in 2000 and was captioned “Worry.”
“The skeptical generation of kids it shaped in the 1950s is the same generation that, in the 1960s, opposed a war and didn’t feel bad when the United States lost for the first time and in the 1970s helped turn out an Administration and didn’t feel bad about that either,” Tony Hiss and Jeff Lewis wrote of Mad in The New York Times in 1977.
“It was magical, objective proof to kids that they weren’t alone, that … there were people who knew that there was something wrong, phony and funny about a world of bomb shelters, brinkmanship and toothpaste smiles. Mad’s consciousness of itself, as trash, as comic book, as enemy of parents and teachers, even as money-making enterprise, thrilled kids. In 1955, such consciousness was possibly nowhere else to be found.”
Feldstein and Gaines assembled a team of artists and writers, including Dave Berg, Don Martin and Frank Jacobs, who turned out such enduring features as “Spy vs. Spy” and “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” Fans of the magazine ranged from the poet-musician Patti Smith and activist Tom Hayden to movie critic Roger Ebert, who said Mad helped inspire him to write about film.
“Mad’s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin — of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe,” Ebert once explained.