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by Bennett Muraskin
Al FeldsteinOctober 24, 1925 - April 29, 2014 MAD MAGAZINE was essential reading for teenagers in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Its manic, irreverent style of humor may have helped launch the cultural revolution of the 1960s. It certainly influenced a generation of comedians and various facets of mass media, including the humor magazine National Lampoon, the TV show Saturday Night Live, and the TV animated show, The Simpsons. MAD’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, and his expression, “What, Me Worry?” have become part of American popular culture. None of this would have been possible without Al Feldstein, its editor from 1956 to 1985. Feldstein was born in Brooklyn into a Jewish family. He showed artistic talent from an early age, graduating from the High School of Music and Art and taking courses at the Art Student League. During World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Force and was assigned to paint murals and draw comic strips for Army newspapers. After the war, he landed a job with EC Comics, which was run by William Gaines, a pioneer in the comic book industry. Illustrating horror and suspense titles, Feldstein was not involved in the founding of MAD as a comic book in 1952, but he did edit a another Gaines comic book with a similar theme called Panic. Both MAD and Panic were caught up in an anti-comic book hysteria that swept the U.S. in the early 1950s. A German Jewish immigrant, Dr. Frederic Wertham, conducted a lengthy study published in 1954 as Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that the comic books promoted immorality and were turning American youth into juvenile delinquents. Wertham was mainly concerned with the lurid horror and suspense comics, but Panic was also targeted. When the New York City police confiscated some issues, Gaines went to court and convinced a judge to allow its distribution. The outcry against this genre was so intense that the industry was forced to create a Comic Code Authority to eliminate its sexual, violent and anti-authoritarian content. Panic did not survive, but MAD did. It evaded the strictures of the code by transforming itself into a magazine in 1955. One year later, Feldstein replaced Harvey Kurtzman as its editor. Arie Kaplan, in his book, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, wrote that “Feldstein reshaped MAD in such a way that it could weather changing times and shifting trends, staying relevant and edgy...” Feldstein hired a talented team of writers and illustrators — called on the masthead “the usual gang of idiots” — who included celebrity contributors such as Sid Caeser, Danny Kaye, Tom Lehrer, and Carl Reiner. No subject was out of bounds: Santa Claus, Joseph McCarthy, the Cold War, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Nixon and Agnew, movie stars, TV shows, popular songs, all were mocked, ridiculed, satirized, and parodied. (FBI agents once came to Feldstein’s office to reprimand him for using J. Edgar Hoover’s name in a spoof.) My favorite comic strip from my teen age years was “American Jokes They Tell in Poland,” which turned the tables on the Polish joke craze of the 1970s that depicted Poles as incredibly stupid. The strip, instead, poked fun at America’s social problems. MAD’S CIRCULATION peaked at over 2.5 million in the 1974. It still publishes today, with far fewer readers. Al Jaffee, who studied with Fieldstein at the Art Students League, is now in his 60th year at the magazine. Gaines, Kurtzman, Feldstein and most of MAD’s writers were Jewish, and its content was sprinkled with Yiddishisms. In 1973, MAD published a parody of the Broadway play Fiddler on the Roof, called “Antenna on the Roof”, with this introduction: “As far as we’re concerned, Fiddler made a goof!... Which is why MAD now takes this famous musical about the problems of people who had nothing, and updates it with a version about the problems of people who have everything — mainly America’s Upper Middle Class.” If there was anything intrinsically Jewish about MAD, it was its secular quality of khutspe. In 1994, Brian Siano in The Humanist commented on the impact of MAD magazine:
For the smarter kids of two generations, Mad was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything. An entire generation had William Gaines for a godfather: this same generation later went on to give us the sexual revolution, the environmental movement, the peace movement, greater freedom in artistic expression, and a host of other goodies. Coincidence? You be the judge.After retiring from MAD magazine, Feldstein moved West. Not to New Jersey, the state across the Hudson River, that New York Jews mistook for the West, but to Wyoming and then to Montana. He returned to his first love and became a painter of wildlife and scenes from nature. In 1999, Feldstein was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts degree by Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. Feldstein’s art has appeared in numerous galleries in the Northwest, including in Yellowstone National Park. Gay vays! (Go figure!)