Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Gilbert Gottfried

Admittedly, “The Aristocrats” wasn’t for everyone. The unrated 2005 documentary focused on a joke that wasn’t particularly funny and was so raunchy that one movie theater chain refused to show it.

Enjoying a second life on DVD, “The Aristocrats” is finding new fans and giving a boost to some of the comedians featured in the film.

About 100 comics were involved in the telling of the joke, including such famous names as the Smothers Brothers, Martin Mull, George Carlin and Drew Carey. But the best version, agree many fans, critics and comedians, was the one told by Gilbert Gottfried.

“I liked the Gilbert Gottfried version. And I say that with no hidden agenda,” the man himself says by phone from Toronto. In a recording studio to tape his voiceover work for the PBS series “Cyberchase,” Gottfried conducts an interview in snatches between takes. On the phone, his voice is calm and quiet, nothing like the raspy screeching he’s known for on stage.

Gottfried uses his stage voice as the robotic bird Digit on “Cyberchase,” a familiar noise to anyone who’s heard him as the Aflac duck on television or as the parrot Iago in the Disney movie “Aladdin.” He also appeared as the voice of a penguin in “Farce of the Penguins,” a parody of the Oscar-winning film “March of the Penguins.”

“I’ve always said my career’s for the birds,” Gottfried says. “Maybe I’ll branch out to turtles or centipedes.”

Now 52, a newlywed and a new father, Gottfried has been a standup comic since he was 15. He began as an impressionist: Boris Karloff, Humphrey Bogart, Groucho Marx and James Mason were part of his repertoire. “I still pull them out sometime,” he says.

Gottfried has his fans — and several Web sites dedicated to him — but has never managed to achieve breakout status. He joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1980, after the departure of the original cast, but that entire season has been written off as largely forgettable except for the appearance of Eddie Murphy.

“‘Saturday Night Live’ was a creepy time period because it was right after the original cast left and I kind of think of our cast like the sacrificial lambs,” says Gilbert, who shared the stage with Tim Kazurinsky, Charles Rocket, Joe Piscopo and Gail Matthius and left at the season’s end. “Of course, now the cast changes between commercial breaks. Back then, it was like they were gunning against the show from before it went on the air, like ‘How dare they?’ When we did go on, we did suck, but that’s a whole other story.”

In the years since, Gottfried has appeared in a string of TV shows and movies, including a scene-stealing turn opposite Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop II” in 1987, and made regular visits to Howard Stern’s radio show. He also was the voice of a talking smoke alarm in a 1991 fire safety video.

“Look at everything I’ve done in my career and do the opposite,” is the advice Gottfried says he would give to any up-and-coming comedian wanting any.

Gottfried’s ability to tell a joke, and tell a joke well, has kept him busy for decades. His appearance in “The Aristocrats” also has people giving him a second look.

“I believe that the movie exposed him to a lot of people and that a lot of people really enjoyed him in the movie,” says Paul Provenza, who directed “The Aristocrats.” “They used to just think he was an annoying pain in the ass. I’ve had a lot of people say that it really turned them around on Gilbert, that they used to just think he was this annoying voice, but now they get him. They think he’s really funny.”

Provenza has known Gottfried since the late 1970s. He says comedians can “understand why they [other comedians] are funny, but nobody can really explain Gilbert. There’s no real formula to what Gilbert does. It’s what Gilbert is.”

Of course, Gottfried still has his detractors. Perhaps turned off by his stage persona, in which Gottfried adds a squinty barely there look to his grating screech, members of the dating service JDate in 2006 voted Gottfried the worst Valentine’s Day date.

That’s not an honor, but at least Gottfried is visible enough now to be included in such polls. Gottfried appears to relish criticism. He says his favorite review was from a critic who wrote in Variety that “Gilbert Gottfried is the most unpleasant thing to happen to show business since the snuff film.”

“That one I kind of enjoyed,” Gottfried says.

“The Aristocrats” was made on a non-existent budget using a digital video camera. Provenza, also a standup comic, and magician Penn Jillette, who served as executive producer, emptied their address books to fill the movie with their friends and acquaintances. Taping began in early 2001.

“The Aristocrats” made $6.1 million at the box office, according to the movie tracking Web site Rotten Tomatoes, which also estimates it took in $13.2 million from video rentals in just nine weeks’ time. The movie might have done more at the box office, but AMC Theatres banned the film from appearing on any of its 3,500 screens.

Provenza, who declines to say which of his friends told the joke best, will say that “Gilbert’s is one of the best.”
More than 200 people reviewed the movie on Amazon.com, giving “The Aristocrats” an average of three-and-a-half stars out of five. Some said the reason they sought the movie out was because of Gottfried’s performance.

Comedian Steven Wright, who also appears in the film, says Gottfried told the joke the best. “He’s one of my favorite comedians. He’s so hilarious and different.”

Gottfried appears twice on the DVD. He is shown telling the joke sitting at a table in a segment included in the disc’s extras. But the highlight is him telling the bit during a Friar’s Club roast of Hugh Hefner.

Gottfried launched into the joke after the audience reacted poorly to his quip about the events of Sept. 11. It was 18 days after. Gottfried joked that he couldn’t get a direct flight from New York to Los Angeles: “I had to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”

“You could hear chairs screech back and someone yelled out, ‘Too soon!’ I thought that meant I didn’t take a long enough pause between the setup and the joke.”

Gottfried says he decided “to get twice as offensive” and tell his version of the aristocrats joke. The joke was fresh on his mind; he’d already taped the bit for “The Aristocrats.”

“It’s not a good joke,” says Bob Saget, who’s also in the movie. Saget starred in the 1980s sitcom “Full House” and also served as the original host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” “It’s just about being offensive to be offensive.”
Forced to choose who tells the joke the best, Saget says it’s either Paul Reiser or Gottfried.

“Gilbert’s was just incredibly strong,” Saget says. “He just blew the place up.”

The irony in Gottfried receiving these accolades for telling the joke is that he isn’t known for dirty jokes.

“The funny thing is, in my regular standup I work clean,” he says.

“He doesn’t work raunchy at all,” Provenza says. “He can if he wants to, but telling dirty jokes is not really what he does. That’s just the thing he’s really good at.”

Riding the wave of interest in “The Aristocrats,” Gottfried released his first DVD at the end of 2005. “Gilbert Gottfried Dirty Jokes” is 50 minutes of Gottfried telling just that. He also released a CD that contains the same material.

“I guess the time was right because of ‘The Aristocrats’ and because I didn’t feel like using up all my material on the DVD, so I decided to do this one,” he says.

Gottfried tells yet another version of the aristocrats joke on his own DVD.

“I figured at this point it would almost be glaring if I didn’t,” he says. “This one, I tried to even outdo the one I did on the film. I felt proud of myself because a few people said their only complaint with the joke was it was too long and too disgusting, so I thought I accomplished something.”

Gottfried, who tends to dislike contemplative questions, deflects one about the future of his career.

“I really don’t know,” he says. “If I keep working, I’ll be amazed.” Read more!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Al Feldstein

A congressional investigation cost Al Feldstein a job.

It was the 1950s, and Feldstein was writing and illustrating comic books for Bill Gaines' company, EC Comics. The comics weren't anything special, primarily imitations of popular comics of the day. If romance comics were popular, EC copied the formula. But Feldstein was an idea man. He convinced Gaines that EC Comics shouldn't be an imitator, but an innovator. He wanted Gaines to try something different.

Radically different, as it turned out.

EC began to publish a line of comic books with titles like "Weird Tales" and "The Crypt of Terror" and "The Vault of Horror." Kids were used to superhero and funny animal comic books. EC's comics featured drawings of beheadings and other ghastly murder scenes.

Those comic books drew the attention of a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham, who blasted EC in his book "Seduction of the Innocent," and of a U.S. senator, Estes Kefauver, who held a congressional inquiry in 1954 into whether juvenile delinquency could be blamed on comic books.

When the smoke cleared from the congressional inquiry, other comic book publishers agreed to band together and enact a code that everyone must live by. Gone, the Comics Code Authority ruled, were any comics with titles that included the words "horror" and "terror," among other restrictions.

That nearly wiped out Gaines and EC Comics, and eliminated Feldstein's role in the company. Gaines was left with one comic that had a halfway decent chance of getting past the newly appointed censors: MAD. Gaines repositioned MAD, changing it from a comic book to a magazine to avoid oversight of the Comics Code Authority. Feldstein took over MAD with issue No. 28 in 1956. He remained on the job until 1984.

How did you and Bill Gaines meet?
I was a freelance comic book artist and writer. Bill Gaines’ father had his own company. He had started the comic book business by inventing the comic book back in the ’30s. He did that with a partner. Then Bill’s father was killed in a boating accident. Bill was 22 or so. He thought he’d be a teacher. He knew nothing about the business. His mother talked him into taking over the business.

I came down and met this young man who had just taken over the business. We became fast friends. I started to work for his “Crime Patrol,” “War Against Crime,” “Saddle Justice.” And then a trend came along called romance comics. These were directed at girls. They were love stories, so we started doing those.

The comic book business in those days was really kind of fun. There were 600 titles on the stands at a time. This was pre-television. We’re talking the late ’40s. Guys coming out of the service were reading them, kids were reading them. You could put it in your pocket, carry it and read it on the subway. This was the visual entertainment of the day, unless you wanted to pay to go into a movie.

Superman and Batman were the big names in comics. Why didn't EC publish superhero comic books?
Neither Bill nor I had a propensity for super-type heroes. I didn’t like them. I don’t know why we didn’t have them. But we did imitate others.

Bill and I both lived in Brooklyn. He lived in an apartment with his mother. I lived with my first wife in a small apartment in Brooklyn. When he would drive home to Brooklyn he would drop me off. And on our trips we chatted about the comic book business, about the trials and tribulations about publishing. Instead of being a follower, instead of putting out what somebody else starts and then getting clobbered when the trend softens, the innovators remain. I said, why don't we innovate? In the light of attempting to be innovators, we chatted about what would make interesting comic book material. He and I remembered having listened to the old radio shows, "Witch’s Tale," "Light’s Out," "Inner Sanctum," back in the’30s and early ’40s. I said why don’t we put out gothic horror? He and I were fans of H.P. Lovecraft and some of the other horror writers. It had never been done. He said well, let’s try it. So I created the "Crypt of Terror" with the Crypt Keeper as the host and wrote the first few stories, which were included in one of his titles, called "Crime Patrol."

We became extremely successful and also extremely hated by the other publishers. We were usurping dimes from their sales.

Who were you writing for? The kids or the adults?
We were writing for ourselves, actually, that’s what it turned out to be. It turned out to be a labor of writing for people who would enjoy the stories. We wrote up to our audience, not down to them. We didn’t write for 7 year olds. We wrote for teenagers and young adults, I assume because some of our science fiction stories were, for their day, were quite unique and intelligent and on a rather high level. I found myself getting involved in what we call preachy stories, which were stories about intolerance, drug use. We were hammering away at this stuff in the ’50s.

But then all of sudden Congress is pointing the finger, blaming your comics for juvenile delinquency.
This wasn’t all of a sudden. There were problems with juvenile delinquency. And just like the media is today, the media were looking for easy solutions. It was an era of red baiting and panic. One of the criticisms was that comic books were contributing to juvenile delinquency. We kind of ignored the whole thing because it was so stupid. But a guy named Frederic Wertham started to investigate this and became a kind of a torchbearer of this juvenile delinquency stuff. He ran a clinic up in Harlem. His stance was every troubled child he had treated read comic books. Later on when I was editor of MAD I did a takeoff of that where I said drinking milk is ruining our kids, baseball is ruining our kids, because every troubled child had played baseball and every troubled child had drunk milk.

This was a cause that was taken up by many, many media, and by a gentleman named Estes Kefauver, a senator, who wanted to be president in the worst way. He starts a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency in America. And Wertham latches onto him and becomes the expert on juvenile delinquency. And comic books. He writes a book called "Seduction of the Innocent."

Your comics weren’t leading kids to a life of crime?
I don’t know. I didn’t think so. I didn’t think so any more than reading a book or seeing a movie, any more than any other escapist literature became a pattern or a model for misbehavior and anti social behavior.

The end result was the Comics Code Authority took effect.
There was a subtle something that was happening that was being encouraged by certain publishers who felt they were clean and could get rid of these upstarts that were kind of giving the industry a bad name by publishing these off-the-wall tiles and subject matter. They went along with this investigation and to alleviate this bad publicity they volunteered to have a comic book code of authority with a kind of censorship code. So they had this code, which in all rights put us out of business, because it had things like you couldn’t have the word "terror," you couldn’t have the word "horror," you could not make fun of authority. It was mad. The code was directed almost entirely at us. When the code authority came into effect, we immediately realized we weren't going to be able to get these books through the code authority, at least with the criticism and social commentary that they needed, so MAD was changed from a comic book to a 25-cent magazine, and did fairly well in the very beginning because here it was in a new format and he had some good writers. Bill was faced with having to drop everything else and I was suddenly out of a job.

Were comics dumbed down because of the Authority?
Well, what happened was the whole creative spark was taken out of the comics. There was, I'd say, a wasteland kind of thing that happened when the authority took effect because nobody could do anything. All through the late ’50s and early ’60s until a lot of the artists and writers started to rebel. The code became more elastic.

How did MAD magazine get started?
A very talented young man walked into our office, Harvey Kurtzman. I had been hiring artists with a very distinctive style. I convinced Bill that instead of having everybody draw like somebody, like Jack Kirby or whoever, our books would contain artists with other distinctive styles. So I encouraged our artists to develop their own style just as they have their own handwriting. Harvey had a fantastic style. I hired him to work for me because I liked his style. He did a few science fiction stories and Bill was chafing to expand the business so I suggested that we give him his own books. He did two war books. This was during the Korean War or right after that.

Harvey was meticulous and slow. I was writing eight books and editing them in a two-month period. And he was writing one book a month. But he wanted to increase his income. Bill said, "Fine, you want to increase your income 50 percent, put out another title." He said, "Well I don’t know what I want to put out." We had a brainstorming session and I reminded him that one reason we hired him was because we were rolling on the floor from his humor. Why doesn’t he put out an adult humor comic book? There’s nothing on the stands like it. When I say adult, I’m not really talking about adult, I’m talking about mature. Rather than little funny animals like Mickey Mouse. A humor magazine that’s more adult. That’s how MAD got started.

The first issues of MAD comics that we published, along with the rest of the line, was a compilation of the kind of stories we were publishing. He did a funny horror story, he did a funny crime story, he did a funny science fiction story. It wasn’t very successful. It was doing OK. Bill was having a good time being a publisher of lots of titles. He was a very paternal guy. He had a whole crew of artists that were depending on him. He was running a business that was making money. The horror was paying for everything. The science fiction was just getting by. The crime and suspense were doing well. Harvey’s war books did well for a while, but after the Korean War they started to peter out a bit. MAD in its initial phase was just kind of OK.

I used to walk home with Harvey to the subway, after Bill moved into his own apartment in Manhattan. We chatted. I said Harvey instead of making generic fun of our subject matter, why don’t you satirize known comic strips like Superman and Mickey Mouse and the Lone Ranger or Dick Tracy and stuff like that. And so little by little, in fact, with issue No. 4, he did the Lone Stranger. And issue no. 5 really took off, because it contained a takeoff of Superman called Superduperman. So MAD was launched into a rather popular cult comic book because it was the forerunner of the underground comics.

Right after these hearings when the code authority was being formed, we knew we weren’t going to be able to put out anything. MAD was changed from a comic book to a 25-cent magazine, and did fairly well in the beginning because here it was in a new format and he had some good writers. Bill was faced with having to drop everything else and I was suddenly out of a job.

How did you wind up running MAD?
I was coming home on the Long Island Railroad one day, and Bill Gaines is standing on the platform. He said, "I just fired Harvey Kurtzman." Harvey walked in and demanded 51 percent control of the magazine. Harvey had in his back pocket — and really, I think, wanted to be fired — an offer from Hugh Hefner to do a very expensive production version of MAD magazine called Trump. Harvey was intrigued with Hefner, that whole Chicago lifestyle, the mansion. He left, and he took almost all of the MAD artists with them. So Bill’s standing on the platform, saying, "What do we do?" I said, "What do you mean what do you do? We do MAD." Here was an opportunity to take over an established title and take it where I want it to go. So I went back to work for Bill Gaines at a huge cut in salary because he had financial difficulty. I had one MAD artist that didn’t want to switch over, Wally Wood. I started to look for artists immediately. I was extremely lucky. They were walking in the door. I was grabbing them. A guy named Don Martin walked in, a cartoonist. He drew funny faces.

You discovered the artists that gave MAD its signature look.
Partly. I wouldn’t give it all of its signature look, but yes. I took him on and we worked on what he could do. I encouraged him to do pantomime, humorous situations, and he developed his Don Martin sequences. Frank Jacobs, a writer, walked in, and now I had help. Bob Clark. Dave Berg. These guys all came within a month or two of my picking up the magazine and suddenly I was expanding my staff and I was able to continue and Wally Wood stayed on and worked for me. Jack Davis came back from Harvey and worked for me because Trump had failed.

Antonio Prohias was a Cuban artist who did political cartoons, anti-Communist political cartoons for La Prensa before Castro took over. When Castro took over, he had to run for his life thinking the handwriting was on the wall. So he came to America. He didn’t know how to talk English. He came to MAD. Why, I don’t know. John Putnam, my art director, grew up speaking Spanish. He was like my interpreter. He did Spy vs. Spy from the day he walked into our office until the day he died. I thought it was marvelous, a mime lighthearted representation of the cold War.

Sergio Aragones was a Mexican artist. He spoke fine English. He had this wonderful little scratchy style and he did great mime continuities. MAD looks at rock ’n’ roll, or Star Wars or Tarzan movies, whatever he does. He said he wanted to do little marginal cartoons and I said well, try it. And from the time he tried it and I saw it was going to work beautifully, we had marginal cartoons in MAD for years and years and years. He amazed me by the amounts of gags he came up with, on any subject.

Who was your favorite of the MAD artists?
Oh, I had no favorites. I tried to maintain impartiality, but Mort Drucker was my pride and joy. He came looking for art work when he was kind of young. He was a very talented artist but he had never done a caricature. I had just landed the approval of Bob and Ray, who were satirists on radio, to take their told scripts and do them in MAD. I said take these two photographs home and let me see what you can do. He came back with these two typical Mort Drucker renditions of them, caricatures. Kind of light exaggeration, not extreme like Hirschfeld. I said, "Mort, you've got the job and you're going to be doing my movies from now on." I still consider him one of America's best caricature illustrators."

Bill Gaines once said it was you that made MAD a commercial success.
Yes, I did. I always had in the back of my mind the George Kaufman statement that "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." What he was saying was parody and satire is very intellectual and you’re not going to get the average person to come and see it. So I wanted to do a magazine that was appealing to a large spectrum of audience. I developed the whole MAD look and subject matter, which was a stroke of huge luck. I adopted a face that had been kicking around in the magazine.

Alfred E. Neuman?
Yeah. It had been around for years. Harvey had gotten into it. He called him Melvin Coznowski and a few other names. I had been using the name Alfred E. Neuman as my pseudonym when I wrote two stories in a magazine so it didn’t look like I’d written the whole magazine. I decided just as Playboy had the rabbit and Esquire had Mr. Esky, that bug-eyed high-hat lecher, we ought to have a cover identification logo-type character. I advertised in The New York Times for a portrait artist. And in walked Norman Mingo who was in his 60s at the time. I gave him all of these postcards, prints, all these versions of this face and I said I want you to do a portrait of this kid so it’ll be our mascot. He did it and that face appeared on MAD No. 30. We ran him for president against Eisenhower and Stevenson in 1956 as our write-in candidate and called him Alfred E. Neuman. He appeared on the cover of every issue after that.

Over the years, did you get sick of seeing his face?
No. Not at all. I got exhausted trying to figure out situations where he was on it. Our highest-selling MAD, in 1978, was an issue that did not have his face. It had his feet. He was upside down in a life preserver with a boat sinking in the background. It was our "Poseidon Adventure" movie takeoff cover.

There are probably not many pristine copies of MAD because of the MAD fold-ins you ran on the back cover.
Real collectors would have bought two copies. It was a ploy on our part.

MAD introduced some colorful words to the English language — potrzebie and furshlugginer among them. What is the origin of MAD's new words?
It is hard to pin down the actual origin of most of the "mad" words and phrases that MAD adopted into its dialogue retinue. "Furshlugginer" is a Yiddish word meaning wild or crazy or mad, and Harvey Kurtzman started to use it in his MAD comic book, probably because his family used it when he was growing up.

"Potrzebie" is a little tougher to pin down. I'm not sure how it came into use in MAD, whether it was Harvey's doing or John Putnam's doing (he was our "contributing" art director) or whose doing. Its origin, even, is a mystery. It was said that it was
a Polish word, and was used in the Polish directions for the use of aspirin, but I won't swear to that.

Most of the gibberish words and phrases that MAD began including in its vernacular were picked up from staff, or friends, or writers or even artists.

What is the origin of the "What — me worry?" slogan?
Crude renditions of the face that our Alfred was based upon had been around for years before we adopted him as our trade mark and mascot, and many of them contained the words "What — Me Worry?" or "Me Worry?" When I decided to have the definitive portrait of Alfred painted (by Norman Mingo) and I christened him, I continued to use "What — Me Worry?" as his slogan because it epitomized the philosophy of MAD.

How much competition did you have at MAD?
There were many, many imitations of MAD put out by other comic book publishers that attempted to be our competition, but failed.

Why? Because they had absolutely no idea what was making MAD the success that it was. No idea of the underlying socially critical values that were serving as an orientation for young people into the reality of the adult world, and no talent for even closely approaching our value levels.

In reading various histories of MAD, I never read any mention of Cracked magazine. Why is that? Did you not view the magazine as competition for MAD?
"Cracked" — along with countless other titles that came and went — was an out-and-out imitation of MAD, and we ignored it the way we ignored all of our imitators.

We did not consider it competition, but merely another hanger-on, attempting to cash in on the market that we were creating. We ignored it the way a shark ignores the remoras that hang onto it, waiting to snap up stray scraps of food that the shark might feast upon.

Were artists and writers clamoring to work for MAD?
Yes. I had some very interesting experiences with a lot of people who went on to become extremely successful. Chevy Chase tired to write for me. He sold me one piece. He just wasn’t clicking on the MAD level that I wanted. Joan Rivers tried to write for me. This is before they became famous. Right after "All in the Family" was off TV, Rob Reiner tried to write for me. He approached me with some stuff. I told him it wasn’t right for us.

Were the offices total chaos all the time, or was it a fairly sedate place to work?
Chaos outside my door. But somebody had to do the work. I would close myself in and do my work. Everything in MAD went through my typewriter, from 1956 to 1984, when I retired. It was a very undisciplined free atmosphere. But there was also a work ethic. We had to put out our magazines and meet our deadlines, especially when you’re getting up to a 3 million-something print order every month and a half. There was no chance to fool around.

That's an impressive body of work you produced over the years.
Yeah. I don't get too much credit these days.

Do you still read MAD?
Oh, yeah, I read it. I’m on the subscription list.

Why do you think MAD has survived for so many years?
Because it is riding on its reputation and its history, recommended from generation to generation, and still, to some extent, supplying young people that orientation into the adult world through critical satire and humor, albeit not as effective or trenchant as the early days. It’s lacking the Feldstein editorial touch.

What prompted you to leave?
Bill and I kind of drifted apart. We had different feelings and he didn’t want to do certain things and I saw the handwriting on the wall. I wanted to do a TV show 25 years ago, before "Saturday Night Live" and "That Was The Week That Was," but I could not get Bill to do it. He was afraid to lose his writers to TV. As it was, they went off to L.A. anyway. Stan Hart, Larry Siegel wrote for Carroll Burnett, Bob Newhart and Johnny Carson, but they never turned down an assignment from me. Bill was not interested in a TV show. He threw all kinds of stumbling blocks in the way. Pat Weaver, the creator for NBC of Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows," and the president of NBC, he came to us and wanted to do a MAD show. Bill had made a list of things that would have to be acquiesced to in order to give permission. One was they couldn't use any of the MAD writers. The other one was — and this one killed me because nobody would ever do it — sponsor approval. At that time, there were cigarette and whisky commercials on television and he didn't want that associated with MAD. In 1981, when my five-year option came up for renewal, I told Bill I only wanted to sign for three years. I could go and do what I always dream about doing, which was painting.

What was Bill’s role with MAD magazine? You were the editor. What would Bill be doing while you were writing and editing?
Writing checks. He had no part of the creativity of MAD. He didn’t understand it. Contrary to his participation in plotting stories for the comic book line, he read MAD as a fan. I had a completely free hand. Sometimes he’d sit in on cover conferences and approve of a cover idea, but generally speaking he left me alone and I appreciated that. He was really a great publisher; although I guess it bothered him he wasn’t participating in the creativity.

What was the reason for the increased popularity of MAD magazine? My parents said I couldn’t read it, so naturally I went out and bought copies and hid them and read them.
That’s it exactly. That exactly demonstrates the formula of our success. We were anti-establishment. We were telling kids they were being lied to by manufactures of cigarettes. We ran anti-cigarette ad satires for years. We were way ahead of the anti-tobacco stuff of now. Back in the ’60s, we were clobbering the cigarette industry. Nobody was listening, but we were trying. We were telling it like it us, and they trusted us. And all we were doing, really, was reinforcing their own feelings. We were saying don’t feel badly about the fact that you don’t trust politicians. They are crooks, a lot of them. Don’t feel badly that you’re very skeptical about Madison Avenue advertising. They’re lying to you. This was the whole thrust of the magazine. It was an anti-establishment magazine, but it wasn’t as blatant or as iconoclastic as some of the things that followed that turned us into a buggy whip in the ’80s. "Saturday Night Live" and National Lampoon, they were more iconoclastic.

Who were you trying to reach, the kids or the adults?
We never directed it at anybody specifically. We never took a poll. We never did an ABC audit, because we didn’t sell advertising so we didn’t care.

You have no idea who your average audience was?
We didn’t know what our readership was. We wrote this magazine, I edited it and had writers writing. I didn’t want to do anything in the way of sales analysis because I didn’t want to inhibit our freedom by being forced to direct ourselves into certain directions just because we knew it would help sales. That would take the spontaneity out of a magazine and I wanted spontaneity. I wanted to try all kinds of things. If we fell on our face, we fell on our face.

What do you think of MAD taking ads?
Back in the late ’70s, when I saw the handwriting on the wall as far as the future of MAD was concerned, I began proposing many avenues of creative exploitation of the magazine and its unique approach to satirical and critical humor.

One of the things that I proposed was the introduction of full-color art, and I proposed paying for this (at the time) expensive improvement by accepting advertising. But I proposed limiting the advertising to campaigns and single pitches that would be created by the "MAD Advertising Agency" specifically for the magazine — done in the MAD vernacular and the MAD approach. Bill Gaines would have no part of it.

Bill Gaines was not interested in seeing the MAD operation mushroom into a huge entertainment organization. After all, he no longer owned it.
He had very early on, sold the magazine and was merely the publisher, an employee, like me. Except that my salary was based on the gross income of the operation. Which is one of the main reasons why I chose to retire in 1984, when the magazine was selling almost 2 million copies an issue.

How would you decide if something was funny enough for MAD? What was the litmus test?
If it made us laugh.

Did MAD ever go too far?
Well, some people thought we did. There was a general in Oklahoma City who called us the most insidious form of communist propaganda in America. We had to go out there and sue him. It was libel. He withdrew his statement.

Was anything off limits to the magazine?
Bad taste. Well, nothing was really off limits. God, motherhood and country. That was what we talked about in those days that was off limits. Not true. We would do satires of the excesses in these areas. We never made fun of the president as an establishment. We made fun of people who occupied the offices. We made fun of Nixon. We even made fun of Kennedy. We were bipartisan, which means we shot at both sides.

Didn’t you congratulate John Kennedy the morning after his election?
We decided that we were going to show the hypocrisy of the press so we did a double-ended magazine. Flip it over, reverse it. One cover congratulated Kennedy on his election as president. The other cover congratulated Nixon on his election as president. Because we couldn’t tell. This magazine was coming out the day after Election Day. Here’s an interesting story. I was living on Long Island at the time and Kennedy was coming through on a motorcade on the campaign trail. I got a proof of the cover just that week, so I cut off the Nixon thing. As he passed by I ran out and I handed it to him and he waved to me and smiled and put it in his pocket.

Did the people you satirize ever protest?
We never got sued by anybody that we made fun of. On the contrary. When Elizabeth Taylor was married to Richard Burton, when they did "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," their representative called us and said they’d love to have the original art work or at least the splash page. But Bill Gaines wasn’t giving up any original artwork so we had photocopies made and sent to them. They were pretty delighted with that. We did a takeoff of the first "Star Wars" movie. George Lucas, who had been an old EC fan, science fiction fan, loved our stuff. It was obvious because he used a lot of bug-eyed monsters that I used to draw on the covers in his "Star Wars" bar room scene. He wrote us a letter saying how much he enjoyed the takeoff. In the meantime, we got a letter from his lawyers who were going to sue us. They were doing lawyer stuff. For publishing copyright material, characters, so we sent the lawyers a copy of George Lucas’ letter and said you guys ought to get together. That was the end of that.

Didn’t the young Prince Charles write you?
We did get a letter that purportedly was from Prince Charles and may very well have been. Prince Charles, when he was 11, had a birthday picture published all around the country. We started to get a lot of letters: "This is where you got the inspiration for Alfred E. Neuman." Because he had big ears and a grin. He had a faint resemblance. I published these in the letters column. About a month after the magazine was published, we get a letter from Buckingham palace, on Buckingham Palace engraved stationery, and it said something like "I absolutely do not resemble your Alfred E. Neuman so you can jolly well stow it." And it was signed "Charles P." We were talking to Time magazine about it when they were writing an article about us. We showed the reporter the letter and he said, "You know, not many people know that Charles P. stands for Charles Princeps, which is how he would sign the letter.”

Did you ever realize how influential the magazine would become?
I was aware that we were influential. I did not realize it was becoming an American icon, and that was very satisfying and gratifying as the years went by.

Of what are you proudest of your years at MAD?
Educating and orienting three entire generations of young people to be alert — and aware of — the abuses, the mendacity and the corruption practiced by politicians that occupy our sacred institutions, contained in the information decimated by Madison Avenue and our television and print media, preached by our educational, fraternal and religious institutions and yes, even promulgated by our own parents.

How did attitudes toward MAD change?
When I first became editor of MAD and started to do movie takeoffs, there were publicity packages that movie companies had for each movie. "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." I needed reference for Mort Drucker, or, in this case, Jack Davis, to be able to draw Gregory Peck in his various shots. I needed at least some stills. I couldn't get them. We were blackballed. "You're going to make fun of our movie? No." Later on, the guys who had been reading MAD in the ’50s and ’60s became heads of publicity departments of movie studios. I was invited to every preview. "Make fun of our movie. It’s great publicity. You want sets of the stills? I'll give you sets of the stills." Mort Drucker had no problems anymore. Instead of shooting pictures of the screen with a Polaroid, struggling with distortion and whatever, he now had wonderful glossy stills of scenes from the movies that he could use as reference. Things changed and MAD became more acceptable.

How would you like to be remembered?
As a fine artist. That may shock you, but I felt that my entire professional career in the comic books and MAD was a career of prostitution. I was prostituting my creative abilities and making money and that was my goal, to make money and be comfortable. Pay the mortgage, send the kids to college, and live nice and retire. But I always wanted to be a fine artist and that’s what I’m doing now. I have a studio here on my ranch. I'm painting. I love it. Read more!