Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

ON HUMOR AND HUMOR MAGAZINES

Mad #1
Mad #1, October 1952. Is it a coincidence that Mad and I arrived on the planet bearing the same birthdate?

My formative years included a regular dose of Mad Magazine’s inspired foolishness. After having seen a few copies in the hands of some of my more disreputable classmates, I bought my first Mad in April of 1962 at the ripe old age of nine. It provided hours of entertainment as my mother, brother, and I took the 25-hour train ride on the Atlantic Coast Line’s Miami Special from Penn Station (the old Penn Station) to south Florida.

I didn’t miss a single issue until it was almost time to receive my college degree. I still have ’em: All those old copies of Mad - along with many others - reside in the bowels of Chez Elisson.

The first issue of Mad I ever
bought: June 1962.
It was not obvious to me at first, but Mad was a kind of distillate of Jewish humor and thinking. It was humor that, while itself not of the Borscht Belt (the resorts in the Catskill Mountains that catered to a Jewish clientele and where many famous comedians cut their humor-teeth), understood the Borscht Belt. Nietszche observed that when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you: so the comic sensibilities of a whole generation of tummlers were reflected in Mad’s pages. Not all of its writers and artists were Jewish, but it seemed like even the non-Jews had absorbed a certain degree of Yiddishkeit. There were so many Yiddish words and phrases sprinkled in - like poppyseeds on a challah - that sometimes I would be mystified even as my parents would crack up. (A fake travelogue about the fictional town of Gournish, Illinois, for example, is funnier when you know that goornisht means “absolutely nothing” in Yiddish.)

Halvah. Farshimmelt. Furshlugginer.

As I got older, I continued to buy my monthly copies of Mad, but by the time I got to college there was a new kid in Humortown: the National Lampoon.

This infamous January 1973 NatLamp
resides in the Elisson archives.
The Lampoon was a completely different animal. Spun off from the Harvard Lampoon in 1970 by several of that school’s alumni, its humorous sensibility was entirely different. It was WASP Ivy League humor. Its parodies had layers of chucklestuff that could only be teased out with difficulty... unless you were widely read. And it was seasoned with a liberal application of tasty, tasty ribaldry - something that Mad entirely lacked.

It was just the thing to appeal to a young man coming of age in the early 1970’s. The National Lampoon was like a college humor rag gone mainstream - because that is, in fact, exactly what it was.

I myself was involved in that world for a time, gradually getting involved with the Princeton Tiger - our own attempt to bring Teh Funny to a semi-sophisticated college audience. Starting as a contributing artist, I managed to work my way up to chairman of the magazine.

The two disparate worlds of Mad - old-school Jewish humor - and my newer Ivy League college humor sensibilities collided one evening as I traipsed from dormitory to dormitory, hawking copies of the latest Tiger Mag. One of my customers (to my delighted surprise) turned out to be one George Woodbridge, Jr., whose father had been one of “the usual gang of idiots” illustrating Mad magazine since the early 1950’s.

Princeton Tiger, September 1972.
Art by Yours Truly.

The Tiger - at least, in the early 1970’s - was not in the league of either the NatLamp or Mad, although it could boast of having had numerous well-known alumni in its ranks over the years: Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John McPhee, Michael Witte, Henry Martin, Henry Payne, and Chip Deffaa among them. And here’s a little-known factoid for you: the first published appearance of the limerick that begins “There once was a man from Nantucket...” was in a 1902 copy of the Tiger.

It is, alas, the clean version, the one that goes as follows...

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.   
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man

And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

[The ribald version with which most of us are familiar may predate this, but its earliest publishing date was in 1927.]

A couple of years ago, Dee and I were strolling around the Princeton campus during my 40th Reunion weekend, and we managed to get to the Tiger offices just in time to catch the very tail end of an open house. I may have been among the older alumni stopping by that day (who knows?), but I was pleased to see that, among the numerous old magazine covers festooning the walls of the offices, several of my creations were included. That seemed to impress the staffers.

“Wow, you did some of those covers? You must be really fucking old!
They asked me if I had any advice for them, and indeed I had.

“You probably feel sometimes that you are nought but a collection of geeks and nerds. Highly intelligent geeks and nerds, but here you are, working on the Tiger. Am I right?

“But here’s the thing. Yesterday evening at our Class Dinner, I saw a lot of people that hadn’t seen me in years... and plenty of people who didn’t know me very well when we were students here. But the funny thing is, almost everyone who knew me - even marginally - remembered that I had been involved with the Tiger. ‘Oh, yeah, I know you - you were with the Tiger Mag!’

“Here it is, forty years down the road, and the majority of people in our class who remember my name don’t remember what my major was, or whether I was graduated with honors, or how I did on that problem set that kept me up two nights in a row, or what grade I got on my Orgo midterm, my Thermo final, or my thesis... but, by Gawd, they remember that I worked on the Tiger Mag. So think about that the next time you’re busting your asses to meet a deadline. This - this stuff right here - is how you will be remembered.”

I tried to ignore that the floor of the office was covered with hundreds of unopened condom packages as we beat (you should excuse the expression) a moderately hasty retreat.

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