Saturday, June 28, 2014

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad world! The origin of counterculture icon Alfred E. Neuman

from Dangerous Minds:


While going through a box of old papers, an article I cut out of the New York Times when I was 14 (January 10, 1975) fell out. Just as important to me now as it was then, it is about a subject dear to my heart, Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman (not Newman). This face of total idiocy spent at least 50 years as an icon for cool rebellious youth (only in recent years does the 62-year-old publication seem to have become homogenized, sadly), a signpost to the training ground for smartypants the world over from the ‘50s to the ‘80s, and recognizable to just about anyone on earth, whether they liked it or not. A generation of heavy counterculture leaders can be identified as having read Mad Magazine, as it was like an underground press for pre-teens waiting to be old enough for initiation into the real underground. Anyone from Abbie Hoffman to R. Crumb to Jimi Hendrix was trained in “fuck you, haha” by the true geniuses at Mad. Alfred E. Neuman was entered into the presidential race for many decades until “that was a bigger joke than ours,” said Al Feldstein, longtime Mad editor (R.I.P.) who gave Alfred his name.

But where did Alfred come from? Any Mad fans or weirdo collector types will tell you he was around long before Mad existed. Here’s a nice piece of history, this Times article I found, about the history of our beloved grinning idiot, written by Mad co-founder (with William M. Gaines) Harvey Kurtzman.


  MOUNT VERNON, N.Y.-There’s a question that nags wherever I go. Again and again I am asked, Where did Alfred Neuman come from? For those of you who didn’t hear a bell ring at the mention of Alfred N., he is the face you see on the covers of Mad Magazine. And for those of you who ring, let me put the eternal question to rest, once and for all.

The face first came to my attention when i was doing the comic book Mad for publisher William Gaines in the middle fifties—I think it was 1954. We were working with Ballantine paperback books on the first of a series of Mad reprint collections.

Since I was Mad’s chief cook and bottle washer at the time, there wasn’t a moment of my waking life that wasn’t devoted to the search for more and more Mad material.

In this condition, and while passing the time of day in the office of an editor, Bernard Shir-Cliff, I noticed on the Ballantine Book bulletin board, a postcard with this face. The card had some ad message-I don’t recall what.

And the face itself was printed alongside in a space, maybe an inch by an inch and a half. The face was not unfamiliar. I associated it with the funny-picture postcards in Times Square penny arcades and tourist traps, this one with the caption “What, Me Worry?” under the bumpkin portrait-part leering wiseacre, part happy-go-lucky kid.

But what interested me about this Ballantine version was that of all the reproductions I remembered, this one looked like the authentic, original-source portrait—the real goods.

While everything I’d seen before was cartoon, this seemed to be a photograph of the actual face! So I pocketed the card and rushed back to the workshop where I inserted the “What Me Worry?” face on and in subsequent issues of Mad magazine.

I was very fond of plastering Mad with inanities-Items like Potrzebie, Melvin Cowznofski, Alfred E. Neuman. The readers apparently liked them. Potrzebie was a word clipped at random from a Polish-language newspaper. Melvin was borrowed from the old Ernie Kovacs Show, as Alfred E. was borrowed from Hollywood by way of the old, old Henry Morgan show.

Alfred Newman (the late) was in reality a movie-music man whose credits were legion on the silver screen.

Morgan would use the name for various innocuous characters that passed through his show, and I did it in Mad, after Morgan’s fashion. And even though the face was, and ever would be, to me, a What, Me Worry? kid, our fan mail insisted on calling him Melvin Cowznofski and Alfred E. Neuman.

As a matter of fact, in the ensuing fan enthusiasm over the face, we ourselves became curious as to his genealogy, and in our letters page we asked the readers for whatever source information they might have.

The answers were astonishing. The face dated back to the 19th century. It was supposed to have been used for selling patent medicine, shoes and soft drinks. the kid was depicted as a salesman, a cowboy, a doughboy, and was rendered in dozens of slight to grossly altered variations.

But the answer I have always liked to believe was that the face came from an old high school biology text—an example of a person who lacked iodine.

Whatever the truth might be, Mad adopted the face as its mascot, and we used it like a trademark on all of our covers.

With the success of Mad, disputations arose. Readers laid copyright claims to the face, and eventually the issue went to court—not to just any court, but the Supreme Court of the Land. In this lofty council, Mad won, once and for all, the right to use the face. The What, Me Worry? kid was permanently baptized Alfred E. Neuman by Albert Feldstein, the editor who came after me.

So that’s the story, once and for all. Don’t ask me anymore.

There you have it, from the horse’s mouth, the closest yet description of the origins of our boy Alfred.
By the 1960s Alfred E. Neuman and Mad Magazine were so massive worldwide that this record would be made by crazy teens in Sweden in 1965. The band is called The Madmen, the song, “Alfred E. Goes Surfin’”.

So identifiable was Alfred E. Neuman’s face that by the late 50’s on his huge TV special Another Evening With Fred Astaire, Mr. Astaire could, without uttering one word, do an entire act revolving around him having been expertly made up exactly as Alfred E. Neuman. Notice the surely, mostly adult reaction. (Starts at 1:55)

And, last but not least, this incredible song (performed by The Dellwoods), originally released on a cardboard record in a Mad special issue, then included on the LP Fink Along With Mad (the follow up to Mad Twists Rock ‘N’ Roll) and officially released on a 45 with a great picture sleeve in Germany (as “Alf Newman”!). Lux Interior of The Cramps and many others cite this as the greatest rock n roll record ever made, I have used it as my closing song in every DJ gig I have done for decades. Here he is “vocalising” for your dis/pleasure, Alfred E. Neuman himself, with his greatest hit…“It’s A Gas!”

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