I grew up in central Maine in the ’60s and ’70s, and while we weren’t exactly the Mayberry of the North, the fictional town of “The Andy Griffith Show,” if you were looking to find a nearly 100% all-white Catholic and Protestant enclave on the Mason-Dixon line, we were.
Not that we were a small town. We lived in Orono, where the University of Maine was and is, and our closest big city was Bangor. I liked to think of us as quasi-cosmopolitan, the last outpost of civilization in the state before you went into the woods and met people who were like “ouch-uh.”
But integration? Well, a black girl joined our high school in my junior year, the daughter of a doctor who, for some reason, decided to move there. That meant that just as Mayberry had exactly one black actor in a speaking role, Rockne Tarkington as Flip Conroy, we had one black student.
We had, to my knowledge, a Jewish student. Her name was Melaine Gershman, the daughter of Mel and Elaine, hence the acronym Melaine. Every year around Christmas, the poor girl had to explain Hanukkah to the class that she was once interested and bored for a long time.
The only other Jews I interacted with were my dentist, Dr. Howard Kominsky, who did a good job on my teeth and gave me his old worn leather golf bag when he was done, and Mickey Goldsmith, who founded Goldsmith’s Sporting Goods, where I bought my gloves and baseball bats.
However, there was a profound Jewish influence on my outlook on life, specifically my sense of humor. I just didn’t know at the time.
I fell in love with language and puns at a young age. I caught the concept of irony and satire early on. I didn’t like authority and a fifth grade teacher once scolded me for giving her back. She said that there was a difference between being famous and notorious and that I was destined for the latter. He had a large vocabulary and that was pretty advanced thinking. I was fine with that.
I attribute much of my attitude to Mad magazine. I started reading Mad around 1967 when I was 11, and quickly became a subscriber. I didn’t get a lot of mail, Baseball Digest was my other magazine, and when Mad came around every month (sort of), I’d open the white envelope, lay on my bed and read it cover to cover, always ending with Al Jaffee Folder . I was a voracious reader, eager to find out what clever yuks the self-proclaimed “regular gang of jerks” on Mad had in store for me.
I didn’t know that most of the writers, cartoonists and editors were Jewish, nor would I probably have cared one way or the other. All I knew about Judaism was from my Catholic upbringing, which was that we were supposed to respect the Jews, but sadly, they couldn’t get into the kingdom of heaven because, you know, Jesus.
Even as a child and one time altar boy, I found this uncharitable and absurd, and I’m sure it was one of the pillars on my path to becoming a recovering Catholic agnostic. (If you want to go deeper, you could add the transubstantiation, the virgin birth, and the resurrection, all of which echoed through my consciousness as I reached, as I like to call it, “the age of reason.”)
In any case, fun was fun, no matter where it came from. (He was also a future fan of a Richard Pryor album whose title I’m pretty sure I can’t repeat here in 2022.) When I found out about the Jewish factor in my comic upbringing, it tickled me. And it made sense. It had become one of my main prisms through which to filter the world.
But I didn’t just learn about the modern world from the new Mads. I learned what life had been like, at least in the crazy world, before I was aware. More or less the same, but with unknown reference points: politicians I had barely heard of, movies and TV shows before my time, parodic song lyrics I didn’t know.
My family lived on the first floor of what was once a grand ballroom in the 1930s, later converted into three apartments. The owners of the building and who lived upstairs were my parents’ best friends and had two children, a generation and a half older than me. They were avid Mad readers who never threw the magazines away. Since they had left home, I was lucky enough to bequeathed a trunk full of their old Mads from the ’50s and early ’60s. (I still have them. They’re a bit stale.)
That being the case, imitation Yiddish words had entered my world a long time ago, words like furshugginerwhich I later learned is derived from the Yiddish word slogan (beat) and a few more that I was surprised to see were, uh, dirty. And to these gentle ears, shmuck, shook Y shlemiel it sounded pretty fun.
Another boy raised Catholic and inspired by Mad was Boston comedian Mike McDonald. “We’re talking about the ’60s, and there were limited humor magazines, certainly limited for 12-year-olds,” he told me. “Mad was trying to appeal to that group and he did. You didn’t have a lot of money to spend when you were 11 or 12, so if you’re going to spend money on something, that was it.”
And then came the stand-ups. “Even when I was a kid watching comedians,” McDonald said, “I realized that being Jewish meant having a sense of humor, and half the best comedians were Jewish: Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason. They didn’t talk much about being Jewish at their acts, but it was clear to me that part of being Jewish was being able to laugh at yourself and be funny. You can’t say that about all other cultures.”
Leah Garrett, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Hunter College and a Forward contributor, also read Mad: “For an entire generation, Mad magazine was one of the most important factors in shaping how we understood the adult world and what it was. what did it mean. ” she said. “The magazine would end up employing and inspiring basically every major American comic, particularly every Jewish comic: Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern, the writers of ‘The Simpsons,’ the writers of ‘Saturday Night Live. ‘, The Onion, ‘The Daily Show’, just to name a few. I’d say it was the most important comedy vehicle in American history.”
I learned a lot about advertising from these guys (Mad had no advertising), about cunning manipulation, about how corporate interests weren’t exactly aligned with ours. As was often the case with government and the government bureaucracy. I learned about irreverence and that there were no sacred cows. On humor as an offensive jab or as a perfectly acceptable defensive position. That laughing at the ridiculous (or even heinous) things around us was not a bad response. Often that laughter led to a deeper understanding of the issues.
All of these views were overseen by the ever-jovial Mad Toothless (but what did he do? to know?) mascot, Alfred E. Neumann, with his “What, do I care?” Point of view. And Mad’s motto: “Humor in the jugular vein.”
David Bieber was a Jewish kid from Cleveland who was hooked from the get-go. Bieber, the former director of promotions for Boston rock radio station WBCN and alternative newspaper The Boston Phoenix, is a pop culture collector and curator of the David Bieber Archives in Norwood, Massachusetts.
“Loco hit me at that exact moment,” Bieber said. He was 11 years old when he started the crazy trip. “Before I would not have appreciated him because he was too young. They all had their five to eight year Mad cycle with the regular features updated to reflect the changing times.”
“Mad was about challenging you to discover things you didn’t know,” he said. “It lured you in with witty and funny parodies of Broadway, things we didn’t even see, and yet the plot and the lyrics of the song rang in your head. You were force-fed knowledge in the process of making fun of the adult aspects of life. It was beautiful how textured it was. If you didn’t know the joke, you investigated.”
“For me, there was a comfort zone knowing who these people are,” Bieber added. “As if they were these know-it-all teenagers making fun of adults. There was this comedic peak that they reached and clung to.”
At the top of that summit was publisher William Gaines. Surrounding that summit were writers and illustrators like Jaffee, Jack Davis, Harvey Kurtzman, Dave Berg, Norman Mingo, Drew Friedman, Don Martin, Mort Drucker, and Sergio Aragonés.
If, in my world of baseball fans, the 1967 Red Sox were my Boys of the Summer, in my comic world, these boys were too.