Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Alfred E. Neuman Stopped Worrying And Won The War

Fifty Years of Dr. Strangelove

By Lars Trodson

The secret is in the full title: “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.”

Alfred E. Neuman’s motto from Mad Magazine? “What, me worry?”

That’s why we know that a little, ad-less, satirical and slightly creepy comic magazine transformed both the movies and American culture. Without Mad Magazine, there is no “Strangelove,” no “The Loved One,” no “Bonnie and Clyde, no “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Mad Magazine exposed the fragility and the absurdities of the movie cliche — Mad made you love them in all their ridiculousness and run from them at the same time.

More specifically, this is the legacy of a feature that was prominent in the magazine for 10 years prior to the Jan. 29, 1964 release of “Dr. Stangelove” — the magazine’s movie parodies.

Kubrick’s movie is essentially what Mad Magazine would have done to a parody of “Fail Safe” — a straight movie that has almost the exact same plot as “Dr. Strangelove.” Directed by Sidney Lumet, “Fail Safe” was released the same year as “Strangelove.” Mad Magazine never satirized “Fail Safe” — even though the Cold War was a favorite topic — because Kubrick had already done it for them.

“But lives there a mind unsullied by the influence of Mad?” The New York Times asked in 2009.

By the time “Strangelove” was released, Mad Magazine was reaching 1.5 million readers every month. (Playboy had hit 1 million subscribers in 1960. Why do I have the suspicion that more than a few of those households were receiving both magazines each month?) Having been dismissed by the mainstream media when it was launched in 1952, Mad by the early 1960s had been wholly embraced. “Spy vs. Spy,” the Cold War cartoon by the Cuban artist Antonio Prohias, started appearing in Mad in 1961. There were other magazines, too, from that time, such as “Humbug,” which was started by a few Mad Magazines ex-pats. It took on the follies of the 1950s as well.

''’When you look at the Mad comic book under the direction of Harvey Kurtzman, it blows your mind,’” the cartoonist Joe Sacco said, according to the Times article. “‘It opened cartoonists up to what the possibilities of the medium were. It showed how zany comics could be. It had a profound influence on every great underground cartoonist, from Robert Crumb to S. Clay Wilson.'’”

Not just cartoonists.

In an article on, published in Feb. 28, 2000, Gloria Steinem is quoted: "There was a spirit of satire and irreverence in Mad that was very important, and it was the only place you could find it in the 1950s." In that same piece, Marshall McLuhan is also referenced. “[McLuhan] considered Mad worthy of mention in his influential study Understanding Media. Noting its ‘sudden eminence,’ he attributed this to Mad’s "ludicrous and cool replay of the forms of the hot media of photo, radio and film.”

That’s exactly what “Strangelove” did. It took a cold war and turned the fire and crackle of satire on it.

This same article draws the direct link between Mad and Dr. Strangelove: “Five years before Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22 assailed the core values behind the construction of American identity during this period, Mad was mocking American neuroses about the Soviet Union. Its 1959 phrase book for American tourists traveling behind the Iron Curtain offered the following "handy phrases": "When will I get my camera back?" "Has the chambermaid finished searching my luggage?" "What time is the ex-Commissar's funeral?" "What time is the new Commissar's funeral?" "Our guide is very friendly?" "Why was our guide liquidated?" "Waiter, there's a dictaphone in my borscht!" "The handcuffs are chafing my wrists." "Do you have a cell with a view?" "Will I need my galoshes in Siberia?" "I demand to see the American consul!"

That’s classic. It is in these snappy one liners, you can hear the origins of “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”

Even the names of the characters in the film are straight out of Mad: Col. Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), Lt. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), Lothar Zogg (James Earl Jones). (In the parody of “The Godfather” — called “The Odd Father” — the Mafia chieftan was called Don Vino Minestrone, to give you an idea.)

The original version of “Dr. Strangelove” had a pie fight, how Mad is that?

In the first decade of the magazine’s existence, there was only a sporadic effort to parody movies that were currently in cinemas. The first parody was of “King Kong,” twenty years after it was released. The next, “Hah! Noon!” — a spoof of “High Noon,” came three years after that movie came out. The first Kubrick parody was of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — an issue I distinctly remember reading when it came out. I didn’t like it because I loved that movie from the very first time I saw it. That was called “201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.”

But after “Strangelove” opened up things in such a big way, you can begin to draw the line from there to “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and even “The Sting” which in another era would have been a straight noir. Mel Brooks is a descendent of the Dr. Strangelove family. James Coburn’s “Flint” spy spoofs, as well as Dean Martin’s egregious Matt Helm movies, came out a year after Mad first spoofed James Bond: “007: A James Bomb Musical” came out in July 1965. The Helm and Flint movies began in 1966, all goofy and candy-colored. Dean’s Matt Helm bears no relationship to the serious original character created by writer Donald Hamilton. He is, as is Derek Flint, a deliberate parody. After Mad had lampooned James Bond so successfully, what was there left to do?

One more thing: The plot of “Dr. Strangelove” revolves on a concept known as “Mutually assured destruction” — or, MAD.

Which was, by the way, coined by a mathematician prone to little (and rather satirical) wisecracks. That mathematician’s name? John van Neumann.

Who said the world wasn’t full of jokers?