AS COMEDY CENTRAL continues its smart satiric choices, announcing Friday that Larry Wilmore will inherit Stephen Colbert’s post-“Daily Show” slot in 2015, I go back to something MAD magazine Editor John Ficarra said to Comic Riffs last year:
Without MAD, there perhaps is no “Daily Show,” or no “Colbert.” At least not in the way that we know them, as sophisticated silliness — as high/low showcases for laughs spun off of clear and biting political/cultural viewpoints.
There is a through-line running along so much of American satire over the past half-century, hitting such checkpoints as Mort Sahl and the Smother Brothers and “SNL” and “The Simpsons,” clear through to Wilmore and Jon Stewart and Lewis Black — three “Daily Show” talents who are old enough to remember when MAD magazine had a circulation in the millions, and reigned like a cutting-edge source of “smart-stupid” comedy and commentary. (As he was planning to headline a comedy cruise with Wilmore and several other fellow comics a few years back, Black told me how influential satire like MAD was to him as a teenager in the ’60s, as counterculture began to become culture-culture.)
And I’m reminded of all this as I reflect on the death last week of Al Feldstein, who was MAD’s editor for three tremendous decades — from 1956 to 1985, during which its influence seemed to peak in the mid-’70s, when circulation was at well more than 2-million (today, MAD moves a fraction of that).
Feldstein, for all his success, still doesn’t seem to get enough credit for MAD. It was, after all, founder Harvey Kurtzman’s magazine he inherited, and in the earlier ’50s, Kurtzman had brought aboard such great talents as Wally Wood and Jack Davis and Will Elder and Frank Jacobs.
“My favorite Al Feldstein story doesn’t have him in it, directly,” Andrew Farago, curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Robert Crumb and Spain Rodriguez paid a visit to the Cartoon Art Museum’s MAD retrospective a couple of years ago, for the purpose of filming a documentary about Spain. They grew up on the MAD comic book and couldn’t praise it enough.
“Crumb sighed when he got to the end of the comic-book section, with its multiple Harvey Kurtzman covers and Will Elder stories, and wryly said, ‘Yeah, MAD was great — before Feldstein ruined it.’ ”
And thus, in jest, Crumb’s line gets to the point of the problem. It’s tough to be heir to a legend — especially when the heavy crown requires possessing so many unseen and underappreciated gifts as an editor.
“You can’t argue with success,” Farago says. “Who’s to say what MAD would have become if Harvey Kurtzman had stuck around to guide the magazine past its initial launch? But the MAD that we know and love today, and everything that came from that…it’s impossible to imagine the world without it.”
And that’s the MAD that Feldstein nurtured and curated. The MAD of Don Martin’s zaniness, and Dave Berg and “The Lighter Side of… .” Of Antonio Prohias and “Spy vs. Spy.” Of Mort Drucker’s and Angelo Torres’s exquisitely rendered screen parodies. Of so many Sergio Aragones genius marginals. And of Al Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers” and back-page fold-ins.
“Al was a very talented writer and a very talented artist, both as a cartoonist and an illustrator,” Jaffee tells Comic Riffs of Feldstein, whom he befriended prior to MAD, when Feldstein was still creating and editing horror comics (Weird Science, Tales From the Crypt) for EC.
“He was ambitious sand hard-driving and very, very smart,” Jaffee continues. “I’m pretty sure he could have succeeded at almost any field he chose.”
Jaffee contrasts what Feldstein brought to the magazine upon adopting Kurtzman’s baby.
“The money part — circulation and pay scale — was not interesting to Harvey Kurtzman. The only thing he was interested in was the storytelling and getting the right person to do the right artwork and … research,” Jaffee tells us.
“Feldstein was more rounded. He was also interested in the storyline and the script and the art, and on having a very sharp eye on the business end of it. He turned MAD into a huge success when he took over because he focused on marketing. It’s one thing to enjoy doing satires and takeoffs of the advertising industy and movies — it’s another part in a capitalistic society to expand the financial rewards for people who put up the money for it.
“That’s how I view Al Feldstein. As both knowledgeable about the creative end, the art end of it. And also very knowledgeable about the business of it.”
MAD’s current editor, John Ficarra, has similar praise for Feldstein.
“He had a tremendous work ethic,” Ficarra — who was hired by Feldstein — tells Comic Riffs. “He came in in the morning and barreled straight through — I never saw him take lunch. … He was very controlling over the magazine. … He knew where every comma was — it was in his mind. He’d worked it out already.”
Ficarra saw firsthand the full range of Feldstein’s skills.
“He had a talent for spotting talent — he played to people’s strengths,” says Ficarra, who has been co-editor and then editor of MAD nearly as long now as Feldstein was. “If the [assignment] required a bit a more harder edge, he’d give it to Stan Hart. If it was sillier, he might give it to Dick DeBartolo. If it required a whimsical touch, he might give it to Paul Coker.”
Ficarra, who was handpicked by Feldstein to be his successor, praises his old boss’s business acumen: “Al never touched a dollar that he didn’t make into 10.”
And upon Feldstein’s death at age 88, Ficarra weighes his friend’s legacy.
“I always felt bad that Kurtzman got all the credit … ,” Ficarra says. “Al created the magazine that everyone thinks of when they think of MAD.”
Ficarra is reminded of an old joke about the magazine. In the early years, they ran a Letter From the Editor with the gag that the primordial MAD already wasn’t as good as Issue No. 1.
“MAD speaks to the times,” Ficarra says. “For each reader, MAD was funniest when they first discovered it.”
Thanks, Mr. Feldstein, for providing and guiding the funniest source of satire around when Comic Riffs discovered it.