John Ficarra was editor in chief of Mad magazine from 1985-2018.
Last Friday, President Trump likened Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg’s looks to those of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. Personally, I don’t see it. But as one of Mad’s longtime editors, I was delighted to see that Trump was calling attention to the magazine. Since he announced his candidacy, Trump has been pure gold for anyone in comedy, Mad included. The first time we put Trump on our cover in early 2015, we saw our newsstand sales double.
The savvy Buttigieg responded by telling reporters, “I’ll be honest, I had to Google that. I guess it’s just a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference. It’s kind of funny, I guess.” The 37-year-old Buttigieg cleverly turned Trump’s jibe into a contrast between himself and the 72-year-old Trump.
Now, Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., may claim he didn’t know who Alfred was, but like most of the stuff coming out of politicians’ mouths these days, I’m not buying it.
Since 1956, Alfred E. Neuman (The “E” stands for Enigma) has been among the most recognized cartoon faces in the world. In fact, a reader in Auckland, New Zealand, once pasted a cutout of Alfred’s head on an envelope, affixed postage and mailed it. The envelope was promptly delivered to the Mad offices in New York. (Note to Mayor Pete: “Mail” was the way people communicated before texting and tweeting. Another one of those generational things.) The mayor may be feeling a bit cocky these days, given his rapid rise in the polls, but I suspect that his political naiveté is showing. If a national survey were taken today, it’s a pretty good bet a lot more Americans would be able to identify Alfred E. — and maybe even his “What, me worry?” slogan — than Mayor Pete. Ditto, for that matter, the entire Democratic field of contenders. And Vice President Pence.
Buttigieg isn’t the first politician to have his looks likened to Alfred’s. In 1978, Mad ran a cover pointing out the resemblance between Alfred and Jimmy Carter, once one of Carter’s front teeth was blackened out. (Pretty close!)
In 2006 Mad was planning on publishing a morph of Alfred and President George W. Bush but the Nation magazine beat us to it. So we did the next best thing and ran a cover featuring Bush standing next to Alfred, who was wearing an “I’m With Stupid” T-shirt.
Two years later, Mad artist Mark Fredrickson painted a spectacular Neumanesque image of then-candidate Barack Obama with the headline “Yes, We Can’t!” Obama conceded the resemblance. In a speech later that year at the annual Alfred E. Smith fundraising dinner for Catholic charities, named for the Democratic former governor of New York, Obama said: “It’s often been said that I share the politics of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Neuman.”
So where did Mad’s gapped-toothed grinning idiot mascot come from?
There’s no definitive answer. Versions of Alfred’s face have been traced back to a late 1800s Broadway show called “The New Boy” and to a billboard ad for a dentist in Topeka, Kan.
For whatever reason, the boy’s mischievous face caught the attention of Mad’s first editor, Harvey Kurtzman, who began incorporating him into the background scenes of the Mad pages. The character had many other names, in addition to Alfred E. Neuman, including Melvin F. Coznowski and Mel Haney.
After a Mad paperback anthology in 1954, “The Mad Reader,” prominently featuring Alfred’s face sold particularity well, the magazine’s editors quickly realized they had stumbled into their very own mascot, akin to Playboy’s rabbit.
Mad issue No. 30, in 1956, marked the official debut of Alfred E. Neuman as Mad’s cover boy. Definitively rendered by artist Norman Mingo, Alfred has appeared on just about every Mad magazine cover, book and ancillary product since.
The No. 30 issue also marked Alfred’s initial write-in candidacy for the White House. He has unsuccessfully sought the nation's highest office in virtually every election, campaigning with such slogans as, “Amid the Uncertainty, a Voice of Indecision!” and “America is on the Brink of Ruin! Let Him Finish the Job!”
He has been cagey about his political plans for 2020. Should he decide to throw his hat in the ring, he will prove formidable. Alfred E. Neuman is the only candidate who has it all — the fresh-face appeal of Joe Biden, the rich multicultural heritage of Elizabeth Warren, the raw sexual magnetism of Bernie Sanders, the momentum of John Hickenlooper and even the wide-eyed, what-me-worry attitude of Pete Buttigieg.
As Alfred has noted in his previous presidential runs, “You could do worse — and you always have!”