Alfred E. Neuman: America’s Eternal Smart-Aleck Reply

60 years already? It suddenly makes me feel old. I used to read Mad Magazine when I was a young teenager (under the covers so my parents wouldn’t see me). I loved their irreverent humor and their capacity to make fun of virtually anything and everything. The writers and cartoonists seemed to have the power of seeing the humorous side in every aspect of American culture, politics, lifestyle and our consumer habits. Wow…already over a half-century of comic relief in America.

The mascot of Mad Magazine, Alfred E. Neuman’s probably takes after 19th century cartoon characters such as Punch and Puck or Richard F. Outcault’s strip, Hogan’s Alley. As you can see in his smiling portrait, he is known for his jug ears, a missing front tooth (probably after being punched by someone who didn’t appreciate his humor), and one eye lower than the other. He has been almost all of the magazine’s over 500 issues (sorry I haven’t really counted…).

Where did he get his start? Neuman began to appear on the front cover of The Mad Reader a part of Bill Gaines comics, a paperback collection from the first two years of Mad. His signature phrase became: “What me…worry?” as if there was nothing really in life to worry about it…or to take too seriously. It used to be the favorite magazine of teenagers…especially boys…(ok…I was a Tomboy…) and the advice of Mad’s editor was: “Pssst! Keep This Issue Out of the Hands of Your Parents! (Make ‘Em Buy Their Own Copy!). Then as readers got older (baby boomer generation), they continued buying issues and the subject matter got more sophisticated and probably more geared toward older audiences. Harvey Kurtzman was the editor between 1949–1956 and probably made the magazine what it is today.

Probably the cover image of issue #161 making fun of the 1973 film “The Poseidon Adventure” sold the highest number of copies. Ironically it showed Neuman upside down in the water and for once we couldn’t see his face. The original art for this cover was purchased at auction in 1992 for $2,200 by Annie Gaines, the widow of MAD founder and publisher William Gaines. Even Andy Warhol depicted Alfred E. Neuman as quintessentially American…almost like the Campbell’s Tomato Soup Can and Marilyn Monroe.

Go to CBS News Sunday Morning to see video describing the importance of Mad Magazine to American Culture and then 60 Minutes overtime to see a history of Mad Magazine with its founder Bill Gaines.

By the way, a “smart-aleck” is an irreverant person who is generally sarcastic, spontaneously outspoken in efforts to be funny in a “witty” manner…generally someone who “wise-cracks”…does that describe someone you know?

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