Johnny-on-the-Spot … by John Foster
Many people have had impact on my life but none did more to enhance my sense of humor and writing than two characters.
One is Alfred E. Neuman and the other is P.J. O’Rourke.
I mention P.J. first since it was his death just recently at the age of 74, due to lung cancer.
It was his passing that lead me to look back on my life and how I got to be where Iam today.
Let’s go back to the 60’s when my buddies and I would walk up to Johnny’s Food Basket on Ashland Road in Mansfield, Ohio.
We’d go there to buy a snack and something to drink.
I’d usually purchase a Hostess Sno Ball and a Mountain Dew.
We’d also buy the latest Mad Magazine, originally for just a dime.
We’d take our snacks and reading material, often to the big double billboard on Ashland Road at Eastview Drive and climb to a comfortable spot on the rigging behind the adds.
We’d eat the snacks and pass the Mad Magazine back and fourth.
We’d also take our empty bottle back to the store for a few cents deposit.
One of our favorite features was the “Mad Fold-in” which was always on the back inside of the issue’s cover.
There’s be a scene of sorts and a title or explanation but when you followed the “folding directions”, there was a funny message or image in its’ place.
Pretty amazing and riotous stuff for the Wooster Heights Elementary students that we were.
And, of course, somewhere on the cover was the iconic, gap-toothed character “Alfred E. Neuman and his famous quote, “What, me worry?”
Alfred may go back to the late 1800’s and the play, “The New Boy” and an ad for painless dentistry.
The character also appeared in the early 1930’s on a Presidential postcard which stated, “Sure, I’m for Roosevelt”.
His famous quote was “What’s the Good of Anything? Nothing!”
Mad Magazine Editor Harvey Kurtzman claimed the character in 1954 and two years later, Al Feldstein, Mad Magazine’s editor from 1956-1985 named him the cartoonish character Alfred E. Neuman.
I don’t think I missed a Mad Magazine from the late 50’s through the larger part of the 60’s.
The publication switched to a magazine format in 1955 after debuting as a comic book, filled with parodies and features like “Spy vs Spy”, “The Lighter Side of…” as well as the aforementioned “fold in”.
Later, critics would say the publication filled a critical gap in political satire in America from the 50’s and into the 70’s.
A lifelong contributor to Mad Magazine, Al Jaffee said, “Mad was designed to corrupt the minds of children.”
It’s interesting to note that Mad Magazine was the most successful American magazine published ad free.
So Mad Magazine fed my sense of humor until after high school when I discovered the National Lampoon Magazine.
This publication started up in 1970 and actually ran through 1998.
The magazine was “intelligent with cutting edge wit material” and had a fair share of “crass, bawdy and jesting” substance.
In a word, irreverent.
Co-founder Henry Beard said of the National Lampoon, “There was a big door that said, ‘Thou shalt not.’ We touched it and it fell off of its’ hinges.”
The National Lampoon Magazine alumni spawned the David Letterman Show, SCTV, The Simpsons, Married With Children, Night Court as well as Saturday Night Live, Caddy Shack, Ghostbusters and National Lampoon’s Animal House and Christmas Vacation.
Now the “glory years” for the magazine were the 70’s.
That’s where P.J O’Rourke came into my life because he worked for the Lampoon in that era.
O’Rourke was a self-described “leftist, anti-war hippie” in those days who went on to author 16 books, 3 of which were New York Times best-sellers.
He was a proponent of “gonzo journalism”.
It’s a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story using a first-person narrative.
Possibly his best-received writing was “Parliament of Whores” subtitled “:A Lone Humorist Attempt to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.”
O’Rourke often described politics as “boring” but some of his best comments are opinions centered on it.
In 2009, P.J. called the presidency of Barrack Obama “the Carter Administration in better sweaters”.
In 2016, saying it included her “lies and empty promises”, O’Rourke endorsed Hilary Clinton for President, adding, “She’s wrong about absolutely everything but she’s wrong within normal parameters”.
P.J. saw the world through a different set of glasses.
Among his quotes, “Anyway, no drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs. we should test them for stupidity, ignorance and love of power.”
“You can’t get rid of poverty by giving people money.”
“Giving money and power to the government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
“Politicians are wonderful people as long as they stay away from things they don’t understand, such as working for a living.”
“We had a choice between Democrats who couldn’t learn from the past and Republicans who couldn’t stop living in it.”
So, P.J. O’Rourke and the National Lampoon Magazine and Alfred E. Neuman and Mad Magazine gave me a way to look at things differently.
They made me both laugh…and think.
Perhaps, we need more of that in our world today.
Remember, P.J. O’Rourke said, “Everyone wants to save the world but nobody wants to help Mom with the dishes.”