Thursday, June 4, 2015

My 25th MADiversary: A Memoir of Idiocy

Me posing with MAD paraphernalia at the 1994 MAD holiday party

June 4, 1990 was a defining moment in my life. On that Monday, exactly 25 years ago today, I traveled from Brooklyn to 485 MADison Avenue (midtown Manhattan), took an elevator up to the thirteenth floor, and stepped into the offices of MAD Magazine as a summer intern. I would be getting paid $150 per week, but would have gladly paid that amount myself for the privilege of working in the hallowed halls of the humor magazine that I revered from the time I was a small, wide-eyed child. Now, as a small, wide-eyed college student, I could barely contain my excitement as I sat down in the dingy office that would be my home for the next six weeks and sifted through a box of fan mail while I waited for the editors to arrive.

While this was my first time at MAD in an official capacity, it was not the first time I had set foot in their offices. A couple of months earlier I had gotten the phone call (which increased my heartrate by a magnitude of several thousand) from then Associate Editor, now Senior Editor, Charlie Kadau, letting me know that I was chosen as one of the magazine’s two summer interns. Charlie asked me if I wanted the June to July slot or July to August slot, and I spat out some incoherent babble that he correctly took to mean I wanted the first slot. He then invited me to stop by the offices sometime in May to meet everyone and see where I’d be working. So it was, a couple of weeks before my official start date, I went to the MAD offices to meet the Usual Gang of Idiots. I was never more nervous about anything up until that point in my life.

You have to understand that my personal connection to MAD ran long and deep. I was born in 1969 and I have brothers who are eleven years and seven years older than me, so they were prime MAD-reader age at the height of the magazine’s popularity, just as I was being potty trained. And if ever there was a magazine that was appropriate to look at while peeing in your pants, MAD was the one. But it was not only my brothers who indoctrinated me into the ways of MAD. During my grade school years I came to learn that my cousin David had one of the most impressive collections of MADs east of the Mississippi. Every time we went to my cousin’s house I would spend hours poring over old issues of the magazine from the 50s and 60s. By the time I reached junior high I could tell you the name of every writer and artist and could recite the masthead verbatim, the way a cultured person might be able to recite a Shakespearian sonnet. I idolized the MAD men, but none held a loftier place in my mind’s eye than William M. Gaines, founder, publisher, lord of the idiots!

So, on that day in May, when I was given the MAD tour by the other then Associate Editor, now Senior Editor, Joe Raiola, and the very first stop on the tour was the office of William M. Gaines (who I was told to call Bill) I was shaking so hard that I’m sure Bill and his wife Annie must have thought that I had some sort of medical condition. They were both quite gracious and welcoming toward me, despite the fact that I couldn’t get a coherent word out. As we left Bill’s office, Joe looked at me as one might look at someone muttering to themselves on the subway, and gently said, “It’s okay. Calm down, man.” I did calm down—in part because of Joe’s soothing tones, but mostly because now that I’d met Bill I knew that nothing else would be as daunting.

Bill and Annie Gaines in Bill’s office at 485 MADison Avenue

I don’t remember who else I met during that first visit, because in my faded memory, the rest blends in with the internship itself, but over the course of the next two months I did get to meet many of my childhood idols. Al Jaffee, Dick DeBartolo, Angelo Torres, George Woodbridge, Paul Peter Porges, and Stan Hart were all regular visitors to the office. One of the things that surprised me most when I started working at MAD, was that all of the writers and artists were freelancers, meaning none of them worked in the actual office. They only stopped by from time to time to drop off their work or tell dirty jokes. The creative staff at that time only consisted of seven people—five in the editorial department and two in the art department. And then there was me—thrown into the mix for six weeks, constantly doubting my comic worthiness as the rest of the staff threw pointed barbs around at 100 miles per hour.

Although I doubted myself, I was having a blast reviewing writers’ submissions, looking at artist’s rough sketches, and watching the constant comedy show provided by my coworkers. I shared a small office with Charlie Kadau, Joe Raiola, and the third Associate Editor, Sara Friedman; but a large portion of my time was spent in the office of then Editor, now Senior VP and Executive Editor, John Ficarra, whose office is pictured below. John is the one seated, while Charlie is the one holding the Easter Island head.

Charlie Kadau and John Ficarra, sometime in the early 1990s

Take careful note of the snare drum next to John’s desk. That was there so he could do rim shots whenever someone delivered a particularly effective zinger. Every Wednesday we would gather in John’s office for editorial meetings and I would long for the moment when I might say something to earn a rim shot. My moment finally came one day when we were coming up with department titles for the articles in issue number 299. For the uninitiated, department titles are puns used on the table of contents page on top of each article. For example, the standard department title for Spy vs. Spy is “Joke and Dagger Department.”  The department titles for ongoing features were set in stone, but new articles needed new department titles, so we sat around the office throwing out puns. We were trying to come up with a department title for an article written by Mike Snider and illustrated by John Pound called “World Communism Close-Out Sale,” and I spat out, “What about ‘Attention K. Marx Shoppers?’” Instantly the rim shot came and Nick Meglin, a 30-year plus MAD staffer who shared the editor title with John, turned to me with a broad smile and said, “Whoa! Good one, Eel!”

Masthead showing my summer internship with the department title that earned me my first rim shot below. (Note: While my internship was in June and July, the magazine had a six month lead time, which is why the date of the issue is December 1990.)

I should probably pause here for a moment to explain why Nick Meglin called me Eel. I’m a small guy and generally a quiet one, so my comings and goings can sometimes go unnoticed. One day I stepped into John’s office while Nick and several other staff members were there. Nick didn’t hear me come in and I guess I was standing in his blind spot, because when he turned and saw me right next to him he got startled and shouted, “When did you get here? You slithered in like a f***ing eel!” The staff roared with laughter, one thing lead to another, and suddenly John coined me “The Brooklyn Eel.” I wasn’t thrilled with the nickname at first, but somehow it stuck, and soon almost everyone on the staff and all the freelancers were calling me The Brooklyn Eel, which mostly got shortened to Eel. (A few years later when I moved to Manhattan’s Upper Eastside, my moniker was changed to The Eastside Eel.)

Another highlight of my time as an intern was being asked to appear on the magazine’s back cover. While the majority of the magazine’s articles are illustrated, every once in a while an article calls for a photo shoot. In an instant I went from editorial intern to male model. Clearly, the magazine does not have high standards.

Back cover of MAD #301, March 1991

When my internship ended I was thoroughly depressed. While I was new to the work world, I recognized that rarely does one find a job where they get paid to sit around and make wisecracks all day long. Indeed, what I had gotten paid to do for the previous six weeks would get 99.9% of people fired. But my depression was tempered by a flicker of optimism. During my internship I was encouraged to submit article ideas, and at the time that I left, one was on the verge of becoming my first freelance sale. I had always dreamed of becoming a professional writer and had submitted dozens of short stories (mostly humorous sci-fi and horror tales) to magazines from the time I was 15 years old, without any luck. But in the fall of 1990 my lifetime drought finally ended when I was handed a $1,200 check for my satire of the television show “Unsolved Mysteries.” My spoof was called “Unsolved Miseries.” Genius, I know.

But even though the check was larger than any I had ever been handed to that point in my young life, the thing I was even more excited about was that my article was going to be illustrated by Jack Davis, whose work had been appearing in MAD since the very first issue in October 1952. I had admired Jack’s work since my diaper days and now his art was going to be paired with my words. The wow factor for me was probably heightened by the fact that I had still not met Jack in person, as he lived in Atlanta and would send his work via FedEx. I had heard his stately southern drawl on speaker phone in John’s office, but because I had never met him face to face, there remained a mythic quality about him in my mind. It was like my article was being illustrated by Zeus.

First page of my first MAD article – Issue #304, July 1991

Once I made my first MAD sale I was hooked. I began spending a large portion of my spare time trying to come up with article ideas. Many of my ideas were rejected, but having been on the editorial side of the fence this didn’t faze me, because I knew that most ideas that writers sent in did not end up making it to the pages of the magazine. Sometimes an idea wouldn’t be outright rejected, but the editors would ask me to try it from a different angle. I would craft, I would hone. I would still usually be rejected, but every once in a while I would make a sale.

While all of this was going on in the beginning of my senior of college, I started contemplating what I might do once I graduated. I was at a loss. The skills I learned at MAD were really not transferable to any other office on the planet and there seemed no hope of getting a permanent job at MAD given the very small staff size. The freelance checks, while large in my eyes, were few and far between, so I knew that supporting myself that way was not realistic. I started buying lots of lottery tickets. That was much more realistic.

Then, in September 1991, something amazing and wholly unexpected happened. The editors asked me if I’d like to work at the offices part-time on a contract basis, two days per week. I’m pretty sure Guinness doesn’t have a world record for the amount of time it takes to say “yes” once a question has been posed, but I’m relatively certain if such a record existed I broke it at that moment. Two months after my internship ended, I was now an Editorial Assistant. This part-time, contract gig came with no promise that it would evolve into a full-time staff position and yet somehow, miraculously, it did.

A couple of months before my graduation, Sara Friedman let the editors know that she would be moving to Russia to be with her husband who was an Associated Press reporter there. Suddenly, a full-time position was available and Nick and John, perhaps too lazy to look for a more qualified candidate, offered the slot to me. My fancy degree in English Literature from NYU was going to be put to good use.

The timing of my coming to work full-time at MAD in June 1991 could not have been better. Every two years Bill Gaines took the entire staff, all of the regular freelance contributors, and all of their significant others on an all-expense paid trip. The next trip was coming up in September 1991 and I was suddenly on the list to go on a cruise to Bermuda. What, me excited?

Describing the Bermuda trip could be a tome unto itself, so I’m not going to go into intricate detail here. Instead, I’ll just share a few photos with captions…

Bill Gaines was a huge Marx Brothers fan, so someone got it in their mind that as a gag we should reenact the famous stateroom scene from “A Night at the Opera,” where tons of people show up and crowd into the small cabin. Bill had no idea this was coming, but one by one people started barging into his cabin uninvited much to his surprise and amusement.  I’m pictured above in the middle wearing a teal shirt and staring down at the ground. Directly behind me on my left is John Caldwell and to his left is Bob Clarke and to his left is Annie Gaines. Holding a tennis racket in the front of the frame is Angelo Torres and right behind him with a camera held high is Dick DeBartolo. Way in the back of the pic with the dark hair and beard is Sam Viviano. I don’t know the guy behind me on my right side. He worked on the ship, as did many who were roped in to help us with this gag.

One night on the cruise there was a masquerade ball, but nobody knew to bring costumes. I was bummed because I wanted to participate, when suddenly I had an epiphany. I was on a cruise ship with a dozen of the most talented cartoonists in the world—surely one of them could make me an impromptu gorilla mask. I asked John Caldwell and he happily obliged. Soon after the cruise was over I asked Caldwell if he would sign the mask. If the inscription in the corner is too small for you to read it says, “Eel, we’ll always have Bermuda! Love, John Caldwell ’91.” This pic hangs in my den to this day.

This is a group photo of everyone who attended the Bermuda cruise. In the words of Mike Snider who sent me this photo, “You’re on the far left, either doing your best Mr. Dapper Dude pose, or being John Ficarra’s ventriloquist dummy.” Famous MAD folks in this photo who I have yet to mention at any point in this article include Sergio Aragones, Duck Edwing, and Paul Coker. I’ll let you Google them to figure out who’s who.

While the MAD cruise was a definite highlight of my first year at MAD, the truth is I was having fun at work on a daily basis. It was like I was a cast member of an R-rated Romper Room.  Of course we had to work—there was a magazine to put out every six weeks after all, and the final week of production was often pressure-filled—but we had no discernible dress code, had a Star Wars pinball machine in our storage annex that we could play whenever we were bored, and sat around most of the time talking about and making fun of pop culture, which was of course, our jobs. It was a fine time, but the party came to a screeching halt on June 3, 1992, when Bill Gaines, our beloved, eccentric leader passed away at the age of 70.

Bill was a crazed visionary and a patriarchal figure to the staff and contributors of MAD. It often felt like he and Annie were the parents of a bunch of out of control adolescents, and I was honored to be one of the brood. When he passed away it hit me almost as hard as when my own dad died six years earlier. In the days following Bill’s death I often found myself wandering around our office suite aimlessly and/or just staring into space. It felt like I was suddenly a crewman on a rudderless ship.

But of course, the show went on. Difficult thought it was, we continued to produce the highest quality low-quality rag in America, with John and Nick leading the way. Yes, the idiocy continued as Bill would have wanted it and soon I was asked to model again—this time for the front cover. As a result, I have the unique distinction of being the only person in the history of the world whose photograph has appeared on both the front and back covers of MAD Magazine. Of course, as you’ll notice below, you don’t actually see my face on the cover, but that is, indeed, my body and arms.

Andrew J. Schwartzberg—magazine cover boy…with an Alfred E. Neuman jack-o-lantern superimposed on his head

This was a very odd photo shoot, to say the least. Irving Schild, MAD’s go-to photographer, had me come to his studio at midnight (presumably he didn’t want anyone seeing the questionable quality of talent he had to work with) and we were there until somewhere around 4:00 A.M. There were two possible concepts for this cover—one is the one you see above, and the other was me holding a mirror in my left hand instead of pumpkin rinds. Below is one of hundreds of Polaroid proof shots from the concept that was not used.

Andrew J. Schwartzberg looking like a psychotic killer for the sake of art

Irving took countless pictures of me holding that knife and mirror at slightly different angles and wearing different styles of shirts. After a couple of hours of pictures with the mirror we moved on to pictures with the pumpkin rinds. But first we had to create a mess. Irving had purchased a bunch of pumpkins and cantaloupes and the two of us set about bashing them to pieces to produce as much gooey, orange, sticky stuff to put all over me as we could. Irving’s thought behind the cantaloupe was that it would be juicier than the pumpkins and its slop would help to create more of a visible mess. His theory proved to be correct and by the time the photo shoot was finished I felt as though a produce department had spontaneously combusted in my face.

Besides editing, proofreading, pun-creating, and male modeling, another one of my many duties at MAD was giving tours of the offices to fans. Several times a week someone would show up to the offices and ask if they could look around. Generally the low man or woman on the totem pole was stuck with tour duty. This was me until about mid-way through 1993 when I was promoted to Assistant Editor and a new Editorial Assistant—Amy Vozeolas—was hired on. Usually the fans were well received by us, but sometimes they were a bit too overzealous. I don’t remember the exact circumstances behind the photo below, but apparently neither John nor I were particularly ecstatic about having our picture taken at this moment.

John and I not looking particularly ecstatic about having our picture taken at this moment. This fan was nice enough to send me this photo in the mail, probably hoping it would end up on the World Wide Web two decades later.

Although Bill was gone, he and Annie had already put plans for the 1993 MAD trip into motion. This trip, which would be the last MAD trip, was to the Principality of Monaco, the tiny but eminently picturesque mountain country on the border of France and Italy. Somewhere I have photos from that trip that show the amazing scenery, stunning views, and breathtaking landscape of Monaco and the surrounding parts of France and Italy. Somewhere…but I have no idea where. Fortunately, MAD artist, Rick Tulka, was nice enough to send me a few photos from that trip, as you can see below.

John and I not looking particularly ecstatic about having our picture taken by Rick Tulka, while eating lunch in San Remo, Italy

Me and artist, Tom Bunk, on a rainy day in Monaco

A blurry photo of a bunch of us having dinner at a pizzeria in Monaco. I have no idea who’s sitting to my right, but to my left is Paul Peter Porges. The guy waving with the glasses and goatee is Rick Tulka. The person whose head is barely sticking out behind Rick’s waving hand is Mike Snider. The guy in the denim jacket in front of Rick is Desmond Devlin. The woman seated next to Desmond is Joyce Robbins, wife of MAD Production guru, Thomas Nozkowski, who is seated across from Joyce. Between Nozkowski and Porges is Brenda Torney, wife of Rick Tulka. And finally, the bearded man in the lower left hand side of the picture is Lenny Brenner, who was the Art Director at the time. Lenny loved garlic more than any other person I ever met before or since, which is why the art department was often a very quiet place. Oh, and the guy standing up is a waiter whose name I don’t recollect.

Me and a fake sleeping Rick Tulka in the world’s first selfie somewhere in Europe

I consider myself beyond lucky that I got to go on the last two MAD trips. Of course the final trip was bittersweet, because Bill’s absence was keenly felt by all of us. Still, nothing beats traveling internationally with dozens of professional idiots. But the MAD trips were not the only times that the Usual Gang of Idiots assembled en masse.  The annual holiday party was another large gathering of the MAD crew.

Me at the 1994 MAD holiday party with George Woodbridge and Al Jaffee. (My wife thinks I look like a bearded Scott Baio in this picture.)

While the MAD holiday parties were mostly attended by the contributors who lived in the tristate area, every once in a while someone would travel from more far-flung places to attend the party.

John Ficarra pointing to famed MAD artist and writer, Dave Berg, at the 1994 holiday party.

For whatever reason, Dave Berg, legendary creator of “The Lighter Side of…” did not go on the MAD trips. (At least not the MAD trips I went on.) He lived in Marina del Rey, California, so I had never met him in person, although I spoke to him on the phone countless times. So I was ecstatic when “Uncle Dave” as we all called him, decided to come to New York in December 1994 to attend the MAD holiday party. I was thrilled to finally meet him in person and found him to be the perfect combination of lovable and unhinged.

Dave’s “The Lighter Side of…” may have been the most well-known ongoing feature in the magazine, other than Al Jaffee’s fold-in. The feature, which ran from 1961 until Dave’s death in 2002, was basically a series of light-hearted comic strips on everyday life. One of the very cool perks of being on the MAD staff was that Dave often incorporated illustrations of the staffers in his strips. Dave drew me dozens of times while I worked at MAD and I was always jazzed when I saw myself turn up in his work, even though likenesses weren’t his forte and I often looked like some strangely distorted version of myself.

Me and Nick Meglin as depicted by Dave Berg in MAD #336, June 1995

While the gag above is not much of a gag at all, the thing that I found hysterical about it when I first saw it was the preposterous notion that I might be able to beat Nick Meglin in straight sets. Despite the fact that I was in my mid-20s and Nick was in his late 50s at the time this was drawn, Nick was a tennis junky who was in excellent shape and I was just a schlub who bought a racket on a whim. Indeed, the couple of times we played, Nick schooled me good.

Sometime in late 1994 or early 1995 I began experiencing wanderlust. I loved my job at MAD, but I felt like I was done with New York and I wanted to see new places and experience new things. Besides the two MAD trips, I had done a lot of other traveling with friends in the early 90s, so I knew this wasn’t just a desire to travel—this was a desire to live in a completely different place, to test my mettle and see if I could flourish. It was like I decided to thrust myself into my own reality show before reality shows were a thing.

So, in May of 1995 I said goodbye to MAD and New York, bought a car, packed my bags, spent almost two months living on the road, and wound up in Arizona. The picture below was taken in my office at MAD a couple of months before I left.

Me at 485 MADison Avenue in the spring of 1995. Notice the vintage word processor on my desk.

Although my career as a MAD staffer was officially over, my association with the magazine did not end. While I tried to figure out what to do with my life, I needed to somehow make ends meet, so I began freelance writing for the magazine I had just ceased editing for. Suddenly, I was back on the other side of the fence, sending article ideas to my former coworkers. From 1996 to 1999 I sold 26 articles to MAD and managed to make that my primary source of income, but the very sporadic nature of freelance sales began to make me an undesirable combination of paranoid and frugal. (Hmm…not sure there’s actually a desirable combination of those two things.)  Eventually I decided to get fulltime work in an unrelated field and my MAD submissions tapered down to a trickle.

These days, I’ll still send in an idea every once in a very rare while, but it has been a couple of years since I made a sale. But that’s okay, because the truth is that with a fulltime job, volunteer commitments, and two young sons at home, I simply don’t have the time to think in a MAD way anymore…except, of course, for the past six days, while writing this 5,000 word tome. Maybe for my 30th MADiversary I’ll just send myself a card.