In Random Obsessions
, his compendium on the cool and unusual, Nick Belardes credits as seminal inspiration a map of the United States drawn by Sergio Aragonés
, the brilliant cartoonist best known for his long association with MAD Magazine
. "When I think about it," Belardes writes, "I truly became his map: an artist and historian attracted to the weird and unusual in people and culture."
While I did not morph into a Fold-In, I was, like Belardes, profoundly affected by the periodical deemed a bad influence by parents across the country ? but not, fortunately, by mine.
Perhaps as compensation for forcing me to participate in youth soccer ? no place for a slow, flat-footed, pudgy kid who loathed both soccer and kids who are good at it ? my parents got me, in fifth grade or thereabouts, a subscription to Alfred E. Neuman's flagship publication.
Over time, I accumulated a stack of magazines, and I read them to death. Literally to death ? I think the paper actually disintegrated from overuse. While I loved pretty much everything on those pages ? "The Lighter Side Of...," "Spy Vs. Spy," the Aragonés illuminations in the margins, and so on ? my favorite recurring feature was the motion picture spoof. I loved the way they lampooned movies that I knew, even then, deserved to be made fun of.
Even more than the magazines, I treasured a book called Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions by the venerable Al Jaffee, which was, as the title suggests, a sort of how-to manual on interacting with masters of the obvious statement. Three answers were supplied for each stupid question, and a fourth talk-bubble was blank, so you could fill in your own clever rejoinder.
For example, an infuriatingly clueless man, enormous moustache beneath a nose shaped like an inverted ice cream cone ? the whole face best described as punchable ? is sitting in a waiting room of some kind, where there are no fewer than sixteen NO SMOKING signs posted, in an array of different styles. Holding aloft his box of cigarettes, lighter at the ready, he asks, "Is it OK to smoke?"
To which the wiseacre replies, "Why? Are you on fire?"
This was, to my fifth-grade mind, the very pinnacle of hilarity. I wasn't a snarky kid, and I would never have had the cajones to speak to someone like that. But then, that was the point. This Al Jaffee guy was basically living out my fantasy.
I read that book cover to cover ? and I mean cover to cover, as there were also jokes on both sides of the jacket ("Is this the back cover?" "No, it's the front cover... of the Israeli edition.") ? and there was only one answer that lacked the requisite snap.
A guy is lugging a bunch of suitcases outside and putting them in his station wagon. His moron neighbor asks, "Going on a trip?" And he says, "No, I'm a gigolo, and these are some of the old bags I have to take out."
I now realize that my initial assessment was dead wrong, and that this was far and away the snappiest answer in the whole book.
MAD also spoofed poems ? another Greg Olear fave. They only did this every blue moon, but I still remember some of them verbatim, although I haven't read them in twenty-some-odd years. To wit:
I think that I shall never hear
A poem as lovely as a beer:
The frothy base, the foamy cap,
The stuff that Joe's Bar has on tap.
Poems are made by fools, I fear,
But only Schlitz can make a beer.
And the Gallic entry in the "Nursery Rhymes From Around the World" feature:
As I was going to St. Ives,
I saw a man with seven wives.
Of course the seven wives weren't his,
But here in France, that's how it is.
Years later, I tried my hand at this sort of poetical parody. My submission is, alas, lost, but I do recall a couplet from my feeble attempt, "The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover":
And the women come and go
But are they women? We don't know.
And my oh-so-clever parody of Robert Frost's "A Rose":
A jerk is a jerk,
And was always a jerk,
But now there's a quirk:
A tug is a jerk.
New meanings lurk
If a tug is a jerk,
And all of them work.
You, of course, are a jerk,
But were always a jerk.
I wrote that in college, I think, and sent it off to the magazine. MAD sent back the boilerplate we-can't-use-this form letter, but someone had scrawled up in the corner, "We don't accept poems anymore, but this was funny."
It remains the best rejection letter I've ever received.
Tomorrow: Unlikely Influence #4: It is, it is a glorious thing.