Harvey Kurtzman and Modern American Satire (Part One of Two)

Posted by on March 15th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Following his death in February of 1993, a good many fellow comic artists, critics, and commentators stepped forward to testify to the power and importance of Harvey Kurtzman’s example and influence on American culture.  According to Jay Lynch, “Harvey Kurtzman invented modern American satire,” and the humor that followed him “bears the unmistakable imprint of [his] early satiric vision” (“Harvey Kurtzman Tribute,” TCJ #157).  Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reiterated “Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up” and Robert Crumb noted that for him “Mad was a revelation.  Nothing I read anywhere else suggested there was any absurdity in the culture; Mad was like a shock, breaking you out” (Oct. 22, 2002 Washington Post).  Film director Terry Gilliam has confessed that “Mad became the Bible for me and my whole generation” (Gilliam on Gilliam), and Robert C. Harvey has affirmed that “Kurtzman may be the most influential American cartoonist since Walt Disney” (TCJ #157).

J. Edgar Hoover collected letters of alarm from parents for the FBI files testifying to the magazine’s subversive threat to society and national security.  Robert C. Harvey would appear to confirm that concern when he wrote:

Through all the years of Mad, Kurtzman’s influence on the American public was incalculable. . . . Reading Mad breeds a certain cynicism about the icons of American popular culture as well as the functioning of its institutions.  Who can say but what the Vietnam War protest among American youth was not in some way inspired by the satire in Mad?  In the closing years of the twentieth century, it would be difficult to imagine an American under the age of fifty-five who does not look at the world a little askance, thanks in large measure to Harvey Kurtzman and his Mad legacy.  (TCJ #157)

Is most of this hyperbole, and is any of it true?  Would the shape and nature of American humor and popular culture have been the same without the presence of Kurtzman?  Would there have been no Lenny Bruce or Woody Allen, no Laugh-In or Saturday Night Live, no Monty Python or Second City, no Robert Crumb or underground comix?

Someone who would answer in the affirmative is Gerald Nachman, author of Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, a study of the development of the aggressive brand of cynical stage comedy that developed in the second half of the 20th century in the United States.  With reference to such stand-up comedians as Mort Sahl, Ernie Kovacs, Jonathan Winters, Tom Lehrer, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, among some 20 others, Nachman believes that: “Taken together they made up a faculty of a new school of vigorous, socially aware satire, a dazzling group of voices that reigned roughly from 1953 to 1965, or from Sahl to [Joan] Rivers. . . .  It all started [one night in late December 1953 in the hungry i nightclub] with Sahl, whose entire act, demeanor, language, look, and wardrobe warred against almost everything that had come before.”  Furthermore, Sahl represented a new kind of sophisticated “outspoken antiestablishment humor” found nowhere else in American popular culture — “the first signs of opposition to the Cold War conformity.”  While Mad is mentioned five times in the text as one of “many new satirical forces of the early fifties,” Nachman argues that it was this “enormous renaissance of night club comedy” that “changed comedy forever.”

Was Kurtzman then merely a minor voice in the groundswell of satirical thrusts at conformity and complacency in the 1950s, or was he a major leader and spearhead in this development?  Historically speaking, during the same week in December of 1953 that Sahl stepped onto the stage at the hungry i, and that Tom Lehrer coincidentally opened at the Blue Angel in New York, Mad was already more than one year old and was selling 500,000 copies per issue and after only six issues, well on its way to becoming the most popular comic book in the country.  In terms of strict chronology, however, there were many comic voices of nonconformity already at work in the national consciousness.  Fred Allen and Henry Morgan, for example, had been broadcasting Mad-like satiric thrusts at film and radio since the 1940s, the latter especially acknowledged by Nachman to be a “bitter and acidic . . . iconoclastic radio satirist.” As for Fred Allen, he was once cited by Kurtzman as a source of inspiration (TCJ #157).

Another radio humorist named Stan Freberg initiated the comedy record and album trend in 1951 with his soap-opera parody called “John and Marsha” and thereafter took on the larger world of popular culture with a series of biting parodies of such popular songs as “Cry,” “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” and “The Great Pretender.” These parodies accurately recreated the sound of the originals at the same time as they exaggerated and lampooned their romantic excesses and illogic, something that would appeal to Kurtzman’s sense of satire.

Beginning in 1950 with Your Show of Shows, Sid Caesar began a brilliant series of parodies of current musicals and “generic lampoons of gangster films, prison epics, Westerns, newspaper dramas, spy movies, and other TV shows” (Nachman), sending up everything from High Noon, Shane, and On the Waterfront to Cyrano de Bergerac, The Bicycle Thief, and Grand Illusion.  The foreign-film parodies were invested with Caesar’s and Carl Reiner’s remarkable gifts for “authentic-sounding Italian/German/French/Russian/Japanese gibberish” (Nachman).  Kurtzman too would display a special talent for language and the use of words to great comic effect.

In addition to people like Freberg and Caesar, the larger cultural scene was populated at the beginning of the ’50s with any number of influential figures who were questioning and pushing the envelope of the standards of conformity in their conduct and what their work represented: James Dean, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Mickey Spillane, Walt Kelly and Charles Schulz is barely a beginning list.

If we step back, however, and look at the larger historic and international scene, taking into account the major intellectual and cultural trends of the first part of the 20th century, we see that these people were swept up by profound changes in how the universe and our place in it were viewed.  Since the beginning of the 20th century, which  witnessed two world wars and any number of disturbing developments — the discovery and use of atomic energy in warfare, threats to constitutional democracy, ruthless trends in capitalism, and the continuing presence of racism and sexism among them — the world seemed to have become a shapeless, disoriented, and dispirited place.  Despite clear advances in science and medicine since the Enlightenment, this negative spirit was the result of the culmination of a sense of entrapment in nature and time in Western thought.

Four major thinkers outlined the ideas that made a difference.  Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution maintained that all forms of life are involved in a biological struggle for survival in which neither the smartest nor the best make it but only the most adaptable.  Karl Marx revealed that in an age of industrialism, the larger society was engaged in an economic struggle between the haves and the have-nots, the capitalists and the working class, which would eventually require a bloody revolution to reconcile the oppressed and the oppressors.  Sigmund Freud turned inward to learn that human beings are influenced by neuroses and psychological maladjustments which we repress and fail to understand without intensive therapy.  Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity, which indicated that speed and direction exist only in relation to where we stand, destroyed the last margins of consistency and law that we thought were at work in nature.  Instead deviation became the norm.

All of these ideas were the products of progress, a continual improvement in our efforts to understand ourselves and our environment.  But they have also served to deny or limit our free will and suggest that we are no more than random elements at sea in an ocean of uncertainty over which we have no control.  Rather than Utopia or a more perfect society, modern science and rationalism have given us the Holocaust and Hiroshima.  We have come face to face with our worst fears, and not only is the enemy us, we have demonstrated for the first time in human history the ability to wipe out life on earth as we know it.

According to existentialists, this spiritual and physical alienation, or feeling of discord with the universe, creates in us a sense of the “absurd,” which according to one definition “proceeds from a loss of faith in such traditional metaphysical concepts as a rationally ordered universe directed by a benevolent deity.  With this loss of faith in a transcendent power, human beings may come to perceive their lives as meaningless and themselves as helpless in the face of a vast nothingness” (Edwin J. Barton and Glenda A. Hudson’s A Contemporary Guide to Literary Terms).

The response of the literary community has been to turn to comedy rather than tragedy, to the liberation of laughter rather than desperate resignation.  In drama this led to the Theatre of the Absurd, the works of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee among others, who produced unconventional, disturbing plays that reflected a loss of faith, a sense of despair, and incomprehension at the lack of cohesion and meaning in the universe.  Yet these are outrageously comic plays, often making fun of rational discourse, consistency and meaning in language, and belief in human communication.  Clowns and caricatures rather than tragic figures debate the existence of God and the relativity of moral values.  The ancient arts of mime and irony replace dramatic exposition, and fools reign with nonsense speech rather than carefully crafted dialogue.  The major figures of influence are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges rather than Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg or Eugene O’Neill.  By the time the first issue of Mad appeared, three cornerstone works in the drama of the Absurd — Genet’s The Maids (1947), Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (1950), and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952) — had been performed in Paris and initiated free-form trends in drama that would last the rest of the century.

Fiction writers too responded in kind to the forces of absurdity and a loss of faith in the moral structure of the universe.  While some would trace its roots back as far as Rabelais, Cervantes, Voltaire, Swift and Mark Twain, it is the postwar fiction of writers like Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, J.P. Donleavy, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Thomas Pynchon that would constitute what Bruce Jay Friedman would label “black humor” — the title of a 1965 retrospective anthology, where he confessed:

I am not sure of very much and I think it is true of writers in this volume that they are not sure of very much either.  They have some pretty strong notions, however, and one of mine is that the work under discussion, if not black, is some fairly dark hue. … They might all begin to cry, although I don’t think so, for if there is despair in this work, it is a tough, resilient brand and might very well end up in a Faulknerian horselaugh.

This “one-foot-in-the-asylum style of fiction” breaks the conventions of traditional story-telling, and trades chronology for stream-of-consciousness, symbolism for dream imagery, character for caricature, and rational structure for magic realism.  Most importantly, however, the most common characteristic is that they work through humor to take the outrageous nature of things to a new extreme of the bizarre, and to release their frustrations and ours through the saving grace of laughter.  This can even take us up to the edge of the ultimate holocaust as Kurt Vonnegut does in Cat’s Cradle (1963), at the end of which he thumbs his nose in the face of God as life ceases to exist on earth.  One is hard put to find a more disturbing comic critique of what modern science, technology and tradition have brought the modern world than Vonnegut’s apocalyptic vision.

What all of this suggests is that Harvey Kurtzman was indeed a part of a much larger cultural and ideological shift that questioned all the traditions and institutions of the past, found them morally and spiritually empty at best, if not downright dangerous and destructive at worst, but rather than turn this disillusionment into despair, to reveal the hypocrisy of it all though biting satire and acerbic parody.  Marshall McLuhan saw the direct line of descent from these developments to Kurtzman more clearly than most.  As he noted in Understanding Media, “Relativity theory in 1905 announced the dissolution of uniform Newtonian space as an illusion of fiction, however useful.  Einstein announced the doom of continuous or ‘rational’ space, and the way was made clear for Picasso and the Marx Brothers and Mad” (163).

In a sense, antiestablishment humor was the order of the day rather than the exception in post-World War II comedy.  The complacency and conformity of Cold War culture was a superficial matter created and controlled by reactionary forces, but there were plenty of idealistic Don Quixotes willing to take on the sham windmills with their laugh-provoking lances.  Mort Sahl and Harvey Kurtzman were among them, but by the time Sahl gained a podium in a comedy club in San Francisco, Kurtzman was already reaching thousands of young readers through his comic books.

While Sahl seems not to have acknowledged any awareness of Mad, there are known connections between Kurtzman and other humorists of the time.  After he left Mad, Kurtzman created for publisher James Warren in 1960 a magazine called Help!, where he resurrected much of the comic esprit de corps that had reigned at Mad.  Here he employed a young would-be cartoonist named Terry Gilliam and introduced him to John Cleese, a fortuitous pairing that would eventually lead to the creation of the Monty Python group, a major force in British comedy.  When Gilliam made his classic film Brazil, in tribute to his former employers, he named two characters Mr. Warrenn and Mr. Kurtzmann, each with an extra “n.”

During the run of Help!, Kurtzman would draw for his pages on the talents of Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, all a part of the renaissance described by Nachman in his book.  It would be difficult to believe that any of the contemporary comedians were unaware of Mad.  Dick Smothers once told me, however, that he and his brother Tom read Mad from time to time but did not see it as an influence on their act as the Smothers Brothers.

Occasionally evidence of a direct influence would occur.  For example, several of the words Kurtzman created or popularized in the pages of Mad, often borrowings from Yiddish, gained currency in general speech and usage, as demonstrated in the second line of one of Allen Sherman’s popular parodies of the 1960s: “Catskill ladies sing this song,/ Hoo-hah, hoo-hah.” “HOOHAH!” was, of course, the title of the first story in the first issue of Mad (October/November 1952), and the exclamation would frequently reappear in a variety of contexts in later issues.  One suspects that Tom Lehrer’s song, “The Old Dope Peddler,” was partially influenced by the story “Flob Was a Slob” in issue #4 of Mad (April/May 1953), where dope dealers sell reefers to children on the public-school street corner.  A similar influence may exist as well on one of Lenny Bruce’s routines “Thank You Masked Man” (released on record in 1972 and made into an animated film in 1968 by John Magnuson and Jeff Hale).  In “Lone Stranger” in issue #3 of Mad (February/March 1953), the Lone Ranger is mistaken for an outlaw because he wears a mask, escapes before he can be thanked for his good deeds by the grateful community, and appears to have homosexual tendencies, all central points of humor in Bruce’s routine.

While the spirit of Kurtzman’s style of subversive comedy is clearly evident in the work of the underground cartoonists of the 1960s, his encouragement of their work is even more direct.  While at Help! he featured and promoted many of the major talents in that movement including Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Spain Rodriquez, Gilbert Shelton and Skip Williamson, giving most of them their first national exposure in print.  For Crumb, as noted earlier, reading Mad was a revelation with regard to the absurdity of modern life and society, so working for Kurtzman was a special event.

While the larger population of the United States may have been influenced by the cynical comedy of Sahl, Bruce, Allen, and company, for many young readers of the time, it was Kurtzman who passed on the virus.  Thus he stands as a major critical figure in the lives of readers of my generation in a way that the more distant stand-up comedians did not, performing their monologues for small night-club audiences and occasionally making an appearance on The Tonight Show or a television variety program.  We can be a bit more specific, in fact, about the importance of his example in our developing sensibilities.

Continue Reading: PART TWO

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