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Big-T & the Bada-Bings

By James Gordon Meek

Image: DC Comics
On an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in late 1957, the editors of the hip satire magazine, MAD, answered a knock at the door of their New York offices and were stared down by an agent of The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Dressed in a requisite dark suit, the stern agent expressed the Bureau’s consternation with a recent gag in the magazine. The editors had concocted an anti-war board game that urged readers to become “Full-fledged Draft Dodgers” by writing to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for an official membership card. Yellow-bellies took the bait, bombarding Bureau headquarters with mailed requests.

Mr. Hoover was not amused, and the agent ordered MAD to zip it about the director.

In response, publisher William Gaines sat down at his typewriter on New Year’s Day and began crafting a letter to Hoover. MAD had its own glossary of expletives (Furshlugginer! Veeblefetzer! Potrzebie!) but instead, Gaines chose diplomacy.

“Our reference to you and your office was made in connection with a wholly innocent and jesting article that was not in any way intended to offend you,” he pecked out onto a sheet of MAD letterhead, telling the FBI director to “rest assured that you will have no occasion for concern on this subject in the future.”

MAD’s editor, Al Feldstein, knew better. Two years later, the magazine’s staff of radicals emptied both barrels at Hoover, the most powerful lawman in America, ridiculing his conservative vindictiveness. “If this was tweaking Hoover, I wanted to tweak him some more,” Feldstein recalls.

“That’s what they always did to everybody who complained. They would apologize profusely and say they’d never do it again,” says Maria Reidelbach, author of Completely MAD, the magazine’s official history. Apologies were really “a hit and run technique.”

These and other revelations appear on the yellowing pages of the FBI’s file on MAD, obtained by ATOMIC on the 50th anniversary of the magazine following a Freedom of Information Act request. Like a time capsule unearthed from a filthy sewage ditch on Madison Avenue, the FBI file reads like something MAD’s geniuses would have invented to lampoon Hoover’s fragile ego and his use of agents to spy on enemies and critics.

Hoover’s pettiness is on full display in the files, which show how the feds eyed a comic modeled after campus humor mags that picked on almost every pop culture icon or celebrity of the last half-century while creating a few icons of its own. Think of gap-toothed mascot Alfred E. Neuman, whose “What, me worry?” credo was taken up by the 1960s generation. Picture the dueling weasels of “Spy vs. Spy.”

Image: Everett Collection
MAD’s Usual Gang of Idiots defied the comics industry’s self-imposed morality code. They fended off angry mothers, Red-baiters, religious and political extremists and law enforcement authorities, cranking out brutally funny satire that had a noticeable impact on the way young people thought about war, race, sex, society, pop culture and art. No American institution was spared if it was unjust or hypocritical; and plenty of things were parodied just for fun. Nothing was off-limits—except, apparently, J. Edgar Hoover.

Special Agent Milton Jones—the same church deacon who spent a decade scouring Playboy magazine for anti-Hooverisms—told the director MAD’s draft dodger gag was “rather unfunny.” Worse, it was insulting. So Hoover ordered his New York office “to advise pertinent officials [at MAD] of the Bureau’s displeasure at this tasteless misuse of my name.”

“Hoover’s idiocy sounds like a figment of MAD’s imagination,” says Todd Gitlin, a New York University sociologist, who wrote about the magazine in his book, The Sixties.

Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, a retired Bureau official and author of Hoover’s FBI: The Inside Story by Hoover’s Trusted Lieutenant, insists the director, who died in 1972 after nearly five decades helming the bureau, had good reason to keep tabs on MAD.

“He was very protective of not only his name, but more-so the Bureau’s name,” says DeLoach. “He felt that any slur on the Bureau was not only a personal insult to him but it would injure the Bureau’s capability of getting information from the public.”

William Gaines, who served briefly in the Army during World War II, took over his father Max’s comics business in 1947 when Max was killed in a boating accident. Gaines became the king of horror comics, with titles like Tales From the Crypt. Together with artist Harvey Kurtzman, who later edited MAD, he cooked up pacifist comics during the Korean War, which sometimes depicted combat from the Communists’ point of view. The duo became targets of an FBI internal security and sedition inquiry until agents determined the humorists weren’t card-carrying Reds.

A year after MAD was hatched in 1952, New York City cops arrested a Gaines staffer for selling “disgusting” literature, according to Reidelbach. By the time the FBI showed up at MAD’s offices in 1957, the editors “were used to getting visited,” she says. “I’m sure it was an event for them for that to happen.”

And though Gaines promised Hoover that MAD wouldn’t target him, in March 1960, the magazine ran parody ads for Hoover Tonic (“There’s no health improver ... like J. Edgar Hoover”). A few pages over, MAD imagined the TV show, Stories From the Files of the FBI, hosted by “the Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux.”

Today, DeLoach lets a chuckle slip at mention of the gags. But 42 years ago, his deputy Milton Jones wanted the FBI to “severely admonish” MAD. Hoover scrawled in the margin of a memo: “Ignore these jerks.”

Ultimately, Hoover’s investigations did little to hamper the success of the satirical magazine. What began as a subversive product of New York liberals touting a barely cloaked contempt for pop culture in the 1950s eventually morphed into a monument to the very thing MAD’s creators loathed. Proof of that was the circulation climbing to two million. Gaines died in 1992, after selling MAD to a company that changed hands numerous times (at one point it was owned by anti-Communist crusader Roy M. Cohn) and is now part of AOL-Time Warner. Kurtzman died in 1993.

Almost every major Hollywood release was deliciously diced up by the magazine through the decades. Television also was a frequent target. A send-up of Hogan’s Heroes became the controversial Hochman’s Heroes—instead of American GIs in a POW stalag one-upping the Nazis, MAD set the sitcom in Buchenwald’s concentration camp with gaunt prisoners barely filling striped uniforms.

Much of MAD’s content was derived from social outrage. In the 1960s, MAD hammered conservative “Super-Patriots,” including cops in the right-wing John Birch Society. A MAD cartoon had staffer “Bob Ross” confronting “Police Officer Wright,” who insists he’s not bigoted. “To me, a person is a person,” Wright says, “and that goes double for anybody of an inferior race or creed!”

In a letter to Hoover, a MAD subscriber said he stopped buying the magazine because of its liberalism, while offering a defense of his conservatism. “The kids who live on my left snicker at me among themselves. Little Natasha says: ‘My daddy says he is a nut. He voted for Mr. Goldwater, whoever he is,’” whines the 1965 letter. “Little Lucy who lives on my right likes me because I say funny things and I do not talk to her about politics and I buy Girl Scout cookies from her. This is Free Enterprise. Her daddy must be a square.”

There were other critics of MAD’s “humor in a jugular vein.” The early issues influenced counterculture cartoonists, such as Robert Crumb, but when editor Kurtzman was replaced by Al Feldstein in 1956 the magazine lost some fans. “After Feldstein took over, MAD gradually became more and more childish and adolescent …probably a deliberate marketing strategy,” wrote Crumb in his 1997 memoir (which is, coincidentally, filled with childish and adolescent pen and ink musings).

Feldstein laments having to “crawl out from under” Kurtzman’s shadow, but insists the magazine became edgier in the 30 years he proudly guided it to success. MAD’s influence certainly was trans-generational. My mother read it as a teenager in the 1950s; and as a young artist growing up in the ’70s, I pored over each new issue until it fell apart in my hands.

But not everybody’s mom was a MAD reader. “Dear Mr. Hoover” letters arrived from churches, Boy Scout troops and school kids demanding to know if MAD was communist propaganda. A concerned parent penned, “Our PTA wishes to take up the cudgel against MAD.” (Take up the what?) And a writer in 1961 asked Hoover, “Does the Constitution require that we permit communist publications such as this to undermine and defame our nation’s purpose and strength?”

Gaines never accepted paid advertisements because they would be confused with MAD’s parodies. “It costs millions of dollars to produce this type of magazine and the single copy cost is only 25 cents, which leads me to believe that someone is subsidizing the cost,” observed the suspicious director of The Greater Knoxville Youth for Christ some 40 years ago.

Another letter at the FBI accused impish Alfred E. Neuman of being a Soviet stooge. (“What, me Red?”) The sleuths at the FBI noted that “the Alfred E. Neuman mentioned in correspondent’s letter is a fictional person whose picture usually appears on the front of the publication.” However, half the real bodies in Gaines’ employ were “Red-diaper babies raised in Communist homes,” says Reidelbach. So if the FBI and others suspected them, “They were rightMAD was genuinely subversive.”

Yet, strangely, Hoover wouldn’t say it. When the 6th graders of Indianapolis School No.79 wrote to ask about MAD’s alleged Communism, the FBI director replied: “I would like to suggest that in considering this magazine, you give careful thought to its objectives and content.”

The Oklahoma City Mothers United for Decency bashed the mag, along with the ladies of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, who stood up to evil with their Citizens of Decent Literature Committee. Said one, “Many of our teachers feel that the MAD magazine is catering to communistic principal. I know many of the articles leave you with a doubt as to what’s what.”

Knowing that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover spied on publications like MAD and Playboy for criticizing or poking fun at him, one would think the man who led the Bureau for 48 years had no sense of humor. Not so, says one longtime aide.

“He was a great practical joker,” reports Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, who served as Hoover’s top lieutenant.

Besides occasionally having philandering friends tailed and photographed with their mistresses, sometimes just the suggestion of adultery was enough to get a rise. DeLoach’s wife once threw a fit after Hoover mailed a picture of a bathing beauty to the family beach house with the inscription, “Darling, I can’t wait to see you again!”

Did anyone ever play a gag on the director? “No, you didn’t dare do that,” says DeLoach.


Perhaps as a retort to these self-proclaimed pundits, in 1961, MAD spoofed school textbooks with Pfinsterian Penmanship, a title that explained how to craft an extortion letter. One case subsequently reported stated that someone was using the form letter to threaten Los Angeles-area wrestlers; another case involved a 12-year-old in Seattle trying to shake down his mom for a grand.

Hoover personally ordered agents back to MAD’s offices to warn the editors to straighten up—or else. “The completely irresponsible conduct of this magazine in this instance must be vigorously protested and the highly undesirable influence upon impressionable individuals, particularly children, must be forcefully brought home,” Hoover wrote to his New York street agents, who got a lasting promise to behave from editor Feldstein.

“When I was visited by the FBI, I realized that these guys were humorless. So I tried to humor them by seeming to acquiesce to their wishes, then closing the door and giggling,” says Feldstein, a Western painter who now lives on a Montana ranch.

Today, MAD pokes fun at warfighting President George W. Bush and even (gulp!) accepts paid advertising. Although still rife with punchy satire, the magazine is no longer the root of controversy it once was in a more conservative era. Still, when informed that MAD had reached its diamond jubilee, Deke DeLoach offers a Hoover-esque reaction: “That’s too bad.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of ATOMIC Magazine.

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