A pair of Indiana University sociologists are looking at modern parenting attitudes from an unusual vantage point: Cartoons. In a paper presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual conference, Jaclyn Tabor and Jessica Calarco examine cultural feelings about parenting through cartoons published in The New Yorker between 1925 and 2006. As a way of studying the contradictions between portrayals of children as a precious gift or life-altering time-suck, the study asks “Are children seen exclusively as good and desirable? Or are they also seen as a bit of a nuisance?”
Parenting is increasingly intensive (and stressful), especially among the wealthy. And more adults are opting out. According to 2010 census data, about 20 percent of American women never have children, compared to 10 percent in the 1970s. In order to see whether or not these shifts were also reflected in pop culture, the researchers combed through a sample from more than 70,439 New Yorker cartoons, noting how the magazine’s cartoonists have lampooned parenting over time.
“Humor requires cultural resonance—comedy often hinges on the revelation, distortion or exaggeration of cultural realities,” the researchers write. Overall, they found that cartoons that showed having kids as beneficial waned over time, while cartoons about bad parenting have increased since the 1920s.
Almost 30 percent of all the parenting-related cartoons involved children doing something beneficial to society, like delivering papers or providing services or good deeds for their neighbors. Most of these were published in the middle of the 20th century.
Almost 18 percent of all the jokes poked fun at the cost of having children—most of them from either the beginning of The New Yorker’s run or its more recent issues. “Darling, here’s the bill from the hospital. One more installment and the baby’s ours!” a 1928 cartoon quips, while a 1996 one reads “Your mother and I think it’s time you got a place of your own. We’d like a little time alone before we die.”
And 17 percent of all the cartoons represented having kids as a natural part of life, depicting normal activities like families picnicking or walking around town. These were more common in the middle of the century, but have since been on the decline (probably as not having children became more normal, as the census data shows).
The researchers conclude that in eras where children are seen mostly through the lens of their high cost—in terms of finances, parental freedom, and life balance—people are more likely to opt out of having them. Cartoons from the 1920s and those from the late 20th and early 21st centuries were both more likely to poke fun at the cost of kids, coinciding with higher rates of childless people in those eras.
The art of social satire is a tough one, but a great humorist's keen observations, witticisms, and turns of phrase continue to ring true even decades later. "Humor is something that thrives between man's aspirations and his limitations," the musical comedian Victor Borge once noted. "There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth." (In other words, it's funny 'cause it's true.) Here are 15 more quips from some of America's most astute commentators.
1. MARK TWAIN (1835-1910)
Rischgitz, Getty Images
"Familiarity breeds contempt—and children."
2. DOROTHY PARKER (1893-1967)
Evening Standard, Getty Images
"That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment."
As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.
1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.
MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledgling publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: The envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.
2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.
MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.
3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.
But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.
4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.
A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.
5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.
From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, MAD finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.
6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.
Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’s other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by MAD’s New York offices and submitted his work; his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.
7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.
Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with MAD almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.
8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.
With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MADTV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: A 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; MADparodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)
9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.
MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.
10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.
MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, MAD also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.
11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.
In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic toldEntertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.
12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.
In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.
Additional Sources: Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.