The phrase, “What, me worry?” was first attributed in 1898 to John Phillip Holland, an Irish engineer and developer of the submarine. A caption to a cartoon showed him emerging from the hatch of one of his creations in a top hat saying, “What, me worry?” This phrase was particularly poignant because submarines of the day were frequently referred to as “iron coffins”. Apparently he had, or was bravely pretending to have, great confidence in his invention.
The most well known use of, “What, me worry?”, is attributed to Alfred E. Neuman, the fictitious masthead visage of Mad Magazine. From its inception in 1952, it was de rigueur reading for adolescents resisting the full embrace of the maturity and responsibility the post war norm tried to foist on them. It was silly, juvenile, clever, satirically insightful. It was one of the publications our parents most disliked and discouraged us from reading. It made fun of cultural norms, movies, politics, the classics and just about anything else that would annoy the grownup world.
Mad Magazine still exists but it has, in the most part, lost its cultural relevance. It’s circulation peaked in 1974 at more than two million and declined rapidly in the years after that. This was about the time many Baby Boomers had reluctantly begun to accept that they had to join the American Rat Race and actually earn a living. It was time to store those old issues of Mad, along with one’s comic book collection in the attic or basement only to be tossed in the trash by a parent while their child was off to college or the military. I know a couple of people who still haven’t completely forgiven their mothers for this when they realized that the value of those early issues could have made early retirement a real possibility.
How such mass marketed, puerile publications could thirty or forty years later actually have real value got me thinking about one of my favorite movie comedies which came out at approximately the same time Mad Magazine was gaining readership. This was the timeless comedy, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World”. From the first time I saw it at the Palace Theater in Marion, Ohio to every other viewing on VCR from the local Block Buster rental store, DVD, Blue Ray and Netflix streaming, I would laugh myself crazy. There was something so hilarious about seeing ordinary people go absolutely mad in their quest to find the buried treasure before any of the others. People who would ordinarily treat others with at least a modicum of respect were turned into ruthless competitors willing to do just about anything to beat out fellow citizens to get the $350,000, ($3,500,000 in today’s dollars), buried under the big “W” in Santa Rosita State Park. This money, mind you, was stolen from a bank several years earlier.
It’s funny when we see human folly skewered in a satirical magazine or acted out in a comedic movie. It isn’t so funny when we see it in real life as we have of late. “Mad”, takes on a much more ominous meaning when we see some of our fellow citizens setting fires and robbing stores while peaceful demonstrators are gassed, beaten and sometimes killed by those who are supposed to have sworn to uphold the law. “Mad” has a totally different meaning when a congressman calls a fellow congresswoman a nasty misogynist slur and then denies he ever said it. “Mad” means something totally different when the President of the United States publicly sends well wishes to a woman accused of sex trafficking underage girls. “Mad” takes on a whole new meaning when conspiracy theories are bandied about on social media that claim Bill Gates wants to implant microchips in all of us so he can control us. (I am still wondering how he would do this). When our Commander in Chief gives credence to a tweet from a washed up game show host that the whole Covid-19 is a hoax perpetrated by the majority of doctors and nurses all over the world, that calls for a whole new definition of “Mad”.
Sometimes I can repeat to myself Alfred E. Neuman’s mantra, “What, me worry?”, and feel it. Worrying won’t make things better. Not paying attention to what is going on around me won’t make things better either. It will just make me ignorant. I have little doubt that John Philip Holland didn’t worry about his submarine design, at least to the point he was reasonably sure it wouldn’t sink to the bottom of the Atlantic. There is a time to worry and a time to not worry too much. We seem to be in times that make it difficult to know which is right.
I am hoping that sometime in the not so distant future, we can again find a way to satirize ourselves; a way to laugh at our folly and understand that it comes from our fear of the unknown not each other.
It seems we also need a 21st Century version of Mad Magazine that helps us see how out of touch we have become with ourselves, how we are locked into impossibly rigid beliefs that don’t allow for other points of view.
We could also benefit from a modern version of, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” that reminds us that when we let greed overtake us, we lose sight of personal and political honesty until someone obnoxious, (spoiler alert), slips on a banana peel. We can then laugh at our own folly until we cry away the pain, at least for awhile, of living in a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
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