If it sometimes seems nothing is funny anymore, it might just be a coincidence that the Mad magazine caricaturist par excellence Mort Drucker shuffled off this mortal coil – with a chorus of “Toot, toot, Tootsie, good-bye!” we hope – Thursday, at 91, at his home in upstate New York. There is no reason we know of to think his death in the time of the coronavirius is more than incidental, but what a further loss to humor and style and culture is this; or, to more properly state it, what a gift his was.
Drucker, like Bernie Sanders, Judge Judy, Adam Sandler, Michael Jordan and Woody Allen, was born in Brooklyn, six months before the Wall Street Crash, in 1929, and given the name Morris in an age of Morts. In 1947, when he was 18, he got a job as an assistant on Debbie Dean: Career Girl, a newspaper comic strip that chronicled the adventures of a “girl reporter” until it was shut down by the Comics Code Authority in 1949 for using the word “dope” to refer to drugs.
After a stop at DC Comics, where he worked on Hopalong Cassidy, and some freelancing, Drucker hit the jackpot – and so did we.
Founded in 1952, Mad, first as a comic book and than as a magazine, was devoted to satire and parodies. If the mid-century saw an explosion of popular culture, Mad was its annoying little brother, following it around and repeating everything it said, in a sing-songy voice but with great brio, fondness and skill: All was imagery, all was fake and ain’t we got fun? As The New York Times noted in a 1977 piece for its 25th anniversary, “It was magical, objective proof to kids that they weren’t alone ... there were people who knew that there was something wrong, phony and funny about a world of bomb shelters, brinkmanship and toothpaste smiles ... In 1955, such consciousness was possibly nowhere else to be found.”
Mad told you the world was inflated and offered a relief valve. After that, said Patti Smith, you didn’t need drugs.
When Drucker arrived at the magazine, in 1956, he focused on caricature work. In 1959, he illustrated a parody of the courtroom TV drama “Perry Mason,” “The Night That Perry Masonmint Lost a Case.” It would become the template for hundreds of TV and movie parodies Drucker drew over the next 55 years, typically working from his home studio on Long Island, where his wife, Barbara, served as his business manager, getting tough when the situation demanded it in her judgment.
Drucker, who called everyone “darling,” was not a tough guy. He specialized in crowd scenes, fitting a dozen or more recognizable figures into a frame without regard to any plot line. It was meta-art – everyone was in on the joke – and it could be wickedly funny. For color, he painted over his inked lines with Dr. Ph. Martin’s liquid dyes, which made his panels glow. But the secret of his success, he once observed, was that “you want to like the people you’re doing and you want to be honest to them, true to them; even if it’s someone like a politician whom you don’t like, and there are several whom I don’t like – I’m not going to poison my pen.”
Somehow, this loveliness served so well a distrust of authority, because what Mad skewered with Drucker’s help were the same things it adored. Nothing was genuine and it was all beautiful and achingly funny. That’s hard to remember in a time when everything seems all too invisible and real.
Darling, good night.