On May 10, reporters at Politico asked President Trump what he thought of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend and Democratic presidential hopeful. The president was dismissive of Buttigieg. “Alfred E. Neuman cannot become president of the United States,” he told Politico’s reporters. Alfred E Neuman is the freckled, gap-toothed cartoon boy who’s been the face of Mad Magazine for decades. For some readers, Alfred E Neuman is an immediately recognizable cultural icon. But for others, he may be an unfamiliar, distant figure.
Asked about Trump’s comment, the 37-year-old Buttigieg said that he didn’t even know who Alfred E Neuman was. “I’ll be honest, I had to Google that, I guess it’s a generational thing,” Buttigieg said. He went on, “I didn’t get the reference. It’s kind of funny I guess, but he’s also the president of the United States and I’m surprised he’s not spending more time trying to salvage this deal with China.”
Here’s what you need to know about Alfred E Neuman:
1. He Was Inspired by a Portrait of a ‘Bumpkin’ on a 1950s Postcard, & Came to be the Face of Mad Magazine
Harvey Kurtzman, the founder of Mad Magazine, told the New York Times that he got the idea for Alfred E Neuman when he saw a postcard of a grinning boy back in the early 1950s. In the 1975 interview with the Times, Kurtzman called the postcard a “bumpkin portrait,” adding that it was “part leering wiseacre, part happy-go-lucky kid.” The postcard was captioned “What, Me Worry?” That line, along with the drawing of the gap-toothed, red-haired boy, came to be the face of Mad Magazine.
Alfred E Neuman first appeared in Mad in December 1956, when he was featured on the magazine’s cover as a write-in candidate for president. He was drawn by Norman Mingo, who painted the magazine’s covers for 20 years. Kurtzman told Mingo that he didn’t want Alfred E Neuman to look like an ideot. Instead, Kurtzman said, “I want him to be lovable and have an intelligence behind his eyes. But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him.”
2. The Inspiration Behind Alfred E Neuman May Date Back to 1894
For decades, historians and authors have debated the origins of the iconic boy on the front cover of Mad Magazine. Books and internet forums have argued over what inspired the face of Alfred E Neuman. There was even a lawsuit claiming that Mad stole the image from a cartoonist named Harry Spencer Stuff. In 1965, Stuff’s widow sued the magazine, claiming that Alfred E Neuman was a copy of Stuff’s caricature “The Original Optimist,” also known as “Me-worry?”, which he had copyrighted in 1914. The court ruled in favor of Mad, deciding that variations of the Alfred E Neuman image had been around for decades and weren’t subject to copyright.
A patent lawyer named Peter Reitan says that in fact, the real Alfred E Neuman, the original, dates back to 1894. Reitan wrote on his blog that the original image was used in a poster for a comic play called The New Boy, which first appeared on stage in 1894. Reitan wrote, “The Los Angeles Herald (November 7, 1894) reported, in words that may just as well have been intended for Alfred E. Neuman, that the, “comic red-headed urchin with a joyous grin all over his freckled face, whose phiz [(face)] is the trademark of the comedy, is so expressive of the rollicking and ridiculous that the New York Herald and the Evening Telegram have applied it to political cartoon purposes.”
3. An Envelope With a Picture of Alfred E Neuman in the Place of an Address Was Once Successfully Delivered to the Mad Magazine Office
By the 1960s, Alfred E Neuman had become an icon and was closely linked with Mad Magazine in the popular imagination. In fact, a fan wrote a letter to Mad magazine and put it in an envelope without an address; the envelope had a picture of Alfred E Neuman where the address should have been. The post office delivered the letter to the New York office of Mad Magazine (located on MADison Avenue.)
Mad Magazine’s Frank Jacobs wrote that Alfred E Neuman had already shown up in other “unlikely places.” Jacobs said that “placards of him as a candidate — “You could do worse, you always have!” — were flaunted at political conventions. His features were sculpted in ice at a Dartmouth Winter Carnival. Fred Astaire danced in an Alfred mask during a TV special. A party of climbers planted a Neuman flag atop Mount Everest.”
By 2019, Alfred E Neuman’s status may be on the decline. On May 10, President Trump compared Democratic presidential candidate to Alfred E Neuman, saying, dismissively, “Alfred E Neuman can’t become candidate.” But Buttigieg, who is 37, responded that he didn’t even know who the Mad icon was. In an apparent dig at Trump’s age, Buttigieg said, “I’ll be honest, I had to Google that, I guess it’s a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference. It’s kind of funny I guess, but he’s also the president of the United States and I’m surprised he’s not spending more time trying to salvage this deal with China.”
4. Mad Magazine Is Still in Circulation, but the Magazine’s New York Office Has Shut Down
Mad Magazine is still around, and issues are still being produced. But the humor magazine, which hit its heyday in the early 1970s, appears to be struggling. At its peak in 1972, the magazine had a circulation of 2.7 million. Last year, the Daily Beast reported that Mad’s circulation was down to about a tenth of that figure. The magazine’s New York headquarters also shut down, forcing the staff to relocate to the headquarters of its parent company, DC Entertainment, in Burbank, California.
The Daily Beast pointed out that Mad Magazine may be a victim of its own success. The humor magazine may have inspired so many spin-offs in the form of other satirical magazines and TV shows that the original Mad Magazine could not stand up to the competition. A cartoonist for Mad told the Daily Beast that by the 1990s, the magazine staff had a feeling that their magazine was becoming irrelevant. “The thinking in those days was that David Letterman was Alfred E. Neuman, and that his sensibility had permeated all of comedy,” R.J. Matson said.
5. Alfred E Neuman Became a Twitter Trend After Trump Compared Him to Buttigieg
Hours after President Trump compared Buttigieg to Alfred E Neuman, the face of Mad Magazine was trending on Twitter. At least one person claimed to have seen the resemblance between Buttigieg and Alfred E Neuman before Trump brought it up. A Twitter user wrote, “Trump is late on this. I noticed the resemblance a month ago. I fully plan to vote for @PeteButtigieg. I never meant it as a bad thing. Alfred E. Neuman is cool!!”
Others posted pictures of Buttigieg and Neuman side by side. One Twitter user dug up an old Mad Magazine reference to Trump from back in 1992:
Others put up more recent Mad Magazine covers featuring President Trump: