Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Genius that was Dave Berg

He wasn't really very funny, Dave Berg. His people looked pretty much all the same, and he couldn't really handle anything resembling psychological complexity. When you think of the Giants of Mad Magazine, you don't really even think of him in the top five, probably. (Don Martin, Aragones and his unfunny but undeniably outstanding Spy vs Spy, Jaffee of course, Mort Drucker and whoever else did the satires.... okay, so maybe Berg's fifth, but really he's not in the top three, maybe just the Best of the Usual Gang of Assorted Idiots...)

But for my money, there is simply no comparison in terms of how often in this life, this real, Kaputnikkian life of adulthood and responsibilities, and being a husband and a father and Man in the 21st Century, a cartoon from Dave Berg springs to mind. It happens probably once a week, if not more. Whereas a Don Martin, or an Aragones... well, I'm never walking down the street and have the thought: "Geez, that's just like the time the black spy trapped the white spy by wearing a fake cone on his nose and trapping him under a cement mixer."

But Berg....

The killer, for me, was The Lighter Side of... oh, I don't know, Public Transportation or something. Roger Kaputnik, the Berg hero/alter ego, was sitting on a bus, alone with his thoughts, just pleased he had a two-seat row all to himself. Then he started worrying a bum would sit next to him - 'some bum with B.O.' -- the first I'd heard of B.O., I knew it was bad and pretty much thought it was the DT's, not that I knew what that was either.... Then, sure enough, a bum comes onto the bus and starts weaving down the aisle towards our man. Kaputnik is startled, dismayed - oh, no, he thinks, the bum is gonna sit next to me, and the bum will surely have B.O. But the bum doesn't. Wouldn't you know it, the bum passes him by, and Kaputnik, humiliated, thinks, "Why didn't he sit next to me? What, does he think I have B.O. or something?"

But as brilliant and frankly archetypal as that strip was, as often as I think of it in my daily life (and it's a lot, trust me), that's not the one that has me thinking of Berg this week. No sir, this week is one that drove me crazy as a child, because I didn't really get it, but something about it made me angry. In this, the male hero (not Kaputnik, interestingly - for you graduate students out there anyway) is with a rather knowing and smug black-haired woman, who we take to be his wife. The two are arguing - a rather sharp and unpleasant argument... and maybe he's making all kinds of threats, or all kinds of complaints anyway, about how he gave up his old life for her, he's got his old life he could go back to, all the parties and girlfriends. She tells him he's chicken, that he'll never do it. And the guy calls her bluff, storms out of the house and heads to a local bar. He goes to a payphone and calls up an old girlfriend, he'll show that woman who's boss! We see the guy's face as the girl walks into the bar. "Well," she asks, "what do you have to say for yourself?"

And then the final (of four frames?! Good God, the man was a genius of economy!) shot, the punchline reverse angle: we see the woman -- it's his wife, smirking beautifully -- and the guy, thoroughly emasculated, clucks like a chicken.

I am in the city alone this week. The family is in Maine, having a grand time, my wife and two adorable girls, and as I saw this date looming, this long separation from them (for me, anyway, 16 days but who's counting), I started to fantastize about all the fun I would have alone in New York, the movies I would see, the hamburgers I would eat, the books I would read, the old friends I would reconnect with...

Cluck, cluck, my friend.


Brooks Hansen said...

the other great, and here un-noted, genius of Berg was his fashion sense, of course. I dare say, of all the artwork to be found in MAD - or CRACKED, for that matter - none was quite the time capsule that Berg's oeuvre was, and is.

The man liked to draw pockets.

Also, for all the times a Berg piece occurs to you in your daily life, I will do you the favor of assuming that you do a better job than Kaputnik of keeping your reaction shots to yourself.

Nick said...

I don't. Every time I think a Berg thought, my brows lift up, my mouth forms an O-shape, and three beads of sweat fly off my forehead.

Stephen said...

I guess you mean this strip from April 1964:


You're onto something here, that's for sure. He def. didn't appeal to me when I was a kid. And while I still don't think he's funny, he's clearly observant. And adult. I relate to his strips now more as a grown-up.

I hated when he'd draw William Gaines as one of his characters. Seemed so ass-kissy.

As for me, there was one I read as a kid, about 8 years old that stuck with me. I don't know why, but he def. touched a nerve in me, much the way he did with you. It's this one from October 1964:


Nick said...

Yes, I love the Berg portrayal of modern American man as constantly obsessed with sex. (So where are you finding these gems? Where can I find my Kaputnik on the bus classic?)