MAD Inspiration: Alan Bernstein's Quest to Make a Documentary About the "Usual Gang Of Idiots"

Has Mad Men replaced MAD Magazine as a cultural touchstone? 
 
Royal Oak filmmaker Alan Bernstein recently raised nearly $60,000 from 606 contributors in a Kickstarter campaign to complete his documentary, When We Went MAD. That topped its $50,000 goal by more than $8,000.
 
The venerable and venerated satirical magazine turns 60 this year. Like other septuagenarians, it's lost some steam but MAD can still rally the troops. Now bimonthly, MAD subscriptions are $19.99 for six issues. MAD endures in spite of -- or more accurately because of -- parental scorn. It teaches kids to say "No!" to politicians, media and advertising.
 
But Bernstein admits that his own subscription has lapsed. In his defense, he's been busy. Prior to the Kickstarter campaign, he and his crew had already bagged 20 interviews with past and current editors and contributors. 
 
There are roughly 20 more interviews to go, he says, with a goal of completing the film within the year.
 
"Many of the people who I interviewed don't write or draw for them any more. I don't think it's any surprise that people refer to it in the past tense. But it's still being published. Kids are still reading it… and it still has the same effect on them as it did on us. As long as there are advertisers who are trying to sell us a bunch of lies, there'll be place for MAD," Bernstein points out.
 
On March 31, Bob Clarke died at 87 years old. The artist who drew "Spy vs. Spy" and "Believe IT or NUTS!" for MAD had been on Bernstein's interview hit list. Like Clarke, many of "the usual gang of idiots" -- MAD's roster of artists and writers -- are in their late 80s and early 90s - an additional challenge for Bernstein.
 
"I'm quite upset that one of my favorite artists and one of the core artists in its heyday passed away and I never got a chance to talk to him," Bernstein says.
 
"My goal is to get their stories. One big challenge – I really want to interview people of note who were influenced by MAD: the Stephen Colberts, Howard Sterns and Jon Stewarts of the world. If I can squeeze 10-15 minutes out of them, we'll be in good shape."
 
Art Spiegelman once called MAD "more important than pot and LSD in shaping a generation that protested the Vietnam War." The renowned graphic novelist (Maus, RAW Magazine, The New Yorker) calls founding editor Harvey Kurtzman a seminal influence.
 
"What, me worry?" and countless other catch-phrases, characters such as perennial cover boy Alfred E. Neuman, and song and movie parodies galore gave MAD its power over generations of formerly innocent kids. 
 
Bernstein's first inkling that he wanted to make films came when he saw Star Wars in 1977 – "the coolest thing ever," he now says. His fate was sealed in 1981.
 
"I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and knew for sure. I was growing up reading MAD at the same time – I became just as obsessed with MAD," he says.
 
Even the name of Bernstein's production company, Potrzebie Pictures, LLC, is derived from a running joke in early issues of the magazine. The Polish word was inserted at random into MAD's articles.
 
Today, Bernstein travels the US with a crew augmented by friends who live in the various areas where he's done interviews. The total budget for When We Went MAD is in the $50,000 range, Bernstein says.
 
"We were able to raise that through Kickstarter and that's cool. I speak hesitantly (about the total budget amount) because we're still looking at other avenues of fundraising. Prior to (Kickstarter) it was all out of my pocket," he says.
 
Bernstein is a graduate of the University of Michigan's film and video studies program. Before embarking on the MAD odyssey, he co-wrote and directed One Half Gone, a feature film which did not get distribution on completion in 2000.
 
"It sits until I can pursue other ways of getting it out there…online, streaming. I haven't had time (but) I'm very proud of that film, I feel there's an audience for it. I need to get it out," he says.
 
"In 1991, I started thinking about doing a MAD documentary. I always felt that individual artists and the publisher would have their share of interviews but I never saw a comprehensive documentary on MAD's history and influence – all-encompassing look," Bernstein says.
 
He finally acted on the idea when he realized that many of the artists and writers he wanted to interview were passing away.
 
What's next for Bernstein and Potrzebie Pictures?
 
"Tomorrow is looking way far ahead. I'm actually in the middle of writing a screenplay based on the life of Al Jaffee, inventor of The Fold-In. His life story is as compelling a story as I can imagine. It'll be an actual narrative film based upon events and on his biography released a couple of years ago," Bernstein says.
 
(Al Jaffe: MAD Life was published in 2010, when Jaffee was 89 years old. He is also known for the regular feature, "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.")
 
"It is rooted in feature and narrative. I'm drawn to compelling stories and images in whatever format they're told in. If they're strong, I'm there" he says.
 
"My goal is always to be of a quality that could air on PBS. That's just a yardstick of how good a project I hope it to be. It would be tremendous if it could air on HBO. We're scrambling to plan for the actual documentary itself: an hour or an hour-and-a-half."
 
The interviews will be supplemented with examples from the magazine to highlight his points, Bernstein says. 
 
He enjoys working outside the Hollywood mainstream, he says.
 
"If getting your message out there by any means necessary is not the biggest concern, Detroit is a great place. It has a strong community and talent base. If your goal is to make a Hollywood film, then you have to go there. You have to be part of that community," Bernstein explains. "I compare it to any other industry and I don't say that as a knock on Detroit. If you want to make a car, you come to Detroit. You don't go to Kansas City. I've chosen not to be part of that industry for now at least."
 
Detroit and any other community outside of Hollywood have an advantage, Bernstein says. In those other communities, filmmakers' unique visions and storytelling have more flair.
 
"You can find great success in that if it's done right. Hollywood may glom on to that - especially if they can make money," Bernstein observes. 
 
"As for Hollywood, how many G.I. Joes do we really need?"

Constance Crump is Concentrate's Senior Writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine


All Photos by David Lewinski Photography