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The MAD Trips – Part I

Without a doubt, the 4 MAD Trips I went on (the last ever, it turned out) were my favorite times as a junior member of The Usual Gang of Idiots. (For those not familiar with them, the MAD trips were begun by Bill Gaines in the early 1960s – all-expense-paid jaunts for staff and regular contributors to places all around the world, lasting 1 or 2 weeks each; at first, they were every year; but by the late 1980s, every other year. Bill thought they would build cameraderie and enhance creativity…whatever: they were a damn good time!)

My first was the 1987 MAD trip to Paris and Zermatt, Switzerland. It was also the first trip of Sam Viviano (now MAD’s Art Director but then a lowly freelancer like me). Sam and I realized that the two of us must have been the first new contributors on the trips in 15, maybe 20, years. (there had been new MAD staffers, but I think we were the first new writers or artists to meet the page-count requirements to go on The Trip). Aside from the honor of being admitted to this truly exclusive club, one unforeseen benefit of being the “new kids” was that, for the Founding “Usual Gang” — who had been on more than 20 MAD Trips together, and who had heard all of each others’ stories several times over — Sam and I were, at long last, a fresh audience for them! Which we took full advantage of, hanging out ’til 3 a.m. in the bars with Al Jaffee, Bob Clarke, Jack Davis, George Woodbridge – hearing all the stories of not only the good old MAD-Magazine days, but the MAD-comic/Harvey Kurtzman days; the non-MAD stuff like their doing the artwork for half the national ad campaigns, board games, and graphic-design-whatevers of the 1950s and 60s; the days of Bob Clarke on staff of “Stars & Stripes” with Bill Mauldin during WWII. It was great stuff! All from first- or second-hand sources of the guys who actually lived it! I can’t speak for Sam, but I’m pretty sure I glanced over at him several times during these bar all-nighters to see a look in his eyes that said the same thing I was thinking:Wow! Can you believe this?! We’ve hit the All-Time Mother Lode of Fandom!” Because that’s what we were right then: just fans.

And then there was…The Dinner. (Which I capitalize because for most of the invitees, every other dinner in our lives will pale into undeserving lowercase by comparison.)  The setting: the world-famous L’ami Louis restaurant in Paris, which had been the center of the gastronomical universe of Haute Cuisine a generation earlier (none of this light, low-fat “Novelle Cuisine”-crap for Bill Gaines! Even if it was the 80s!).  We were duly warned beforehand: eat light earlier that day; this would be a 7-course meal, over roughly 4 hours…”and forget about your cholestrol!” The best way to sum up this exotic & expensive feast: they served us pate de foie gras...and escargo…and frogs legs — all BEFORE the main course. (And, yes – it was at this dinner that epicurean history was made by our Lenny Brenner: I’m referring of course to the Invention of the Escargo Hero-Sandwich!)

Also in the joint that night, we would learn, was the president of the French company that makes Cointreau [KWAHN-troh ], the very classy & also expensive liqueur. His young American wife was a MAD fan and recognized several of the more recognizable MAD folk. He had the restaurant serve us all complimentary glasses of Cointreau, and, in return, several of the MAD artists drew up quick ‘thank you’-sketches to present him. One was a caricature of him and his wife; another was a drunken Bill Gaines swigging a bottle of Cointreau; still another, Alfred E. Neuman in a beret sipping Cointreau. Finally, Bob Clarke’s drawing was passed along – it was a giant koala bear sitting astride a 747. After much head-scratching and confused questioning, it dawned on Bob, Cointreau?! I thought he said he was president of Qantas!”

One other memorable group-recognition incident: we all took a trip-within-The-Trip to the house of Claude Monet, iconic French Impressionist painter, in the town of Giverny, northwest of Paris. In the middle of all the high-art reverence we could muster, suddenly a large group of visiting college students from Northern California spotted Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, and Sergio Aragones…and proceeded to surround and besiege them for the next half-hour with fan-questions about MAD, and requests for autographs and sketches. (Monet wasn’t home at the time, so I’m not sure how he felt about being “upstaged” by other artists in his own house; the rest of us were highly amused by it.)