Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mad man

Satire, that thing currently agitating much of the world, saved me from eternal damnation 41 years ago.

So far, so good.

Forty-one years ago, The Exorcist came out in theaters. I was 12, doing my best in sixth grade, despite growing certainty the devil would soon possess me.

Mind you, I had not seen The Exorcist. I still haven't, except by accident, in snippets from old-movie channel promos. The head-spinning scene, usually. After so many horrific horror movies since, The Exorcist seems quaint, like an effect small children might have no trouble seeing in a Disneyland®™ ride through Sleeping Beauty©™'s castle.

The mere mention of the movie back then, though, froze my blood.

It didn't take much: Blurbs about the movie, complete with stills, in Time Magazine … news of the film's success on the TV news … the iconic poster of a dark figure standing under the spectral light of a streetlamp.

And the devil's own fanfare, Tubular Bells. It was impossible to escape Mike Oldfield's theme for the film, especially because even the devil couldn't have kept me from my Saturday appointment with all three hours of Casey Kasem's "American Top 40."

Three hours of waiting for Bennie and the Jets to get played, finally, just to hear the rising whistle from the crowd at song's end — which was my self-imposed "permission" to leave my room and play or do chores (why do we kids think and do as we do?). But all that waiting meant I had to endure Tubular Bells.

As if from a dream, the music seems to start in the middle, echoing distantly, the single phrase on the high end of a piano repeating, driving, repeating, louder, broader, supported next by a serpentine bass line. Closer and closer, coming for me. Though the song sweetens toward the end, suggesting salvation, I was sure none would come.

Maybe it's no coincidence that a "rock" version of The Lord's Prayer, by an Australian nun, Sister Janet Mead, was chasing Tubular Bells on the pop charts. Maybe someone sensed I needed protection against dark forces, and the discordant "Our Father" was designed to cancel out the devil's relentless tinkling.

I was taking whatever help I could get.

Human Play-Doh®™, I was so malleable. I had just conquered fears of being swallowed by earthquakes — not unreal where I grew up — and seared by nests of belching volcanoes (an idea our neighborhood babysitter planted in my head, while also trying to convince us kids she was a witch).

All I knew about The Exorcist:
  • It was based on a true story
  • The girl in it throws up and talks in a monstrous voice, not her own — the devil's
  • Catholic priests fight the devil possessing her, and it's not going too well
Therefore, as a Catholic kid still attending weekly catechism, and the only person in my family at that point still going to Mass, a sinner venial and maybe grave, I was eventually going to be possessed. I was a conduit, a lightning rod.

It was the same little-kid logic I applied to wearing short sleeves whenever I could, so teachers and other grown-ups could see right away I didn't have needle tracks on my arms and therefore didn't use drugs. In case anyone was wondering.

As The Exorcist grew in popularity, I carried my doom with me, refreshed every day by the constant radio play of Tubular Bells. If I told my mom about my fate — I don't remember — she would have kindly advised I was being ridiculous, and of course I wouldn't have believed her.

On into the summer doom went with me, up to South Lake Tahoe where we vacationed regularly at my aunt and uncle's cabin. Tahoe was no paradise for a lazy 12-year-old — it was too far down the bluff to swim in the lake, and back then I didn't like swimming; too many steps for too little fun at the giant metal slides at the playland down the road.

I was too young to pad around the casinos, of course, but just old enough to look after younger cousins.

Our one unsupervised adventure was going to the corner market for candy — and there I found my salvation.

MAD Magazine.

I invested my Chick-O-Stick™® and baseball card money into my first issue that summer, and absorbed my lazy self in a new world — where cartoonists made fun of the great big bad real world.

Don Martin turned convention on its absurd jug ears and cucumber nose. Sergio Aragon├ęs drew in the margins, hilarious at only a half-inch tall. Dave Berg was like reading Laugh-In in comic form, as he held a mirror to social and sexual politics of the time. Big stuff for a little kid.

MAD Magazine usually bookended each issue with parodies of hit movies or TV shows, with dozens of deft and dead-on caricatures by Jack Davis and Mort Drucker, and mocking titles such as "Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid" and "On a Clear Day You Can See a Funny Lady Singing 'Hello Dolly' Forever."

I studied the drawings but didn't read those parodies — too many words, and I hadn't seen any of the movies or shows to understand the jokes.

Summer became fall, and despite the revelation of MAD's satire, despite the delight of realizing life needn't be so serious and scary, my doom weighed heavier. Those damned Tubular Bells.

Then came October, high holidays for possessive demons. Hooked on MAD by then, I bought that month's issue. On the cover: A parody of The Exorcist, renamed The Ecchorcist. Mad's own gap-toothed mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, graced the cover, his likeness dressed as a devil (with pencil moustache) and printed on a barf bag. The tagline, "In this issue we gag up The Exorcist."

You … you can you do that?! And not become a double-jointed, pustule-pocked meat puppet of Satan?

I dove in.

Cartoonist Drucker and writer Larry Siegel, a TV comedy writer, unmasked the horror that had haunted me all those months, for a movie I had never seen. They pointed their fingers and laughed — laughed at the devil! — and I learned about the movie while laughing right along with them.
"Hear that vicious foul language?" the possessed girl's mother tells the priest in one panel. "See the smoke pouring out of her mouth! Have you ever seen anything like that before, Father?"

"Only ONCE!" the priest replied.

"You've met ANOTHER child possessed by the devil … ?!?"

"No, I was visiting a Public School," said the priest, "and I accidentally walked into the Girls' Bathroom."
That sort of classic MAD banter. And Drucker even recreated the iconic scene of the exorcist himself, silhouetted in the lamplight:
"Who's out there? Are you the Exorcist?" a voice from the house cries out.

"No, I'm the AVON lady —POSING as a priest. Who do you think I am?"
See the parody lovingly archived here, with the added comfort of yellowed paper.

It wasn't Shakespeare, or even Neil Simon, but it was good medicine. And it saved me, exorcising my demon. Satire saved me from irrational fear, and began teaching me to laugh at myself and regard life with a second, skeptical eye.

So far, so good.

•••

You want a great take on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris killings from a cartoonist? Read Joe Sacco, a reportorial cartoonist and one of my cartooning heroes.

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