PLEASANT RIDGE — While many people are quick to argue that the world has gone mad with every disappointing new twist and turn, Alan Bernstein knows for a fact that it went MAD more than 60 years ago.
For his latest project, the 43-year-old Pleasant Ridge filmmaker is celebrating the history and influence of MAD magazine. The as-yet-unfinished “When We Went MAD!” traces the lineage of the satirical publication, which has been gleefully warping young minds with its offbeat humor since 1952. Bernstein, who serves as director and co-producer of the documentary, explained that the cinematic tribute to his beloved MAD magazine originally stemmed from a desire to reach out to its creators before it was too late.
“I just got kind of tired of reading all these obituaries of former MAD writers and artists,” he said. “It looked like I was running out of time to make this happen, so I decided that it was now or never.”
Bernstein’s project received a huge push toward the finish line earlier this month with the successful completion of an online campaign via the “crowd funding” website Kickstarter. More than 600 people from around the world donated money during a 30-day period, generating more than $58,000 to help Bernstein finish “When We Went MAD!”
Bernstein has already completed the first phase of the film, conducting on-camera interviews with about 20 former and current MAD writers and artists to tell an oral history of the magazine and explore its impact on American popular culture. The second phase will be to interview numerous entertainers, comedians, politicians, writers and others who were influenced by MAD growing up.
The filmmaker himself was one of those people. Bernstein began reading MAD magazine at the age of 6 and immediately felt a strong connection to its style and content.
“It was silly but also challenging, and it really shared my sense of humor,” he recalled. “MAD forced you to rise to its level; it never talked down to you. And as I’ve gotten older, it’s also taken on a big nostalgic factor for me.”
There are plenty of other local MAD fans who would like to see Bernstein finish his movie. Mike Lester — owner of Time Travelers in Berkley, a store that specializes in comics, cards and collectibles — has been an avid reader of the magazine since the 1950s and continues to sell new and vintage issues of MAD in his shop.
“You’d be amazed at how many kids still come in and buy those magazines,” he said. “It’s still really popular among people who read comics, so I think it’s cool that this guy is making a documentary. As someone who’s very familiar with MAD magazine and its history, I would definitely be interested in seeing a film about it.”
Lester appreciates the fact that MAD has remained largely unchanged through the decades. Its brand of humor and artwork are still intact, he said, which is a major boon for all those who grew up enjoying the gap-toothed grin of MAD’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, and recurring comics like “Spy vs. Spy.”
“I started reading MAD when I was 8, and I loved the fact that there were all these caricatures of things that I was familiar with,” Lester explained. “I always found that very appealing, because it was like getting a peek behind the scenes to the dark side of your favorite movies and TV shows. A lot of other companies have tried to duplicate their style over the years, but MAD was the first and the best.”
While Bernstein was able to exceed his fundraising goal of $50,000 for “When We Went MAD!” he came precariously close to falling short. The rules of Kickstarter state that, if a project fails to reach its goal, the creators do not receive any of the money and all donations are returned to the senders. With three days remaining, Bernstein had only raised about $42,000, but thanks to a final promotional barrage from the filmmaker and his friends and colleagues, he was able to reach the mark.
“We started sending out tweets to every comedian and writer and celebrity we could think of,” he said. “Then the donations started coming in. I like to say that our campaign didn’t go viral — it went sniffle.”
Bernstein is hoping to finish his movie by the end of the year, noting that the finished product will run between 60 and 90 minutes. He aims to be “as economical as possible” with the money that he raised, but also admitted that he may need to hold additional fundraisers in order to cover all of the post-production expenses. “I have big plans, but I still have to figure out how much those big plans are going to cost,” he said.
Bernstein also intends to thank all those who donated to the project via Kickstarter. To show his gratitude, he is giving out additional prizes ranging from postcards, buttons, posters and T-shirts to free downloads and DVD copies of the film, all of which are based on the amount of the contribution. The two donors who pledged $10,000 or more will even be listed as “executive producers” in the documentary’s credits and invited to sit with Bernstein at the world premiere.
The filmmaker noted that, throughout this process, he has received numerous compliments and words of encouragement from longtime MAD diehards and other generous donors. But some of the feedback that he collected has stood out above the rest.
“The comments that I’ve gotten from people connected to MAD — the family members of the writers and artists who have passed away — those are the ones that have really taken my breath away,” Bernstein said. “That meant a whole lot to me. I’m a perfect stranger to these people, and they trusted me enough to not only donate their money, but also to tell the life story of their loved ones. That also puts a little more pressure on me to deliver a great film, but now is when the real fun begins. I’m looking forward to putting in the work to prove to everyone who donated that I was a good bet.”
Go to www.peebofilm.com/wwwm for more information on “When We Went MAD!”