Harvey Kurtzman unglued my reality.
The great cartoonist and key first editor of Mad Magazine introduced one simple little word into the magazine in May 1954, one that made absolutely no sense. It resonated, and Kurtzman’s brilliant successor as Mad editor, Al Feldstein, kept the gag running.
When we were kids we made a daily pilgrimage after school to the Duckwall’s five-and-dime store a third of a mile from our house, hoping to find a new Captain America comic book, or another gruesome, Joe Orlando-edited House of Mystery, or the new issue of Mad Magazine. Somewhere down the line, in one gloriously silly, juvenile number or other, my reading eyes skidded to a halt at the word “potrzebie.”
Here’s the buildup: there are many faultlines in my thinking. All early childhood memories are intense and fragmented, but mine seem particularly adrift, though, contextless and overwhelmingly associated with a sheer, staggering, fearful thrill of perceiving color, taste, smell, sound, and all, extending even to synesthesia. I couldn’t distance myself, everything was too loud, far too real. I could barely stand the sheer vividnesss of other people.
We all need context, a structure of perception that underlies judgement and choice. Fortunately, I had a world of books to comfort me. Here were super-real experiences that could be controlled, set at arms’ length, put down and pondered.
Another ready-made reality filter was the dull, Caucasian Christianity I inherited unquestioningly. Edged with shadows of Scandinavian gloom, girded with the magical power of repression, my Midwest Lutheranism contained a unified conception of the cosmos on every level, neatly anchored by profoundly powerful and somewhat grumpy allfather. Even after I lost faith, that context slotted me into reality, gave me a standpoint to work from. I found a way to contain my terror of being randomly buffeted about by my senses and the thoughts and feelings they stirred.
By the mid-‘70s, though, we had all given up on church. I was still working my way through the local library, quite literally. (I nailed the children’s’ library in about a year and a half. My mother had to sign off on me checking out insane armloads from the adult side after that.) By now I was thoroughly aware of the nature of the universe and my place in it. It just wasn’t especially thrilling. I could function, and did, grayly, senses turned down.
Then I hit “potrzebie.” It wasn’t even being used as a punchline! Like many a mental hotfoot, it was slipped in casually. No matter how anxious I was to make sense of it, I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure of much, but I did know my vocabulary words. This was not among them. Our house dictionaries, and those of the local library, provided not a clue. I am sure I had read “Jabberwocky” by that time, but somehow the concept of the non-sequitir still escaped me. Now it hit me between the eyes like a ballpeen hammer, a one-word, Borscht Belt Zen koan that exploded my mind.
I short-circuited. I laughed hysterically. Here was a gratuitous, fabricated formation of letters, could mean anything, could mean nothing, thrown onto the page without let or hinder, heedless of the laws of usage. It not only ignored the needs of the reader, it mocked them.
[Backstory: “Potrzebie” is a Polish word meaning “a need.” Harvey Kurtzman ran across it in a list of instructions in multiple languages that came with a bottle of aspirin. He cut it out, copied it, and started pasting it into the backgrounds of random Mad stories. It caught on, along with other classic Mad neologisms as furshlugginer, veeblefetzer, ecch, blecch, hoohah, fladdap, and shtoink. A satiric Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures persists in those pages to this day.]
And it invited you to mock along. It denied meaning. My tiny little mind didn’t know this yet, but Kurtzman was dipping into the same well of absurdity as the Surrealists. The waves of Eurosilliness ran through Lear, Carroll, Jarry, Joyce, and Ionesco, and quickly migrated into lower-brow artists such as Benchley, Perelman, Spike Milligan, Ernie Kovacs, Bob and Ray, and of course Mad.
“Potrzebie” gave me the power to step outside the dull, orderly system of consensual reality. Meanings were arbitrary, and, at base, silly and funny. And all my mental constructs went from stone to Jell-O. I was connected to unmediated experience again, without the terror of being overwhelmed by it. Life was laughable, was enjoyable. And I started creating. I didn’t know it, but I was doomed to a life of comedy.
This newly provisional reality could be tested for validity with the Sword of Potrzebie. Any given person, organization, creed, plan, system, was permeable, subject to the erosion of humorous query, skepticism, mockery, lampoon, and parody. The simple addition of the tiny word “potrzebie” into any magnificent but false landscape would explode it, set it aflame, bring it crashing down.
Not that this approach doesn’t have its dangers. Humor strips away superfluities. Like many young comics, I couldn’t tell the difference between myself and my act. I single-mindedly tore everything apart, including people, looking for material. To deny the meaning of everything is an untenable place from which to live – I tried it and it didn’t work.
I stopped staying up ‘til 3 in the morning at smoky bars telling dick jokes. I found a God I could live with, and writing. I have a family that puts up with me. My friends are the best in the world – they are funny, and don’t take too much seriously, but are absolutely solid, reliable, and honest, unencumbered by the phoney-baloney bullshit that passes for workaday relationships in this dodgy world, among the normatives, the control group.
I have very little money and a wheelbarrow-full of peace of mind. I owe it all to potrzebie.