Dave Berg
A self-portrait of Dave Berg Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Text size

June 12, 1920, is the birthday of Dave Berg, the cartoonist who for more than 40 years, drew the “Lighter Side of …” feature for Mad magazine, and who died in 2002, just short of his 82nd birthday.

Berg grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a bookbinder turned construction worker who had at an earlier age studied for the rabbinate. He showed artistic talent from early on, and began studying at the Pratt Institute at age 12, and later at the Cooper Union, both art schools in New York. After service as a correspondent in the Army Air Corps, Berg worked for several different cartooning studios, namelyWill Eisner’s Quality Comics, Dell Comics and Stan Lee’s Timely Comics, the predecessor to Marvel. He began his career at Mad in 1956, four years after the satirical journal’s establishment by Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines.

Although directed at kids, Mad had a subversive undercurrent, mocking and lampooning just about everybody and anything. It didn’t accept advertising, and its masthead noted the name of the attorney who handled libel suits, together with the “usual gang of idiots.” Berg’s “Lighter Side of …" column, which he began in 1961, was gentler, at least inasmuch as it didn’t go after specific politicians or other public figures, but rather poked fun at the foibles of being human. He himself described it, in an interview with Contemporary Authors, as “a psychological and sociological study of the human condition.”

Over the years, “The Lighter Side” devoted entire columns to a look at family doctors, “Parents of Little Kids,” “Going Steady,” “The Revolutionary Movement” (in 1970), “Minor Ailments” and “Guilt,” among dozens of other topics, before Berg switched from dealing with only a single subject at a time.

His realistic pencil drawings often included a self-portrait, an alter ego whom Berg called “Roger Kaputnik,” a middle-aged chap with receding hairline, an ascot often tucked into his shirt collar and a pipe in his mouth. Kaputnik had the values and self-consciousness of a middle-class liberal, as well as an aversion to radicalism and hippies. He always seemed to be caught between his sensitivity to hypocrisy and prejudice, on the one hand, and a fear of being out-of-step with, or even ostracized by, society.

In a four-panel strip called “From Nags to Riches,” we see a middle-aged man in a tuxedo, ready perhaps to go out for the evening, asking rhetorically, “When do I ever stop being hounded?... When I was a kid, my parents hounded and hounded me, ‘YOU GOTTA MAKE GOOD! YOU GOTTA MAKE GOOD!’” In the third panel, he points to his kids, a girl in headband and a long-haired young man with beard and medallion, who clearly are having none of it, as he says, “Now my kids are hounding me…” – before, in the fourth panel, appearing crestfallen, as he explains, “… because I DID!”

In 1971, the far more biting National Lampoon mocked Berg when it depicted a hippie and a stereotypical hard hat, both drawn in his trademark style, beating up on Kaputnik, while denouncing him as a “wishy-washy liberal fink.” (“Fink” was a favorite word in the Mad glossary.)

In 1972, Berg published a text-heavy book of his humorous-but-very-serious musings on such matters as religion, race and prejudice, under the title “My Friend God.” Years after his death, his colleague Al Jaffee told an interviewer that Berg had “had a messianic complex of some sort…. [H]e wanted to be taken very seriously, and you know, the staffers at Mad didn’t take anything seriously. Most of all, ourselves.” When Berg came out with “My Friend God,” recalled Jaffee, “We would ask him questions like, ‘Dave, when did you and God become such good friends? Did you go to college together, or what?”

Starting in the mid-‘80s, Berg, together with another Jaffee, began drawing on the side for the monthly Chabad youth publication Moshiach Times. Berg’s regular column was called “The Right Thing,” which featured a bad kid, “Punky,” and an admirable one worthy of emulation, “Pinny.”

In his later years, Berg and his family moved from New Rochelle, New York, to the seaside Los Angeles community of Marina Del Rey, where he was president of the local B'nai B'rith chapter. He died at his home on May 17, 2002, with his wife of 52 years, Vivian Berg, and their two children, by his side.