“You had to be there!” It’s one of those things you find yourself saying as you get older to people who are younger and who don’t particularly want to hear it. Often it’s applied to events or experiences that are universally acknowledged as important, as in “Yes, you may love Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but in order to truly understand the impact its release had on the world, well, you had to be there!” But sometimes it’s applied to experiences that a younger person might not comprehend when taken out of their original context. When it comes to explaining my decades-long fascination, borderline obsession, with Stanley Kramer’s megacomedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, I have often found myself saying, “You had to be there!”
When It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World opened in November 1963, I had just turned ten. (Yes, I know how old that makes me. Shut up.) Television had already turned me on to the world of comedy, which would become my life and my career. Daily showings of the classic films of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Abbott and Costello, and others were a passion for me, but I was just as interested in the contemporary comedians I found on prime-time variety shows and situation comedies. Theatrical films were rarely serving my needs, but I was a regular attendee of screenings of the works of Jerry Lewis and Walt Disney (whose films of the period are hard to defend except by saying, “Hayley Mills! Wow!”). I don’t remember when I first heard about the upcoming Mad World, but when I did, I must have heard it calling my name.
Kramer’s king-size comedy was going to be a tribute to the physical comedy of the past but, at the same time, be completely contemporary—daring to break conventions by being bigger, longer, and splashier than the genre had ever managed before. And the cast he assembled would be truly one of a kind: the movie would star the funniest people in show business as leads and have many other great comics of the past and present filling everything from supporting roles to small cameos—plus, as the ads promised, “a few surprises.” In truth, he was breaking another convention. Big movies were supposed to feature big movie stars that you couldn’t see on television. But Kramer knew that the type of comics he needed simply weren’t to be found in the movies. With the exception of Mr. Lewis, contemporary film comedy had moved away from sight gag craziness to (allegedly) more sophisticated romance and (almost) sex comedies with the likes of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. The great clowns of the early sixties could be found only on television.
To list that cast would take the rest of my space, but what Kramer also did by casting from television was to guarantee that kids like me would already know and love his stars. The lure was irresistible—not only would I see all these great comics in one place in one story, but they would also be pulled out of my tiny black-and-white, ghost-ridden TV and thrown, in color and stereophonic sound, onto the widest screen imaginable. Even the ads, featuring superb illustrations by Jack Davis (whom I knew from MAD magazine) that showed a globe exploding from the weight of untold numbers of recognizable lunatics, drew me in.
So, one day in early November, there I was at the Warner Cinerama Theatre in Times Square. From the overture (big movies had overtures!) that introduced the title song, marrying Ernest Gold’s magical music to Mack David’s somewhat less magical lyrics (“I know this may sound jerky / But in Turkey, who eats turkey?” Discuss.) through Saul Bass’s wonderful animated titles (this movie came with its own cartoon!) through the feature itself until the play-out music at the end, I was enraptured. And I was enraptured for a very long time—as an early Mad World adopter, I was among the select few to see the original three-hour-plus version. Too much movie? Not for me. I’m not sure I even looked at the film with a critical eye. I just knew it delivered what I came for, and I was a happy kid.
My second viewing of the film came the following year, when it was in general release, in a version that was almost forty minutes shorter, and it was a very different experience. Now for the first time I noticed and was surprised by what an odd duck Mad World really was, how dark, even bleak, it was. The subject was greed and what it makes people do. Mad World features a group of largely reprehensible characters doing awful things in pursuit of money. The only way I could identify with them was through my love of the comics who played them.
Did I still love the film? Was it still funny? I wasn’t sure. And yet, I revisited the film again and again and found my opinion shifting almost every time. In the decades since Mad World was released, I’ve seen it pan-and-scanned on commercial television (ugh), on VHS, on laserdisc, and on DVD. And at some point I found I was beginning to love it again. Even the film’s darkness came to seem actively daring and admirable.
I often wondered if I was alone in my fascination with this film, but in the world of the Internet, I’ve discovered, no one is ever really alone. There I found a large and lively group of fellow Mad World fans and advocates (hello, Facebook friends!). Many of these folks feel Mad World is the greatest comedy ever made. To be honest, I think better comedies have been made, a number of which are currently distributed by the Criterion Collection (and available on this very website! Ka-ching!). But I love the fans’ passion, and it has fueled my own.
And half a century after Mad World came out, I find my feelings have come full circle. I love it now for the same reason I loved it the very first time I saw it. What Kramer did was to capture a snapshot of an exact moment of American comedy. Most of the members of this extraordinary cast are no longer with us. I can and do watch the great work they did as individuals. But only here, in this huge baggy monster of a film, can I see them all together in one place doing what they did best: making people laugh.
Can this film work for a young audience with little or no familiarity with its stars? Did you really “have to be there”? Perhaps now we will find out. The folks at Criterion, along with the estimable restorer Robert A. Harris, have now put together something I never thought I’d live to see: a restoration of Mad World at something close to the length it was when I saw it in 1963, with commentary by some of the liveliest and most knowledgeable Mad World-ers I’ve encountered online. As I type this, I haven’t seen this version and don’t know exactly what’s in it (the first rule of Criterion Club: you do not talk about Criterion Club), but may I be honest with you? I cannot freaking wait.
Stephen Winer was one of the original writers for Late Night with David Letterman, which the Writers Guild of America has voted one of the 101 best-written TV series. He has also written for comedians Robert Klein and Dick Van Dyke and the Disney Channel’s New Mickey Mouse Club.