Shared from the 8/21/2021 Albany Times Union eEdition

Remembering ‘The Hammerhead’

© MAD 2007. Used with permission


You may not immediately recognize the name John Caldwell of Ballston Lake. But if you’ve ever read MAD Magazine, National Lampoon, the Harvard Business Review, or a host of other magazines, or if you’ve ever sent a Recycled Paper greeting card or perused a collection of one panel cartoons in a bookstore, you’ve seen his work. He was an extraordinarily prolific cartoonist.

I first became aware of John while reading Writer’s Digest. He had a steady gig illustrating the magazine’s regular columns. His drawings were funny and smart. He always managed to add his own touch and didn’t just visually repeat what was written in the columns.

When I became co-editor of MAD Magazine with Nick Meglin in 1985, one of our first priorities was to recruit John. We wanted John’s twisted sense of humor, his bizarre characters in extra wide-leg pants, his highly opiniated cats and dogs, his idiosyncratic capturing of even the simplest things in life, in the pages of MAD.

We got him! John started submitting to MAD in 1986 and was in virtually every issue until 2016, writing and illustrating more than 200 articles.

One of the things I enjoyed most about John’s work was the unexpected variety of topics. Here are just a few of my favorite Caldwell pieces from over the years.

■ If chickens could time travel

■ Things King Kong could do to improve his image

■ The heartbreaking problems of aging Elvis impersonators

■ Pet peeves of Mafia hitmen

■ The upside to a nationwide bedbug infestation

Not only do I want to read those articles, I’m giggling even before I begin.

Around the MAD offices, John was known as “The Hammerhead.” He earned this nickname early on when he sent in a piece of finished artwork wrapped in flimsy brown paper and supported by a lone piece of extra thin cardboard – the kind you get when you buy a men’s dress shirt.

The post office, being the post office, bent and twisted the artwork almost beyond recognition. When the damaged package arrived on my desk, I immediately picked up the phone and called John. His answering machine picked up.

I began my message something like, “You stupid (expletive) hammerhead! How could you send in your artwork wrapped like a piece of fish?” Over the next five minutes I delivered an obscenity-filled, insult laden, stream-of-conscious screed about John, his unprofessionalism and what a complete moron he was.

About an hour later, John called back. He loved the message, listened to it several times and even played it for his wife, Diane. He especially loved being called a hammerhead and so, from that day forward, he was “The Hammerhead.”

I spoke to John practically every day. We enjoyed swapping jokes, especially when we found one the other hadn’t heard before. (No easy feat.) Rarely did our calls begin with “Hello.” Rather, they would start with “A priest, a rabbi and Abraham Lincoln walk into a bar…” When the joke was over, we would just hang up, having never really exchanged a single pleasantry.

Shy by nature, when John would make the trip down to the MAD headquarters in Manhattan, he would sit in the corner of my office as other writers and editors came and went. It was a tough room in which zingers, insults and one-liners flew. You needed a comedy hard hat to survive. John would just sit there with a bemused look, quietly taking it all in. It wasn’t until later, when we went out for dinner or a drink, that he would reveal himself to be as funny, kind and decent a man as you will ever meet.

John was also generous in spirit. He once had a small gallery showing of his work. A young woman cartoonist from Albany stopped by and introduced herself. After reviewing her work, John urged her to submit to MAD. He then called me and told me to expect a package from this great new talent he’d come across.

The woman was Teresa Burns Parkhurst. She quickly became a regular MAD contributor and soon after, her career took off. You can find her work in the New Yorker and many other publications and websites.

In the fall of 2015, I called John to reject an idea he had submitted. He said that wasn’t a problem because he was going to “close up the comedy shop for a while.” I knew from the tone of his voice something was not good. Not good indeed. A few weeks prior, he had received a very bad diagnosis from his doctor.

After I hung up with John, I called Teresa and we both choked back tears.

John Caldwell died Feb.y 21, 2016, at the age of 69.

It always bugged me that John’s humility and self-deprecating demeanor prevented him from recognizing just how funny and talented he was, from appreciating how admired and beloved he was by everyone at MAD. Which is why I’m writing this long-overdue remembrance.

Though it’s been more than five years since he passed, rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about John. I miss his skewed view of the world. I miss his squiggly-line art work and wise cracking animals. I miss our immature school boy-like phone calls.

I miss my friend, The Hammerhead.

John Ficarra is a retired editor of MAD Magazine.

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