On Gary Cooper, Tony Soprano and Alfred E. Neuman

The other day I wrote something for a client that said in part, “Think Gary Cooper: Be the strong, silent type – but polite.”

Never mind what it was about, except that it was in the context of an analogy about making movies. So it made sense.

But then one of my colleagues asked whether young people would know who Gary Cooper was, and what he was known for. So I polled a millennial or two with disappointing results. At one point, I tried explaining his character in “High Noon,” and my respondent said, “Sounds kind of like my grandpa.”

Exactly. So we just cut out the reference. It was impossible to insert a later pop culture figure, because it wouldn’t mean the same thing. We don’t have “strong, silent types” any more; men are a bunch of whiny babies. Which is essentially what Tony Soprano was on about in the clip above: He was expressing his contempt for modern men like himself, whining to therapists — although you’ll notice the therapist is careful not to tell him that that’s what he’s doing, because she’s afraid of him. You can be a scary guy and still a whiny baby.

And now we’ve got the kid with the funny name dismissing the fact that Trump compared him to Alfred E. Neuman by saying, “I’ll be honest; I had to Google that… I guess it’s a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference….”Neuman

No, Pete. It’s not a “generational thing. ” It’s a basic American popular culture thing. Saying you didn’t know who that was doesn’t make you hipper than the old guy in the White House. It means maybe you missed something, something the average idiot knows, when you were learning how to speak Norwegian just so you could read a novel in the original language.

Knowing who the “What, me worry?” kid is is simply a matter of pop cultural literacy.

The Post reported on the exchange by saying Trump was “comparing him to a caricature created decades before Pete Buttigieg was even born.” Really? Well, where does that leave such characters as Huck Finn, or Romeo and Juliet, or Jay Gatsby?

OK, maybe that’s unfair; those being such major cultural touchstones. How about this: Buttigieg knowing who Alfred E. Neuman is would be… like me knowing who Will Rogers was. Or Al Jolson. Or George M. Cohan. They were all dead before I was born, but I’m familiar with the roles they played in the popular imagination. By contrast, I believe MAD is still being published, although admittedly I haven’t read one in decades.

In Buttigieg’s place, I would have said, “I’m shocked at the suggestion that Trump has actually read something, even  if it’s only MAD magazine…” That would have been more to the point.

These kids today and their temporal chauvinism…

Where have you gone, Gary Cooper? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you...

Where have you gone, Gary Cooper? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…

52 thoughts on “On Gary Cooper, Tony Soprano and Alfred E. Neuman

  1. Bill

    Alfred E. Neuman doesn’t qualify as ‘basic American pop culture’.Mad magazine was that bad.It IS a generational thing.Who is Tony Soprano?

    1. Harry Harris

      As “bad” as you might consider Mad Magazine, it was edgy for its time, and cleverly humorous. Look how far we’ve come “generational” commentators. From Alfred E to Beavis and Butthead. We’ve lost a lot of subtlety, but gained a world of crudeness. Excessive crudeness is often passed off as talent.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        MAD was quite edgy back in the day (before Mr. B was born).

        I think I probably learned what “satire” was from reading it. My favorite feature, I think, was the movie spoofs….

        1. Norm Ivey

          I subscribe to MAD. I have for years. It’s not what it was in its heyday, but that’s because everyone else has caught up to them in their edginess. I KNOW I learned the meaning of satire from it. The movie/TV spoofs are still the best part. Much of the best stuff has been replaced by lesser stuff. I don’t remember it being as juvenile as some features are now. I miss Dave Berg and some of the other usual gang of idiots.

          Their annual 20 Dumbest Things issue is always solid.

          They moved offices from NY to LA last year and did a complete redesign of the mag. They even restarted the numbering of the issues.

  2. bud

    I’m with Bill. Alfred E. Newman really is a generational culture thing. Have you ever heard of Five Nights at Freddy’s? Most Gen Z folks can probably tell you. This was really nothing more than a hit piece on Mayor Pete. If you want to write about something that’s actually important why not start a discussion on Hunter Biden’s connection with a Ukrainian gas company and his father’s ill timed threats against an investigator looking into that company back in 2014. Not nearly as bad as Fox News makes it out but still that was not a good look for Biden.

    1. Barry

      I don’t think it’s important.

      This election is only about beating trump. As Trump supporters demonstrated in 2016 when they told everyone they didn’t care what Trump did or said, they had his vote.

      I don’t care if Biden was filmed handing out cash and advice to the Unabomber, if he’s the Dem nominee, he has my vote.

      1. bud

        This election is only about beating trump.

        Of course it is. Let’s stop acting like the NRA with their circular firing squad and quit with these poorly thought out take downs that really don’t amount to anything constructive.

        1. Doug Ross

          It’s really interesting how the phrase “circular firing squad” has permeated liberal commentary these days. I see it all the time now on Twitter… it’s almost like some people are easily manipulated to parrot talking points.

          Check out this Google Trend chart on the use of that phrase. Peaked at 100% two weeks ago,


          I see this happen all the time now on Twitter. People just repeat the same phrases they see from others.

          1. bud

            It peaked for a reason. Leadership at the NRA is engaging in a hilarious blame game. Who can resist that phrase? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Besides Doug, you are probably the single most guilty poster here for borrowing from others. So if you live in a glass house don’t throw rocks. As for the 2020 election winning isn’t everything it’s the only thing. And we really don’t need to bring a knife to a gun fight.

            1. Doug Ross

              Can you please provide an example of where I have “borrowed from others”? That would not include where I quote other people directly from sources, I would hope. That’s a whole lot different than making liberal talking points part of one’s daily speech.

              Geez, one of the biggest liberal websites, Move O, was basically the manifestation of the parroting of that phrase by Hillary supporters over and over.

              It’s just like CNN with their “breaking news” and “beginning of the end” and “bombshell” phrases they repeat ad nauseum to try and stoke liberal anger.

              The latest phrase is “constitutional crisis”. Watch how much that shows up in media in the next week or so.

              1. Doug Ross

                And, bud, do you reject what the link I included showed in terms of the use of the phrase “circular firing squad”? People don’t even realize how they are being manipulated.

                1. bud

                  Doug, I don’t know where you’re going with this but it really is bordering on an ad-hominem attack. As for the circular firing squad meme there is nothing wrong with using it when it applies. I would suggest you are being manipulated as much as anyone. You constantly refer to money as the driving force behind everything. Which really is nothing but a regurgitated Ayn Rand screed.

                2. Doug Ross

                  So you don’t actually have any examples of where I have borrowed phrases from others, right? Especially as “the single most guilty poster”? Surely there are all sorts of examples of me taking a current libertarian talking point phrase and injecting it into my speech and writing patterns?

                  I was just observing something I notice all the time now. A word or phrase pops up in social media accounts of liberals (and conservatives) and it very quickly is internalized by the lemmings.

                  I see it in other non-political areas. The term “Igotcha” has replaced “ok” in a lot of the people I hear speaking and “no worries” replaced “no problem”.

                3. bud

                  Ok Mr. Cliché police how some of these Doug’s greatest hits:

                  Elizabeth Warren doesn’t know a tax she doesn’t like.
                  Democratic “clown car”
                  Trump Derangement Syndrome
                  Brad checked the Trump Box
                  and every conservatives favorite:
                  Class Warfare

                  Really Doug, you need to lighten up a bit. Craft a good, well thought out argument and lay off the ad hominem attacks. Not gonna change any minds with insults.

                4. Doug Ross

                  “Elizabeth Warren doesn’t know a tax she doesn’t like.”
                  I never read that anywhere before if I did write it… so I wasn’t parroting any lines.

                  Democratic “clown car”

                  I came up with that myself. Sorry. No go.

                  Trump Derangement Syndrome
                  Yes. That is true. It’s a known malady affecting millions of liberals.

                  Brad checked the Trump Box
                  I have never heard that phrase before in my life. If I wrote it I don’t even know what it means. So it would be difficult for me to have heard it many times.

                  and every conservatives favorite:
                  Class Warfare

                  Please. That’s a long stretch.

                  So 1 for 5. I’ll assume 20% makes me the biggest offender.

                  Would you like me to peruse your posts for your brainwashed content? I could start with oligarchs and ban the electoral college without looking hard. I’m sure those are terms you used all the time.

                5. bud

                  Doug since you continue to shoot yourself in the foot I’ll offer this bit of advice: When you’re in a deep hole the first rule for getting out is to stop digging.

                6. Doug Ross

                  The irony of you borrowing a cliche to “own” me is not lost.

                  Go check Daily Kos to see what else to write.

              2. Barry

                It’s not just liberals.
                conservatives have plenty of phrases.

                Sleepy Joe

                All phrases started by the trump lemmings on Fox News and right wing-nut radio and/or Trump and reflexively repeated ad nauseam by Trump robots.

  3. Doug Ross

    Mad magazine is still in print but I’m sure the readership is over 40. I bought a bunch of recent copies that were on sale packaged 5 for $5 at av discount store. I grew up on Mad, then National Lampoon, then Spy magazine — Spy was great at skewering Trump a couple decades ago. They were based in NYC and called him the “short fingered vulgarian” all the time back then.

    But I’m not surprised Alfred E. Neumann isn’t culturally relevant to someone under 40. And even mentioning Al Jolsen and Will Rogers is showing your age. They aren’t a barometer of cultural awareness.

  4. Doug Ross

    This may be blasphemy but I think Elvis is not culturally relevant any more. His music has not lasted like the Beatles and other acts from that time.

    1. Bill

      An astute observation,Mr Ross.Elvis became a caricature of himself while he was still alive.I had a chance to see him near the end,but knew what to expect and declined;he’d become a depressing spectacle.As far as his music goes,he had a very short run of good recordings and at the end,was more an unappreciated opera singer than anything else.Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis’ bio is more interesting than Elvis’s music.
      When I heard THIS guy was playing,a few decades ago,I didn’t miss the show.He somehow became his guitar…

  5. Harry Harris

    I think Butti meant it as a dig on Trump’s age. Kind of clever way of hitting back without sounding like Trump. Would you prefer that he said “Trump is an old guy with orange hair who still fancies himself a ladykiller. I hear he cheats at golf, too, just to pad his distorted self-image.” I prefer Buttigieg’s subtlety.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Of COURSE it was a dig on Trump’s age. But to do it, he had to affect an ignorance that I find implausible, or if it’s true, slightly disturbing.

      Y’all have to realize, though, that I highly value general knowledge. I like people who know a little bit about everything. Not everyone does…

      1. bud

        Let’s see how knowledgeable you are Mr. I like people who know a little bit about everything:

        1. Who is Sheldon Cooper?
        2. Can you sing the Baby Shark song?
        3. What is Five Days at Freddy’s?
        4. How many of the My Little Pony characters can you name?
        5. Can you speak Norwegian?
        6. Where is the Timmerman Trail?
        7. How many days do the contestants have to spend in primitive conditions in the show Naked and Afraid?
        8. Where is the NASCAR museum?
        9. What is the fastest growing city in South Carolina?
        10. What accent does Peppa Pig speak?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Only one of those is comparable to “Who is Alfred E. Neuman,” and that’s number 1. And yeah, I know who he is. I might even be able to sing a verse of the “soft kitty” song, but I’m not promising anything.

          Most of the rest are more like, “without looking, how many of Alfred E. Neuman’s teeth show in his portrait, and which one is missing?”

          Some, of course, are things I would actively avoid knowing, such as the names of the “my little pony” characters. But I know what a “Brony” is — because that’s a general knowledge kind of thing, which illustrates that you have an understanding of the Ponies’ place in popular culture. It shows you’re aware, but that you are not a Brony yourself.

          The Naked and Afraid thing is REALLY something I would go out of my way to avoid knowing. I wish I knew less about reality TV than I do. For instance, I hate that I’ve heard of “The Apprentice.” I AM, however, aware of what “Naked and Afraid” is, because I saw the spoof on SNL with Peter Dinklage and Leslie Jones.

          And that’s the level I’m talking about, with regard to general knowledge. It’s not about esoterica…

          1. bud

            You just made my point. Some people know some things and other folks know different things. Granted I would not know about My Little Pony or Peppa Pig at all without grandkids. The baby shark song, however, is very much of a 2019 iconic marker. But that’s how I spend much of my time these days. As for Naked and Afraid, that is far more relevant today than Mad Magazine. It actually demonstrates important survival and team building skills. The Timmerman Trail (near Cayce), NASCAR Museum (Charlotte) and fastest growing city (Myrtle Beach) questions are relevant to a member of the Carolina Community. I know these things because these are things I find interesting. I do not find the Sopranos interesting but if others do, fine. We all have different life experiences and learn different stuff from those experiences. I find it a bit chauvinistic to judge others because they lack knowledge of stuff that you regard as relevant.

            1. Barry

              Good post Bud. I don’t find Brad’s references particularly interesting either.

              I like Gary Cooper plenty as an actor but I don’t find it relevant that a 38 year old doesn’t know or care about him.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              I wasn’t answering everything I knew, but just the ones that I found interesting.

              I was well familiar with Peppa, but couldn’t recall the accent. Something British, I’m thinking, but can’t swear to it. I can, however, sing the Wonder Pets song. And if it were a test, I would have picked Myrtle Beach as fastest growing. It’s been that for a long time. And I’ve walked on the Timmerman Trail, named after the SCANA guy.

              And I make use of generational tropes myself. I call the youth-oriented, lefty faction of the Democratic Party the “Peanut Gallery” just to make the little punks look it up… Even I just barely remember Howdy Doody, old as I am…

        2. Bart

          Well bud, I guess you don’t like me. I know #1 and #8. #8 only because I had a project next to the museum in downtown Charlotte and couldn’t avoid seeing the huge sign.

          1. bud

            Well this is awkward. I was actually trying to show how we’re all different in many ways large and small. And that is a good thing.

            1. Bart

              bud, you know I was kidding, right? I appreciate the differences we all have and that is what makes the world a better place once we get past the “stuff that separates us”.

              Good list, maybe I should start to explore other things a little more.

              Have a great evening!! 🙂

  6. Mark Stewart

    I will plead the 5th on this one.

    Speaking of which, what the heck has happened to Lindsey Graham? Despicable seems to be the only word for his new-found attachment to all things Trump.

  7. Bart

    Generational I know but what was very humorous at the time was when Ted Koppel was on ABC. A dead ringer for Alfred E. Neuman. Mad Magazine was a great piece of satire during its heyday and I read every publication I could find. Doug mentioned a couple of others that were good but Mad kinda paved the way for sarcastic satire and great parodies of popular figures, celebrities and politicians. Much in the same genre as Walt Kelly and Al Capp but with a bit more pepper.

    I miss the days of the true satirists and comedians who could make us laugh without using a string of foul words. If the “f” word was taken away from most comedians today, they wouldn’t be able to perform. Maybe I am way behind the times but that is fine with me.

  8. Norm Ivey

    When I began teaching in 1990, I can say “lions and tigers and bears” and pretty much my entire class would respond “Oh my!” without any other cue. By the time I left the classroom, that was no longer true.

    It’s part and parcel with the reason there are so few mega-hits or mega-stars in music now. Our sources of cultural consciousness have become fragmented. There used to be half a dozen radio stations, 3 or 4 TV stations and maybe a handful of publications that EVERYONE had access to. Now, there are thousands of outlets for this kind of stuff, and so very few of them get enough traction to become a part of who we are. Even viral memes last a few days or weeks at best, and then they’re gone.

    I think the days of widespread shared experiences are gone forever. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I can hear Monk playing “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” in my head any time, but that’s unusual for me.

              Normally, I have trouble recognizing instrumental music. My brain need lyrics to grab onto.

              That makes me embarrassingly ignorant whenever a Big Band classic plays.

              Play “Begin the Beguine” for me and I’ll go, “Hey, that’s… that huge Big Band hit…” but probably won’t be able to name it.

              Sadly, beyond 20 or 30 pieces (first movement of Beethoven’s 5th, last movement of his 9th, Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and maybe the overture to The Magic Flute, Pachelbel’s Canon, three or four Tchaikovsky pieces, those kinds of things), I’m sort of helpless on classical, too. Although I enjoy it…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Not that I’m above showing off when I DO know something. Or at least, I wasn’t above it when I was younger.

                Once, in the newsroom of the school paper at Memphis State, our sports editor Clay Bailey went to change the radio from the university station, and I said, “No, wait! That’s the Love/Death Theme from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde!”

                He looked at my like I was crazy. I loved it.

                Like I could identify anything else by Wagner beyond Flight of the Valkyries…

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I happened to know that for two reasons:

                  1. I had just taken a Music Appreciation course.
                  2. It was used in “Blume in Love,” a highly forgettable movie except for the fact that I took my wife to see it on our first date — which was around that time.

                2. Bill

                  It helps to see as much live music as possible,especially w/jazz.So much of the music is improvised,being there helps you follow and make sense of it all,but jazz has never been very popular.You’re doing better than most…

  9. Norm Ivey

    Following the deaths of Tim Conway, Doris Day and Peggy Lipton, I had a conversation with a colleague who was sharing what a difficult time he had trying to explain who those people were and their place in pop culture history. He said his son finally got it when he mentioned that Lipton was married to Quincy Jones, and the kid (high schooler) knew that Quincy Jones worked with Michael Jackson.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yikes! Needing Michael Jackson to understand who Quincy Jones is? As the president of the United States would say: Sad!

      OK, here’s the standard: Anyone of any age who wants to be seen as generally knowledgeable about our culture MUST know who Doris Day was.

      You do NOT have to know who Tim Conway or Peggy Lipton were. Although if you don’t know who her daughter Rashida is, you’re missing out.

      And yeah, unfortunately, he’d have to know who Michael Jackson was…

      1. Bill

        Not one of my favorites but Michael Jackson was a hugely gifted performer/artist, unlike say,Woody Allen,an overrated schmuck/sicko who continues to get a free ride…

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