The squiggly self portrait that doubles as Al Jaffee's signature is how we always picture him: Curly-haired and bearded, with a spiky mustache protruding from under his circular nose, slightly self-deprecating and entirely goofy. It was a fitting image to go with the wry fold-ins at the back of Mad Magazine, issues we collected under our bed from the time we were eight, and which we blame for our early-onset cynicism. The man behind the quirky signature and delightfully absurd cartoons, however, has a far less humorous story to tell.

His recent memoir, Al Jaffee's Mad Life written by his friend Mary Lou Weisman, is an account of his startlingly dysfunctional childhood. At age 6, at a time when thousands of Eastern Europeans were immigrating to the U.S., Jaffee's orthodox Jewish mother dragged him and his brothers in the opposite direction, to her primitive shtetl in Lithuania. Left to fend entirely for himself, his memoir reads like an Ashkenazi Huck Finn. Hungry, neglected and often infested with bedbugs and lice, Jaffee started drawing cartoons. As Hitler was coming to power, Jaffee's father rescued the boys and brought them back to Brooklyn, where he later became part of the first class admitted to the High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia, on the UWS). Now, at almost 90, the longest running contributor to Mad Magazine has churned out well over 400 fold-ins, and has no intention of stopping. Jaffee talked with us about being nonconfrontational, not paying attention to the Kardashians, and having his birthday celebrated on the Colbert Report.

At what point did you decide it was time for a biography? That all happened by accident. I met Mary Lou Weisman, one of my neighbors in the complex that we live in in Provincetown, and she knew nothing at all about cartooning or cartoonists. But she was kind of intrigued, and said, "I'd like to do a magazine piece about you." You know, she was an experienced journalist, so she was always looking for subjects. So she wrote a very short article that she tried to get published in the New York Times or the New Yorker. For one reason or another, they weren't interested. So the local art magazine, Provincetown Arts, published it. My God, that was about 30 years ago!

About two years ago, a colleague of mine who runs a cartooning school in Vermont and also does graphic novels, he read this piece in an old Provincetown Arts, and he said to me, "You've got to make a book out of this, it really is a very interesting story." And actually it was just a little bit of my whole biography. Eventually, we got a publisher, we got an agent, and Mary Lou got really excited about it. And the rest is what you know!

I don't think anyone, as readers, expected a story like this, knowing you only through your cartoons. It's quite horrifying, actually. No, no one did! When we made the proposal, I think their main interest was my connection with Mad Magazine. Then when they found out it was actually a real book, not just something about a humor magazine, everybody got much more excited. They did a much larger print run than we ever dreamed of.

It's written in a very fairy-tale style, despite being so grim. Did you choose for it to be written it that way? You know Zoë, I haven't heard it described that way, but I think you're probably very much on the mark with it. It starts out with a lot of dysfunction, and a lot of scary circumstances, at least for me as a little kid to be schlepped all over the continent and across the ocean to a little town that didn't look a thing like where I came from in Savannah. So things were pretty grim at times.

But, you know, children figure out how to have a good time no matter what circumstances they're in, pretty soon they start playing games like hide-and-seek and tag and stuff like that, and they forget that they're being neglected or not fed on time. Children fortunately have short memories about the bad things. But as soon as something nice comes in this town in Lithuania, it was completely surrounded by water, the lakes were just beautiful. So when things got grim, we'd just get together with other kids and dive into the water. The days passed, but there were some pretty grim times too.

I could barely read the chapter on you being infested with bedbugs and lice in Lithuania. You know, it's funny you mention that! Lately with all these stories here in New York about bedbugs...

I was going to ask about that! Is all this bedbug news in the city touching a memory-nerve? Did the childhood infestations leave you with a phobia? You know, when I read about it in the newspaper, my wife Joyce said, "Oh boy, that's all we need." A friend and neighbor of ours just a few blocks away did get bedbugs, and spent a fortune getting the apartment clean. We got a notice from our building manager saying we didn't have bedbugs, but to be on the lookout.

Never a fun thing to hear. No! But, yes, it did bring back memories. What I remember is accepting it, the way people learn to accept things in all kinds of... like when I watch a television show about all of the terrible circumstances that Africans live in in some of the remote villages, they'll show pictures of a mother holding a baby, and the baby's face is covered with flies, and they don't even blink! I think that's the memory I have of having the lice and the bedbugs. It was part of life!

We also had flies in the summertime, because it was an agricultural area so of course there's fertilizers, and the town didn't have bathrooms, it had outhouses. And the windows didn't have screens. There were flies everywhere. But you know something? I don't remember ever thinking about it when I was there. We played games, to see how many flies we could catch with one swoop of a hand.

You describe a moment in the book where you became a non-confrontational person after receiving a beatdown by a bully in Lithuania. Are you still so nonconfrontational? I think I am. What do you get out of confrontation? If I'm walking down the street and someone very careless bumps into me...I've seen people get into fights over that! But I just apologize to the guy who bumped into me! He goes his way, I go my way. We avoid the problem. What would be settled if I said to the guy, "Hey, watch where you're going," and then he'd turn around and say, "Who are you to tell me to watch where I'm going?" Who needs that?

I've worked with editors all my life. No matter what they ask me to do, "Change this, change that," I say "Sure!" I may think it's better the way I see it, but if you think it's better the way you see it, I change it. I just don't think being confrontational is productive. It's counterproductive.

I would think, though, that being a cartoonist and being nonconfrontational are mutually exclusive. Do you ever hesitate momentarily before you draw something that might be offensive? No I...well, yes, I should say I do. I've put things in that I thought were very, very funny, but that do require a nude person. And then I try to think of some kind of device to make it acceptable, even though it would be really very funny if the person was out and out nude. For example, a long time ago I got an assignment to illustrate a comic book, and the editor was Jerry Siegel, who created Superman. Jerry gave me this script, and he was doing a children's book of classic comics, and this was The Emperor Has No Clothes. I forget the actual title.

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The Emperor's New Clothes? Yes! You know, there was the critical scene where the emperor is parading down the street stark naked, with crowds on either side. But, you know, it is a children's book. So I threw a shadow...I made it so it wouldn't be distasteful. But you have to deal with these things and try to be as clever as possible.

I do blame Mad in part for corrupting my young mind. In an excellent way, of course. There are quite a lot of semi-scandalous things in Mad, and more now than there were in the past, it seems. Was that a deliberate editorial decision? Yes, you're right, it's much more that way now, and the reason for it is that there's so much competition from the Internet and from other magazines. I mean, if Mad was the way it was when I first started working there 55 years ago, it would be out of business today. It has to keep up with the times. There are certain aspects of morality that have become much more relaxed than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

What age do you think kids should come in contact with Mad? I feel like it's something every kid gets a hold of slightly too early and sneaks around with. Maybe that was just me. I don't think there's anything in Mad that is truly offensive. I mean, it uses some scatological words that Bill Gaines, the original publisher of Mad would not have...he would read every issue before it went to the printer, and if there was anything off-color or in bad taste, he would take it out. But there's no censorship with the organization now. The editors try to use their best judgment when they, you know, use a common word for flatulence, because the kids use those words all the time! So it's become looser and looser. I personally don't think dirty words are necessarily funny. I think that suggesting, rather than being expository, and being clever about it, is funnier than hitting people over the head with these words.

Is that why much of your work is caption-less? I like to work without words because I enjoy the challenge of speaking in pictures. It's sort of the ultimate test of being a cartoonist. If you can communicate with people without words, just the drawings speaking for themselves, it's always a challenge because it's a lot easier to just have a funny cartoon figure standing there, and just put a funny caption underneath, then the cartoon figure doesn't have to do anything! The caption is what's funny!

There's a certain humor-laziness in that, then. Yes, well, Mad has another cartoonist, Sergio Aragones, who does all his work without words, and he's brilliant. He literally talks in pictures!

As far as what's funny now, how much do you feel you have to keep up with pop culture? Well, that's a little difficult for me. Next March I'm going to be 90 years old, and for a 90 year old person to be aware of Kim Kardashian, I mean, or what's that thing...the New Jersey thing...all those people on the beach...

The Jersey Shore. The Situation. Right, I'm aware of it only because I hear people at Mad talking about it. There's a terrific bunch of young editors at Mad that help me out with this stuff, especially when I'm doing fold-ins, they explain what’s very popular with young people. The celebrities are on top of everything now. So I get a lot of help, and that keeps me going in this field. But it’s not normal for someone of my age to be keeping up with teenage material.

Speaking of Mad editors, what are staff meetings like? I’m picturing whoopee cushions. They’re very funny! The editors do nothing but deal with crazy stuff all the time. I would say it’s very serious, because it’s a business. The work has to get done. But I usually sit in on them when I’m working out a new fold-in. But they also have conferences about covers, and scripts that come in. They take their job very seriously. But in between, we can’t resist throwing out gags and jokes because you read a funny line in a script, and go, “here’s how we can make it better,” and before you know it you’re rolling all over the place laughing. They’re very fun, they’re not business-like. You’ve got to get the job done but you’ve got to have fun doing it.

I came across a clip of the Colbert Report, when Colbert celebrated your birthday on-air in 2006. Do you know that was happening? No way. Would you like to know how that happened?

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Absolutely. Alright, I’ll tell you. Joyce and I had been in Mexico for two weeks prior to that, and we were coming home on my birthday, and we got in bed so tired, it was 10 or 11, whenever the show’s on, and we couldn’t fall asleep. So Joyce said, “Alright, why don’t we put the Stephen Colbert on? Maybe we’ll get sleepy.” We were watching it, and my character comes up on the screen, and Colbert is holding a copy of Mad Magazine, well we both thought we were plutzed! It was such a shock.

I can’t imagine. And then they did this big fold-in cake!

I loved that. And then I found out that Mad didn’t know about it, but one of the editors, Dave Croatto, happened to be in the audience at the show when this happened, and he almost fainted from surprise. Stephen Colbert did this totally on his own, with out talking to anybody or asking permission or anything. It was wonderful. Talk about not being able to fall asleep, we were up until four o’clock!

You’ve been doing fold-ins since ’64, do you think you’ll ever retire from them? You know, it’s very funny. I’m freelance, but all the writers and all cartoonists work at home at their own studios. Nobody works up at Mad besides the editors. Just the other day, because I hadn’t done a fold-in for quite a while. So I called up the editor, and I sad, “Are fold-ins finished?” and goes, “What?!” and I say, “Well I haven’t heard from anyone in a while, do you need another or are they done?” and he said, “We’ll keep doing fold-ins until you’re 150!” So I have to live ‘till I’m 150.