For his 95th birthday last month, legendary cartoonist Al Jaffee received a plaque from the Guinness Book of World Records congratulating him on being the longest working cartoonist in history (at "73 years, 3 months"). For most of that long career as a self-professed (and wholly self-deprecating) "journeyman cartoonist," Jaffee's name and style has been synonymous with MAD Magazine, the long-running satirical publication which taught generations of skeptical teens to question false idols, push back at deceptive advertising, and mock authority figures.
We recently sat down with Jaffee to talk about his career as a cartoonist, from his early days with Stan Lee—creating characters like Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal—to the origins of MAD, the creation of his trademark fold-ins, and the many comedians who are indebted to him. Through his association with MAD, Jaffee was able to have a long, storied and very furshlugginery career while always remaining true to his freelancer roots: "One thing I can say is it's been the most pleasurable vocation that I could ever imagine having."
Even as he was getting over a cold which kept him bedridden for days after his birthday celebration, he said he had no plans to hang up his pens and pencils: "I'm not going to retire. They're going to have to suffer the ignominy of firing a 95 year old man."
Jaffee discovered his passion for drawing when he was very young: "My younger brother Harry and I would copy all the funnies in the Sunday papers and our father was also good at it," he said. "He started us off. He would copy the Sunday funnies, then we would do it, and from that time on, we spent the rest of our lives doing artwork. Not only cartooning, but painting, and even sculpture."
His career took off in earnest in the early 1940s, initially while he was still in the Army. He taught wounded airmen how to do figure drawing at a hospital in Coral Gables, Florida, then was recruited by the Pentagon to create posters, illustrated pamphlets, and exercise pieces for soldiers in hospitals around the country. Once he was discharged, he worked at Timely Comics and Atlas Comics (precursors of Marvel Comics) with his first boss, Stan Lee. "He had been discharged from the military and took over from a substitute editor," Jaffee said. "He said, 'Oh, come ahead.' He even wrote a letter to tell them that I had a job to go to so they favored my release. That's how my career really got going."
Jaffee explained his unusual working relationship with Lee, whom he first met when he was just 20 years old: "Usually in the comic book business, someone writes a script, an artist is called in, the artist shows pencils, and if the pencils are approved, the artist is told to finish with ink," he said. "Each step is edited by the editor who approves of each stage. I didn't have that with Stan Lee. He and I apparently hit it off so well that he just told me, 'Go ahead and write it, pencil it, and ink it and bring it in.' It was never rejected. I was very fortunate because it was so smooth working and we enjoyed each other's company and he was a very, very bubbling with ideas kind of guy."
That loose set-up turned out to be the norm for Jaffee throughout his career, even as he left Lee and ventured out into the uncertain world of freelancing: "We were responsible for our own income and upkeep. What you do is you wake up every Monday morning and you say, 'What am I going to produce now to make a buck?'"
Of course, that next gig hasn't really been in doubt, what with his "very pleasurable" 60+ year working relationship with MAD Magazine. "MAD happened to come up at a time for me that was a good coincidence, so I switched from comic books to MAD magazine. I was happy working as a cartoonist for anybody, but I have had a very long career with MAD."
A sampling of the many awards Jaffee has received
"We were like a family because [longtime publisher Bill] Gaines put out the word early on: 'As much as I admire the work of some wannabe MAD cartoonist who comes in, we're not going to replace the ones we have,'" Jaffee explained. "He was loyal to all of us. He said we have to keep our guys busy before we take on someone new."
He credits MAD's first editor, Harvey Kurtzman, for helping establish the irreverent style that would come to define the magazine—and for creating its mascot, Alfred E. Neuman. "What MAD introduced, what Kurtzman introduced, was satire," Jaffee said. "He made fun of a lot of stuff, like the last page of every comic book at that time carried advertisements for things like whoopee cushions and hand buzzers. One of the advertisements that he was making fun of needed a face. He found what later became Alfred E. Neuman—it was a photograph which was used by a dentist somewhere in the Midwest to advertise his dental service with this kid, this grinning idiot kid with a missing tooth and the caption was, 'What, me worry?'"
"Harvey picked that up as just a one shot joke on that funny page of practical jokes," he added. "I feel that that's really the beginning of satirical material in comic books and magazines. Esquire and Playboy and other major publications of one sort or another had some sort of satire in it, or satirical cartoons, after that. The New Yorker certainly did have it."
The feedback was immediately positive ("I thought there would be nothing but angry letters, but they were mostly praise-worthy"), and the magazine took off. MAD also had the foresight to embrace branding and merchandizing in a bold, and very lucrative, way: there have been MAD-inspired or sponsored songs, a 1966 Broadway musical (which included a tune written by an uncredited Stephen Sondheim), computer games, toilet paper, a much-reviled movie (Up the Academy), Monopoly-style games, sneakers, and their own SNL-style sketch show, MAD TV.
Its influence has also been felt in some of the most beloved comedians working today: "When I met Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, they admitted that MAD was their inspiration," he said. "I may sound like a huckster, huckstering for MAD, but I'm really not. I just think that MAD, even if it wasn't the first one that was doing satirical take-offs, it reached a very wide audience and especially young people. Not the sophisticated audience of The New Yorker, but 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds."
When Stewart asked Jaffee to make a fold-in for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book) , he requested Jaffee deliver it in-person so the whole crew could meet him ("They said, 'Without you guys we wouldn't be here'"). And Colbert honored Jaffee's 85th birthday on The Colbert Report in 2006 with his own fold-in cake:
Jaffee's biggest contribution to MAD history has been the fold-in, his unique take on magazine cliches of the 1950s-era—a precursor to the visual antics of photoshop for which he has been given several awards and accommodations. He's made every fold-in by hand (no computers even now, to the shock of his younger colleagues), and he's hand-delivered every one to the folks at MAD. You can watch him explain the origins of the fold-in in the video above (it's really worth it to hear his warm, grandfatherly voice), but the full details are below as well:
One morning I woke up and I spread out all the magazines I was subscribing to which included Playboy, and National Geographic and a couple of others. When I opened them up, the things that popped out was the first one, Playboy, was the fold-out; and then National Geographic had something that showed the new stadium being built by some athletic team. Then there was another one with a fold-out. Of course, the way we work is something triggers a thought, and what triggered in me was if all of them are doing expensive, full color fold-outs, why doesn't MAD Magazine do a cheap fold-in? MAD was black and white at that time.
I thought about it for a moment, and then I looked in the newspaper and there was a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Eddie Fischer and accusations that Elizabeth Taylor was going from one guy to another. I thought, "Well, that might make a fold-in. I did something very simple, which was to put Elizabeth Taylor on the left side, and Richard Burton was somewhere in the middle, but on the right side, there was just some young guy. The question was something like, "Who's going to be Elizabeth Taylor's next?" We thought it would be Richard Burton, but if you folded it in, it was just that guy on the right side, and it says, "some guy in the crowd." That was the gag. I took it into the editor, Al Feldstein. I said, "Al, I've got an idea that strikes me funny, but you're going to reject it because if you printed it, it would mutilate a page in the magazine." He looks at it. He says, "I like this." He immediately jumped up and ran into Bill Gaines, and then came back to me and said, "Bill said, 'Lets do it. If the kid folds the page, and he feels he's ruined the magazine, he'll buy another magazine for his collection.'" Ever the money man.
I did it, and that was it. It was a one shot gag. A couple of weeks later, Feldstein rushes up to me—I happened to be up at MAD at that time—and said, "Where's the next fold-in?" I said, "Al, there is no next fold-in. That's it. It was a one time gag." He says, "I want another fold-in."
I went back to work and fortunately there was something good going on at that time where Goldwater and Rockefeller were fighting for the Republican nomination. An idea popped into my head, which was that the guy who really wants the nomination is Richard Nixon. I did a fold-in where Rockefeller and Goldwater are debating each other, and when you fold it in, there's Richard Nixon. It's the first one that was a real fold-in: in the first one, you saw all the characters. In this one, you didn't see Richard Nixon because his face turned out from two lamps that were on either side of the room. It was a surprise.
Well, that set the tone. I figured for this thing to work, the second image cannot be seen in the first image and has to be a surprise. I've done it now for about 450 times I guess. Seems to work.
The major theme of his work for MAD—other features he came up with include Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions & Hawks and Doves—has been exposing and calling out "big idiots," poorly-designed products, and the hypocrites in the public sphere: "Speaking for myself, I don't get off on insulting people," he noted. "I might show the silliness of their behavior, but it has to be entertaining. We're not preachers. The minute that MAD starts preaching, it's dead. We're funny, we're supposed to be funny. Unlike politicians, we don't tell people what they should do with their lives or how to behave."
He is particularly unimpressed with the crop of presidential wannabes who spent the last eight months trying to woo America: "There's a lot of venom. There's a lot of mis-truths. It think it's perhaps the least dignified electioneering that I have witnessed in my 95 years. There used to be substantial debates about issues. Now, the debates are about personality, insulting each other."
Having lived in Manhattan since 1968, he shares a similar weariness toward his more obnoxious fellow New Yorkers, like all good longtime residents. And as he told us toward the end of our conversation, he has admiration for the spiritual successors of MAD calling out the idiots of the world—including, as we were surprised and delighted to learn, us!
I enjoy living in New York because it has a rhythm. If one takes a walk casually down any block, you're seeing a movie taking place. People are doing all kinds of things, nice things. It's only every now and then that someone is behaving in a thoughtless manner and disturbs other people. By and large most people are careful and considerate, and it's remarkable that we function cohesively in a city that has 7-8 million people and about 3 billion cars. It's the cars that I have problems with.
I understand that Gothamist comments on the behavior of people in New York City, which I think is a very good thing because it points out certain kinds of social misbehavior and I believe that people who become familiar with Gothamist point of view will probably in many cases adjust their behavior and will have a much better behaved citizenry. I walk with a cane now and I've seen people pulling large suitcase behind them right into my cane. I don't get angry, what I get is I pity them that if they behave that way in this instance, then how are they treating their children, and how are they treating their neighbors, and how are they behaving at work?
Then there are people who are on cell phones and bump into you. That's uncalled for. I think that cell phones, in my view, should be used for purposes that are either vital or quite important, but not for socializing. To be gabbing about the kind of shoes you're going to buy or something like that while you're bumping into people, is I think pretty stupid. I think a lot of the misbehavior is due to either stupidity or unconcern about other people. If Gothamist succeeds in teaching these people better manners we're all living in a very crowded city. It takes a lot to not bump into each other, and I think that it's a very important thing to do and I praise Gothamist for doing it.