Interview: Al Jaffee Pt. 1 [of 3]

Categories:  Interviews

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“I was trying shut the radio off and had type flying in the air,” Al Jaffee laughs, taking the call off of speakerphone. He’s in the middle of fold-in at the moment—“engrossed” as he happily puts it. It is, of course, exactly what one would expect the artist to be working on at 5:30 PM on a Wednesday night—or, really, any time, for that matter. Since 1964, the artist has created, by his estimation, more than 400 of the things, which have graced the back cover of all but three issues of Mad Magazine over the course of the past 45 years.

At 87, Jaffee’s speaks of himself in the same self-deprecating tones his fans have come to know and expect from his work, a sense of modesty that hardly betrays his position as one of the most beloved humor cartoonists of the past half-century.  The artist is quick with joke for nearly every topic we broach during our discussion, though the one that inadvertently kicks off the interview hits a little too close to home—the death rattle of the American publishing industry.

In late January of this year, it was announced that Mad, America’s premier humor magazine, will become a quarterly, after 55 years as a monthly publication. It is, of course, a sign of the times, if ever their were one, a sign that the magazine is continuing to struggle at the hands of newer forms of media, seven years after finally caving and including advertisements in its printed form. It’s also a sign, Jaffee adds, half jokingly, that “humor is dying.”

Pop cultural bemoaning aside (though, honestly, who can blame the guy?), Jaffee proves himself once again to be the consummate storyteller, a man with a fantastic yarn for nearly every question one might toss at him, from his days attending classes at The High School of Music & Art in New York alongside future Mad staffers Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, and Will Elder; to his time spent as an artist/writer for Stan Lee at Timely Comics; to creation of some of Mad’s most enduring features. Few have seen as much of the industry as Al Jaffee an even fewer can tell its story quite so well.


Is the fold-in that you’re working on for the next issue of Mad?

No, actually, I’m working on a fold-in for Squa Tront. That’s a publication, that I think is funded by Fantagraphics, but it’s run by Jerry Weist. That’s who I’m working with. But it’s just a special for one issue.

Have your fold-ins largely been created for Mad, or have you done a lot for other publications?

I’ve done fold-ins on the outside commercially, but not for competeing humor magazines. I haven’t done anything—if there are any other humor magazines. I don’t know if there are.

Certainly not in the traditional magazine form.

Because humor is dying [laughs].

There’s a lot of comedy on the Internet, but it’s definitely a change from the age of the humor magazine.

The Internet has changed the world. Everything is different now. Newspapers have to contend with it, magazines—as a matter of fact, I get The New York Times. I’ve been getting it every morning for years, and now more and more of the Internet is creeping into the newspaper, because they don’t see the future on newsprint alone. So, every article you read ends with, “for more news on this subject, go to NewYorkTimes.com.” And here I am paying for the newspaper, and I’m only getting part of the story, because they have to tie in with the Internet.

The “fit” part of “All the news that’s fit to print slogan” doesn’t seem so appropo.

Well, things change. Nothing stays the same. Mad is different this year, too. From 12 issues a year, we’re down to four.

How has that affected you? I imagine it’s freed up some time to work on different projects.

It does, but at the same time, the immediate effect is to practically cut out my income from Mad. Four-fifths of my income from Mad is gone, and who knows how long that will last.

Are you doing work for the site, specifically?

They haven’t quite figured out how that’s going to run, and so far there hasn’t been a budget allocated for it. I’d be interested in doing fold-ins on the ‘net, but it has to be something that pays off for them and pays off for me.

You’ve always been a pioneer in terms of the use of the page. I imagine that, had you come of age in the time of the Internet, than you’d probably be doing similarly innovative work in that format.

Yeah, you know, I’m just too old for that. I’m from another time. I think the stuff we do at Mad is pertinent and people seem to enjoy it—the fold-ins that I do and sometimes other things. But the Internet is just a different ball game. It’s more immediate. I’ve seen fold-ins done on the Internet—my fold-ins—and they actually come off better than they do in the magazine, because you fold it electronically, and it’s quicker and easier and more precise. The timing is very good. In the magazine, when you read the question, and then you have to spend ten minutes folding it to get the answer,  it works much better when you read the first part of it and then you look at the picture and with one click, you’ve got the thing folding. It’s much more interesting, really. I don’t mean to knock my own work in the magazine—I think the magazine still works very well—but I think the new technology is faster and I think young people like you today, have a lot on your plate, and you want to get to more and things, every day.

I was fairly young when I first started reading Mad. I had small, clumsy hands—it was a bit difficult to do those fold-ins, the first couple of times.

It is, it is. It’s even difficult for me. But it wouldn’t have lasted all of these years, if people didn’t enjoy the result, once they’ve fiddled around with it and got the words to work out right and all of that. I guess you’ve got a little feeling of accomplishment, so I guess there’s a reward and I think that’s what made it work. But there was a time when there was a reward for sending smoke signals, instead of the telephone. The smoke signals died out when the telephone came in. I don’t know where fold-in is going to go, as far as print is concerned, but it may continue on in the Internet.

You’re definitely considered the owner of the idea, in a sense. Whenever people talk about fold-ins, they tend to attribute the concept to you. But is it something that you enjoy seeing other people do—the ways the execute it, either online or in print?

Well, you know, I don’t worry about things that I can’t control. And if there are people out there who think they can do fold-ins better than I can, more power to them. That’s the nature of everything, whether it’s sports—If you’re a good pitcher in baseball and you’re watching a young player come along who’s better than you are, what are you gonna do, kill him [laughs]? You have to say, “hey, great.” I don’t worry about those things. I’ve always tried to do the best I could, an I always knew that there were a lot of cartoonists who were better than I was in certain areas. I mean, unquestionably in the area of drawing superheroes, almost everyone who does it is better than I am, but that’s just not my field of expertise, and I like to believe that the things that I was good at all of these years—and I hope that I’m still good at—I’m proud of my stuff and happy with what I did. But that doesn’t mean that someone isn’t going to come along who is going to be better and do even more exciting stuff, and good luck to him.

The fold-in is an especially interesting case—it was originally conceived as a one-off.

Yeah. It was just a one-shot. A lot of stuff that appeared in Mad was just a one-time gag. Even Alfred E. Newman, who I think Harvey Kurtzman picked up out of some kind of old magazine. He’d been around since the middle of the 19th century. Harvey picked him up because he fit perfectly into an idea that he had to do a satirical version of the old snake oil kind of advertising that was done in the back of old comic books. If you’ve ever seen old comic books from the 1930s and 40s, the whole back page would be advertising whoopee cushions, sneezing powder, how to develop muscles, pulling on some kind of rubber thing—

Charles Atlas—

The Atlas thing, yeah. So Harvey wanted to do a takeoff on that. He wanted to do a funny face, and this old Afred E. Newman face fit perfectly, so he picked it up. They weren’t going to do another back cover doing the same idea. That was supposed to be the end of it. But when Al Feldstein took over Mad after Harvey Kurtzman, he felt that Mad needed a mascot the way that some other magazines had done. Esquire had a character named Esky, and Playboy has the Playboy rabbit, and The New Yorker had the guy with the top hat and the butterfly. And so Feldstein, who really had a better sense of what sells magazines, was interested in that. He said, “let’s have someone make a good painting of this and let’s use it as a mascot.” He got Norman Mingo to do it, and it’s been successful ever since. It gave Mad an identity for the last 50 years or so.

But lots of things that come along are just one-shots. I did something called Hawks and Doves, which was supposed to be a one-shot. I was just having a little fun with the whole anti-war business, having Doves be a peace-lover, and he’s getting his rocks off with the major who is for the war. I was playing with that as a one-shot gag and Feldstein liked it, and he asked me to do some more. The same thing happened with the fold-in. I came up with one idea and figured it was just a one-shot gimmick. I didn’t even have an idea for another one. So Feldstein and Gaines both asked me to do some more, so I got to work on it. and it just went on and one and one for the last 45 years.

Do you know how many you’ve done in total?

Well, I’ve done over 400. Mad is celebrating it’s 500th issue anniversary. I’ve been in every one but three since 1964. I think I’ve done about 405 or something like that.

When the magazine was monthly, was that fold-in deadline ever something that you dreaded? Was it tough to get them in every issue.

No, I didn’t mind at the beginning, I did all of the ideas myself. I did that for a number of years. I came up with the idea and the sketch and showed it to them. It was not easy to get something approved, but I struggled along when I was younger and stronger and had more energy and put work into the latenight hours, until I succeeded. In later years, especially after Feldstein left, there were two editors, Nick Meglin and John Ficarra. They preferred to call in all of the associate editors and kick around ideas, so they would be on top of things, and they started coming up with stuff that was much more current, especially dealing with celebrities.

[Continued in Part Two]

–Brian Heater

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9 Comments to “Interview: Al Jaffee Pt. 1 [of 3]”

  1. J | March 4th, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Charles Atlas is still around and is amazing! Check out the website at http://www.charlesatlas.com!

  2. Selena | March 18th, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Get a proofreader!!!!

  3. Justin MacDevitt | June 25th, 2009 at 4:32 am

    went to school with Al Jaffee s daughter Debra up in Massachusetts She was very COOL just like her father

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