CATIE LAZARUS interviews MAD MAGAZINE’S legendary cartoonist AL JAFFEE on EMPLOYEE of the MONTH! Subscribe for free on iTunes to hear our interview, which was taped live at Joe’s Pub.
This October marks Al Jaffee reign as Mad Magazine’s longest running contributor, clocking in 59 years and over 479 issues. Since 1952, the comic book turned magazine infused a childish silliness with biting political depth and orignal artwork. By engaging readers to add their own “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” and even mangling the magazine to solve the “Fold-In” picture riddle, Mad was one of the first enterprises to treat consumers as co-conspirators. The result was an entirely new forum for humor in an era when few questioned whether father really knows best. It’s allure for children and teenagers simultaneously fueled outrage from the FBI to Congress the collective imaginations of future comedy writers and cartoonists. Writers behind The Simpsons, The Daily Show, The Onion, and The Colbert Report credit Mad Magazine for inspiring them, and Jaffee says he is inspired by The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, proving just how integral, dynamic, and fluid the relationship is between artists and their audience.
Jaffee didn’t set out to be a comedy writer or even cartoonist, despite his palpable talent. Like many immigrants of the depression era, Jaffee had to scramble to care for his extended family, and later for his own. No matter how witty, most Jewish illustrators and writers in the 1940’s and 1950’s couldn’t get past the receptionist at the established (read: Wasp-run) advertising agencies, so they turned to a relatively new business of cartooning instead. Jaffee, along with so many of his peers, such as Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Charles Schulz, didn’t realize they were not only carving out their own careers but redesiging what it meant to draw for a living, marking a “Golden Age” in cartoons.
Before Jaffe joined Mad in 1955, he held a string of freelance gigs, including his single panel Tall Tales cartoons for The Herald Tribune, penning for Stan Lee, and working for fellow School of Music and Arts alum Harvey Kurtzman at short lived magazines, like Humbug and Trump. Initially, Jaffee worked for Mad as a writer. According to Arnie Kogen, the iconic TV writer also who penned the Mad film and TV parodies, Jaffee’s first Mad story was “Baseball - Science or Skill” in 1955, during Eisenhower’s administration. Jaffee would go onto satirize eleven Presidents. That said, Jaffee never claims to hold a moral upper hand. Mad referred to Jaffee and the rest of its corps crew as the “Usual Band if Idiots.” Weary of either preaching to the converted or recycling old jokes, in our conversation for Employee of the Month, Jaffee didn’t say which President was easiest to parody, only that comedy is a “serious business.”
Jaffee is seriously funny, as evidenced in how he created a new means of satire with his now legendary “Fold-In,” a play off of Playboy Magazine’s Fold Out. He could have made a mint off of his parody inventions, many of which inspired less self-effacing entrepreneurs to try and make a quick buck, like the “Poopsie Doll,” a baby doll that comes with her own plastic diapers and poop. He also came up with a “Three Blade razor,” breathalizer test, snowboarding, which he called “Snow Surfing,” and an “Idiot Proof Typewriter,” now commonly known as a word processor. Mad Magazine was mentioned in several patents, although Jaffee said in our interview that he isn’t concerned about whether he “deserves” credit. He’s confident and humble enough to know he can always come up with more ideas, and, furthermore, that life isn’t fair or easy.
The sheer joy Jaffee’s work provides fans offers to fans is inverse proportion to what he and his three brothers experienced growing up. In his biography Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, co-authored by Mary-Lou Weissman, Jaffee details how his father, who enjoyed drawing, turned his four sons, especially his eldest two, Al (nee Abraham) and Harry, onto the funny pages. When Al’s mother uprooted the boys from their stable homelife in Savannah, Georgia to spend six impoverished, hungry years in Zarsai, Lithuania, Al lived for packages his father sent of newspaper clippings of the “funny pages.” While his father managed to get his then abused and neglected boys back to the States, Al’s mother moved them again to a Jewish ghetto in Lithuania. Their father father managed to get the boys out narrowly avoiding the Nazi takeover, although their mother didn’t make it to the train station on time to say goodbye. It was the last time, Jaffee saw his mother, who perished in the Holocaust. An artist through and through, Al drew the beautiful, original illustrations in his biography, showing how consuming art, drawing, and creating inventions proved to be not only a refuge, but his calling.
Al was so gifted that when he landed in the Bonx, his teacher recommended him to attend the first class of High School and Music & Art, which the then Mayor LaGuardia had just created. There Jaffee met his future partners-in-crime Will Eder, Harvey Kurtzman, John Severin, and Al Feldstein and gained classical drawing skills. Cartooning wasn’t part of the curriculum or even respected, although it didn’t stop Jaffee from doodling. Luckily, between the admiration he garnered from classmates, teachers, and an advertisement for Flit cigarettes drawn by Theodore Geisel, Jaffee decided to make a go of cartooning. His perseverance, prolific work, and sheer talented led him to became one of America’s most beloved cartoonists. His original works reveal that imagination isn’t just for kid’s play.
In our conversation, which was recorded live at Joe’s Pub, Jaffee reveals what inspired his Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, why he loves fans, and what it means to embody the American dream with his signature humility and humor. As you will hear in our interview, Jaffee is first and foremost a mensch. I can’t think of anyone more worthy of the Employee of the Month Award. Since cartoonists don’t always get their due, I gave Jaffee a beret, as he made cartooning and comedy into an art form.
If you enjoy this interview, subscribe to Employee of the Month’s podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud, and come to a live taping at Joe’s Pub. the next taping is at 9:30 pm, Wednesday, October 29th and Catie Lazarus will honor Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, indie film producer Anthony Bregman (Eternal Sunshine, Foxcatcher, Enough Said), Pulitzer-Award winning film critic Wesley Morris, and Lady Alex Borstein, the starlet behind Lois on Family Guy and HBO’s Getting On.
Get your tickets now by clicking HERE as the last several live tapings have sold out! www.employeeofthemonthshow.com and you can get updates by following @catielazarus on the internets.