Writer and artist Al Jaffee, a contributor to Mad magazine for many decades, is a master of unrealized potential. For Mad, he’s created all sorts of inventions that turn everyday objects into wonderful, occasionally useless, and generally plausible gizmos. With his “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions,” he provided zinging comebacks to awkward everyday situations. And, at some point, Jaffee looked at a piece of paper and decided he could create art by folding it in on itself. And thus, Jaffee’s signature creation, the “Mad Fold-In,” came into the world. Now 89, Jaffee still creates fold-ins for Mad. He’s also just collaborated with journalist Mary-Lou Weisman on the biography Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, for which he also provides some loving illustrations. The title is not just a play on his most famous employer, either. The child of Lithuanian immigrants, Jaffee spent his early years in Savannah, Georgia but was taken back to Lithuania by his mother twice, a situation he likens to moving from the 20th century back to the 19th. Jaffee spoke to The A.V. Club from 21st-century New York about not trusting grown-ups and turning broken yo-yos into toys.
The A.V. Club: When collaborating with Mary-Lou Weisman, how easily did the memories come to you?
Al Jaffee: The ones that linger in the mind of course are the ones that had a profound mental effect on you as a kid, especially when you’re being yanked around from one continent to another. The thing that triggered my memory most of all was the fact that at the age of 6, I felt my mother was not competent to take good care of us, and I had three younger brothers, and in effect I felt like I became an adult. So I have very strong memories of taking care of my younger brothers.
AVC: You’ve talked about how your work in Mad and elsewhere is influenced by the notion that adults are, in your words, “full of shit.” Do you feel like this experience helped form that view of the world?
AJ: I’m sure it did, because of so many instances where you just couldn’t trust grown-ups. Even my own parents had completely divergent views of religion and homemaking and stuff like that. And I think most kids realize that parents and teachers and grown-ups very often tell you what’s right and what’s wrong but they go ahead and do whatever they feel like doing, and often it’s the opposite of what they’re telling you. I became aware of that very early on.
AVC: You had to illustrate some fairly grim moments from your childhood. As someone who’s used to going for laughs, did you find it difficult to bring up some sort of seriousness to these events?
AJ: Someone said to me that the illustrations in the book are not at all like my zany stuff in Mad, where everything is kind of gross. These illustrations are gentle and almost like children’s-book illustrations. So I said when I read the script, automatically what kicked in was, “Hey this is serious business and I should treat it with a certain amount of sympathy, not make fun of it.” You know, my usual way of working with “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions” and other things at Mad is to kind of poke fun at everything. But in the book I saw that sentiment and empathy kind of dictate it, as if I was illustrating a book about somebody else, some other kid, and I tried to treat it with gentleness and sympathy, and I think the drawings reflect that.
AVC: You talk about newspaper comics being a tremendous influence on you as a kid. What is your earliest memory of reading comics?
AJ: My earliest memory I think was The Katzenjammer Kids. I think I’m one of them, because they were always playing tricks on the adults. They were setting off firecrackers when the old captain was asleep after the old captain had punished them for something. They were naughty and mischievous. I think Mad magazine’s original approach was mischievous. You can use that kind of thing in making fun of politics or anything. Mischief kind of takes the edge off just hard-hitting, in-your-face kind of stuff. I think throughout my life I’ve reflected that in my comic-book writing and my drawings. They’re similar to that. And of course Rube Goldberg, I admired him greatly because of his silly inventions, and I went on to do a lot of silly inventions of my own for Mad magazine, the silliest part of course being that some of them actually were produced by, patented by other people and actually made.
AVC: I was going to ask you about that. What instances can you think of?
AJ: Well one of them was the smokeless ashtray. I did an article on how to solve the obnoxious smoking problems that smokers create and non-smokers don’t necessarily like. You put your cigarette on this ashtray and the ashtray sucks up the smoke instead of it going into the room, and it filters it. I think that came into being and I believe that’s the one I had a credit line in the patent application.
AJ: And then I think Gillette came out with a razor that had two blades. For years and years and years a single blade razor, everyone knew about that. And then Gillette doubled the number of blades, and I carried it to an extreme by designing a razor with all kinds of rollers with many, many blades, and just carried it into an extreme. Gillette actually made that. Now you have Gillette razors with blades all over the place. These are not breathtaking notions, but it gives me a funny feeling when I see something that I thought was a joke turned into reality.
AVC: I remember a piece you did on new uses for Velcro and thinking those were actually fairly plausible. I think that’s part of what made the inventions fun, was that you could almost see them working.
AJ: Yes. In fact the term of art that Mary Lou, who wrote my biography, got excited about, was when I mentioned the “plausible impossible.” That was created by Walt Disney I think when his earliest animated cartoons came out and the plausible impossible has been a guiding light for me all my life, because that’s where the fun comes in. It looks like it’ll work but of course it’s impossible. It looks like when Bugs Bunny is running off a cliff and as long as he keeps moving his feet and doesn’t look down, he keeps walking. But the minute he looks down, he falls. So that’s the plausible impossible and I think I incorporated that theory in my stuff because I didn’t have to solve the mechanical or engineering problems.
AVC: How did your experiences in Lithuania influence your work?
AJ: Being able to draw has been the most important thing in my life I think. Not only because I can do stuff for Mad, but when I was in Lithuania there was… I came from Savannah, Georgia. My father ran a department store. He used to have me and my brother Harry come up to the toy department and play with all kinds of fascinating wonderful toys, and I land in a town in Lithuania where toys are about the last thing in the world any grown-up in a poverty-ridden town would worry about. They’d just push the kids out into the mud streets and tell them to go play. Play with the mud. Or pick up a stick and push it around. And here I came from a country that had these fabulous electric trains for kids and stuff like that, so the only thing we could do was draw, sit down and draw toys. And we would make them. And someone who worked in a woodworking factory gave us a bag of yo-yos. Half yo-yos. For some reason they couldn’t be assembled, they were broken. So we made cars using the yo-yos for wheels. We made fire trucks that actually sprayed water. We just had to be inventive in order to experience the fun that we remembered when we were little kids in Savannah. So I guess that contributed a lot to my inventive ideas, and when I got a sled I was even determined to fly with the sled. I built wings on it. And when I went down a hill I almost killed myself because the thing rose up into the air about six feet and came crashing down. Being creative and inventive has really driven my whole life and work experience.
AVC: When did you first realize that you could pursue art for a living?
AJ: Well, my father certainly thought I couldn’t. I was in the first class of a new school in New York City called The High School Of Music And Art where I met Will Elder, he was my pal and my classmate. Harvey Kurtzman arrived there later on, as did Al Feldstein who succeeded Harvey as editor of Mad, and John Severin and many, many others who succeeded in the art game. They all came from that high school. When I graduated, it was still sort of the depression, although the war in Europe was looming, and of course when you have war, the economy picks up, so the economy was just beginning to pick up. There were not many opportunities for getting into the art game because of bigotry; some of the advertising agencies were not only lily-white and Wasp-y, they just simply did not see ragamuffins like me and Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman coming in and smelling up their place. So it was very difficult breaking into the establishment art businesses. So along came the comic-book business. A great many of the successful comic-book houses were Jewish-owned and they did not discriminate against us. Then of course the war came, and most of us joined the service, but when we returned from the armies and navies a lot of us found it easy to break into comic books.
AVC: You’ve always expressed a liberal bent in your work and interviews, though people at Mad ran the whole political spectrum. But it never felt to me like the publication had one political agenda. Why did that combination work?
AJ: It worked primarily because even though we personally probably leaned more towards liberalism… Mad was born during the McCarthy era, so Mad automatically found it easy to make fun of outrageous positions that tight-ass people took, politically and otherwise. When it comes to making fun of stupid things, through the years we’ve done that no matter who’s involved in it, whether it was Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon, it didn’t matter. You did something stupid or silly, you were fair game.
AVC: I’ve never seen someone successfully imitate a fold-in. Have you?
AJ: I have. I have a file called “Fold-Ins Not By Me.” It contains fold-ins done in China, Europe, all over the world. I think some of them missed the point. Some of them are either overly simplistic, which mine were when I first started doing them, but after doing 400 of them I must have learned how to do it a little better. But this past summer, the Village Voice had one, which was very well done, on its front page. There are imitators, and I think some of them turned out to be quite good.
AVC: You created the fold-in and the vertical comic strip. Why can’t you be happy with regular dimensions like everybody else?
AJ: [Laughs.] I think that goes back to an earlier question about my life as a child in Lithuania, where toys and things were not available so you had to create them on your own. I think this carried through to my adult life when I was strapped for cash and I had several magazines folded under us, Trump and Humbug, and suddenly you find yourself having to make a living. It’s not a business where there are a lot of jobs. The art game is mostly freelance, and I was freelance, and the only thing a freelance person can do is you can create something you can peddle. Playboy had its centerfold, and I think Life magazine had a big fold out. And the automatic Mad viewpoint popped in and said, “Hey, these guys are doing fancy colorful fold-outs. Mad, which is a cheap, black-and-white newsprint magazine, should do a fold-in. Go in the opposite direction. That was sort of a natural instinct. Mad went in the opposite direction in so many things. At some point I was unemployed and had no income and someone told me the only way you can get into the newspapers is to create a comic strip that knocks an older comic strip out. I couldn’t figure out how to knock an old comic strip out, so I decided to create a comic strip that no one is doing. Find a space of my own. And I had a lucky six years of it, didn’t make any money, but paid the bills.
AVC: You bring up an interesting point about Mad kind of presenting itself as cheap and as dumb. I think it’s an interesting position from which to present satire.
AJ: It is, because if you start off with the notion of low expectations and self-deprecation. We’re the usual bunch of idiots, the usual group of idiots or whatever, the only way to go is up once you’ve established that you are just a mischievous, naughty jerk, one of the usual gang of idiots. Who’s going to take offense? It’s like throwing custard pies at our own faces and then getting a laugh out of it.
AVC: Through your “Snappy Answers” and your “Don’t You Hate?” pieces you got to express a lot of frustration. Did you find that therapeutic?
AJ: I think all of my work in Mad was like that because what I’m really expressing is the everyday frustrations of ordinary people, and I consider myself an ordinary person who happens to have had a break to be able to draw and write things for a popular magazine. So I think “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions” was successful for such a long time because it expresses the daily frustrations that everyone goes through but we’re all basically too polite to give the snappy answers to, because when you get right down to it, it’s insulting. I would never do it in real life, myself, except tongue-in-cheek with friends and family. It did get a lot of my personal pet peeves out of my system. It was fun to do.
AVC: Do you ever see the people from the classic era of Mad who are still around? I know Mort Drucker is still in New York.
AJ: Well we’ve all gotten to be very, very old. I’m the oldest, I’m the oldest person to ever work for Mad. Six months from now I’m going to be 90 years old. I think when I was a kid I thought people who were 40 were ready to be buried, and here I am more than twice that age. It’s also difficult when you’re my age to keep up with current events. What I mean by current events is current youth events—popular rock stars, popular comedians and so forth and so on. In a lot of instances they’re into things that I don’t even understand. Now Morty Drucker is younger [80 —ed.], but he also has been around for quite a while. A terrific talent. A fabulous, fabulous caricaturist. I don’t even want to call him a caricaturist. I think he is a caricature portraitist because traditionally a caricaturist very often captured a person’s personality with just a few lines, but Morty does a full rendering of people in movies or television who are barely on the screen for a moment, yet he makes them absolutely recognizable even though he distorts them. I think I’ve wandered away from your original question.
AVC: I was just wondering if you kept in touch with Drucker and Feldstein and the other ones who are still around from the old days?
AJ: Well, we don’t see each other. As a matter of fact I just thought of it earlier today. I met somebody who worked for Mad, and I didn’t remember his name, and I realized that what Bill Gaines did was so important. A long time ago, almost 40 years ago, he decided to take us on an annual foreign trip. We were all freelance people who would ordinarily never run into each other, but once we went on a trip, we all got to know each other as human beings, not just as bylines in Mad. So I remember all the old people very, very well, but a lot of the new people at Mad, with whom I did not go on any trips and see only on rare, rare occasions, I hardly know them. I only know their work. So I do cherish the memory of all the great times I had with Don Martin and Frank Jacobs and Nick Meglin, all those guys, most of whom don’t even work for Mad anymore. It’s another era.