(Photo by Matt Carr)
Cartoonist Al Jaffee is a living legend of laughter. The longtime MAD Magazine contributor (61 years and counting) has become famous for his often sarcastic ruminations on life in columns like “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions” and his iconic MAD Fold-Ins, which require readers to fold-in a page to find the hidden image within a larger one. Jaffee turned 95 years old in March and was bestowed with a Guinness World Records plaque for Longest Career by a Comics Artist (for more than 73 years) at a party held for him at Sardi’s in NYC on March 30. At the event, he also received a cake commemorating his birthday that was topped by a 3D replica of a Bart Simpson fold-in, video birthday wishes from his peers Sergio Aragones and Stan Lee, and a proclamation from Mayor Bill de Blasio, read aloud, that declared March 30 to be “Al Jaffee Day” in New York.
Just prior to the commencement of the festivities, I sat down with the clever cartoonist for a quick chat about his life’s work.
You recently turned 95 and will be receiving a medal of honor from the National Cartoonists Society in April. At the risk of getting a snappy answer to a stupid question, I imagine it must feel pretty good to hit both of those milestones?
The truth is always that praise and flattery, despite what anybody says, is always enjoyable. At least you’re not being ignored. I do appreciate being on the initial list for the award from the National Cartoonists Society with two other spectacular cartoonists.
Writer Wil Forbis said that a recurring theme in your work, and that of MAD, is that competence and intelligence are punished in life. Are there any life lessons that you’ve learned along the way?
It’s a good question, but I don’t think I was really a student of the thing I’ve been doing. I’m a journeyman cartoonist. I found that it was a fun way to make a living, and people tell me how much they enjoy my work, which is always very flattering. But the life lesson is merely do the thing you love doing, don’t get discouraged, but always remember that you have to be creative. You can’t imitate, you can’t reproduce someone else’s ideas. You want to make a living at something that you enjoy, and you have to be very lucky that you fall into a situation where some project like MAD Magazine was there when I needed MAD Magazine. Or even before MAD Magazine, Stan Lee took over Timely Comics and they were producing a lot of comic books that had humorous animal stories—rabbits, pigs, and so on. He gave me an assignment [in 1942] and said, “Create a character for me.” I thought and thought and thought and came up with Silly Seal. No one else was doing a seal, everyone was doing pigs and dogs and cats. I came up with a seal, and Stan said, “I love it. Let’s give him a little partner. How about a little pig? They can do things back and forth.” We were almost at war at that time, World War II, and would you believe I was doing war stories with Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal? They were actually building ice boats and going out hunting for submarines. They constructed a gun and cannonballs out of ice. They sank a German submarine. It was crazy stuff. I actually was making fun of the war because crazy inventions have always been a passion of mine since I was a little kid. Better ways to do things in the kitchen or home and all of that. What I did with Silly Seal is I had them fashion a cannon that had ice balls, and a U-Boat came up and one of those two shot the boat and created some kind of havoc. It was all silly stuff. At that time, [it was] anything goes.
With your MAD fold-in, other than your secret desire to have people deface the magazine by folding in the page, how did this concept pop into your mind?
It may have been stewing in my mind for awhile. Basically, I was looking at a number of magazines that I had at the time—Playboy, National Geographic, and LIFE Magazine—and each one had a foldout. So the MAD thinking was they all have a foldout, we should have a fold-in. [At that time] Elizabeth Taylor was running around a lot with Eddie Fisher [who was married] and [then] she took up with Richard Burton, which was a big scandal, so I thought, Who’s the next lucky guy? When you folded it in, the answer was the next guy in the crowd. It was embarrassingly simple and a one-time gag. They loved it. [Then editor] Bill Gaines wanted another one. I said it was a one-time gag. He said, “I want another fold-in or you won’t work for me.”
The MAD fold-in became your trademark, but you also worked on other sections like “MAD Switcheroos” and “You Know It’s A Bad Sign When….”
It’s pet peeves. For example, when the automobile industry at long last decided that safety had to be [addressed]—this was when Ralph Nader exposed how unsafe cars were [in the mid-1960s]—I took the position that I know how to make cars safer. And my safety feature was like the bullet shaped thing on the top of a Buick—if it gets into an accident, it lowers down so it doesn’t skewer somebody, which is so ridiculous. Ridiculousness enters into the picture. The only way you can expose politicians, advertisers, and manufacturers who make absurd claims is to reduce them to a laughingstock, and that’s the part I enjoy. I don’t want to say they’re bad people. They’re doing their business, but when they tell me that some kind of medicine is going to cure every ailment I have without any proof, I have to say something about that.