One of the longest ongoing relationships in my life is with a magazine. Now before sick thoughts start entering your mind, let me clarify – I have been reading Mad Magazine since I was a kid. Along with the stand-up comics who appeared on Ed Sullivan and other variety shows, it was one of my first comedy influences, and probably the first consistent exposure to satire I had.
As a child I devoured every issue, a period only briefly interrupted when a Catholic School nun told my cousin’s class that Mad was immoral and filthy. The idiot told his mother, who told mine. I had to read on the sly for a while; I was forbidden to bring Mad into the house. I remember a year or so later I was in the hospital and after surgery she brought the newest issue to the recovery room to cheer me up. It was her wordless way of lifting the lifetime ban on something she discovered was just harmless fun. (Typical, classic Mom move.)
Reading Mad Magazine was an early primer in comic writing, and I became adept at dashing off humorous limericks and substituting comic lyrics for popular songs or commercial jingles. In high school, I wrote a mock version of the student newspaper (under several aliases as well as my own name) using some of Mad’s classic formats to poke fun at teachers, fellow students and the high school experience in general. A sympathetic teacher not only made the copies on an old mimeo machine but defended me to the irate and embarrassed principal, explaining that sometimes creativity gets started on the wrong foot.
But although I loved the writing in Mad, I was especially enamored by the cartoons. My immediate favorite was Don Martin, whose absurd creations were both imaginative and hilarious (it was a black day when his ongoing dispute with publisher William M. Gaines finally boiled over and he left Mad for Cracked). And soon after I started reading Mad, another cartoonist named Al Jaffee came on board with an inventive style and two great concepts.
Like any of the “usual gang of idiots” at Mad Magazine (a term coined decades prior to Johnny Damon’s recent famous reference to the Boston Red Sox), Jaffee sought to create a hook that could be used as a consistent platform to write from, like The Lighter Side of… and Spy vs. Spy. He nailed two. Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions was a veritable cheat sheet for anyone seeking a quick comeback when someone asks an absurdly obvious question; Jaffee provided the cartoon, the question and three possible quips. This feature was an immediate success and spawned several collections.
Even more creative was The Mad Fold-In, a feature that started in 1964 and continues to this day. A full page cartoon with a paragraph of text could be folded in half and then that half folded out again, basically overlaying the outside quarter of the page with the inside quarter – the middle of the page was now hidden. The payoff was that the art and the text would now form a different picture and statement, usually an answer to the question posed on the full page. Jaffee reportedly came up with the concept as an alternative to the fold-outs popular magazines were employing as their gimmick, most notably Playboy. What better concept for a notoriously frugal magazine to invent than something that folded in?
This NY Times feature animates a few famous fold-ins
Being as anal about the condition of my Mad Magazines as I was about my singles and albums, I quickly became adept and folding the cover over gingerly so as not to make an actual crease; I could figure out the text from the flat page without a problem. Jaffee was fearless in his subject matter, though, taking shots at politics and organized religion along with celebrities and other pop culture events of the times. I found it amazing that Jaffee drew all of them while imagining how the folded-in art would match up since he didn’t have the tools we have today.
As I got older, the changes in Mad Magazine affected my previously voracious consumption of its contents. National Lampoon became a far more sophisticated tool for satirical writing, and today we have everything from The Onion to the faux newscasts of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Even the look of the magazine is different; although they have done so for several years I still can’t get used to real advertisements among its pages. Today I subscribe more out of brand loyalty than visceral excitement.
But the comic skill of Al Jaffee is something that has made an indelible mark on me, true artistry that is timeless. And that’s not just my opinion; in 2008 – at 87 years young – the National Cartoonists Society named him the Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.
Happy 89th Birthday, Al. Thanks for everything!
Link to a 2008 interview with NY1.
Doug Gilford’s Mad Magazine Cover site.