Al Jaffee, beloved MAD Magazine illustrator, will appear at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble (2289 Broadway) today at 7pm. He’ll be reading from and signing a new book, Tall Tales, which collects his NY Herald Tribune newspaper strips, syndicated from 1957-1963, into one uncharacteristically hardcover edition. Stephen Colbert, born a year after this feature ended, wrote the introduction. My amateur count has this as Al’s 58th book, not including foreign reprints.
Jaffee is famous for two MAD innovations; Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions and the back page Fold-In. It is the latter that has earned him the respect of a grateful nation. Launched in ’64 as a satire of Playboy fold-outs, the Fold-In–a drawing and caption which yield hidden punchlines when creased and collapsed, origami-like–caught the imagination of post-Camelot America by encouraging defacement of its own magazine. The feature has remained in almost every MAD for the last 44 years. Remarkably, outrageously, the feature also remains Jaffee’s sole domain. After 400 + installments, the art is all his. The verbal complexity of the Fold-In texts (a pool becomes a toilet; a sentence on the Nixon-McGovern race becomes “THE SAME OLD STUFF”) rivals any Friday Times crossword’s cunning.
Most outrageous still, Jaffee insists on painting every fold-in himself: no Photoshop, no assistants. This hand-crafted extravagance recalls the best of Bruce McCall’s New Yorker covers, Playboy‘s “Little Anne Fanny” cartoons (which Jaffee contributed to), or several decades of Wacky Packages cards. Few can match his depictions of human stupidity in all its sweet, dopey, lip-biting obliviousness. Even the curled J in his signature is a mini-marvel of design, as streamlined and concise as the General Mills logo (Lawry’s Gourmet Rib House sports a suspiciously identical emblem, though cagily flipped). When his work pops up in non MAD mediums – Sesame Street Magazine is a notable departure – it takes a moment to remember that the man is not merely a first-rate humorist, but also a first-rate illustrator.
Jaffee long ago found the sweet spot between Sesame Street and Playboy, and has roamed this perpetual adolescence ever since. Jaffee traffics in lots of puddles, facial blemishes and flying arcs of puke. Even efforts at decorum have a grossness. I remember, as a kid, studying his inventions for removing curbside dog shit. In deference to pre-Mister Hankey 70’s values, he’d substituted sausage links for turds. Those were the plumpest, most obscene cuts of meat I’d ever seen.
Despite cancer and a tremor in his drawing hand, Jaffee is going strong. It is important to avoid discussing his work in past tense (of MAD’s original Usual Gang Of Idiots, only Mort Drucker, Sergio Aragonés, and Jaffee still live). If he has retirement plans, he’s kept them well guarded. His self portrait, unchanged after all these years, looks a lot like Alfred E. Newman’s older brother. It’s impossible to see anyone else doing the Fold-In, and just as impossible to think of MAD continuing without the Fold-In. Obama–already touted as the 21st Century assassin of political humor– has yet to yield his own hidden punchlines; Jaffee, at 87, may be just the man for the job.–Sam McPheeters
Al Jaffee reads at Barnes & Nobel, 82nd & Broadway, at 7pm