Since 1955, writer and cartoonist Al Jaffee has been contributing regularly to Mad, appearing in over 450 issues, far more than anyone else. Along with illustrations and such regular columns as “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions,” he’s also done the “Fold-Ins,” many of which were collected in the book The MAD Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010. But Jaffee has led a fascinating life outside of Mad as well, as chronicled in Mary-Lou Weisman’s excellent biography, Al Jaffee’s Mad Life.
In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Jaffee for the pop culture magazine Bikini. And while the interview was for an advice column called Tips From Pops, we still covered a wide range of topics, including the pressures of living up to a legacy, keeping things fresh, and living the life of a freelancer.
What follows is a slightly edited version of the interview, most of which has never been published before.
You’ve been doing the “Fold-Ins”and “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions” for years. How do you keep things fresh?
Well [laughs], that’s a big problem as a matter of fact. I’ve been with Mad now for over forty years so, naturally, I do have a tendency to stick to the kind of stuff I’ve always done. I get a lot of feedback from the young people who are now associate editors up at Mad, and they kind of keep us au courant. I mean, that’s the best I can figure out. I certainly don’t…you know, I’m not a follower of Generation X’s music and literature to a great extent, but we do talk about it, and that’s how I get my information, from brainstorming up at Mad.
Your stuff, especially the “Fold-Ins,” have always been topical. What do you find the best way to keep up with what’s going on?
Actually, I think it’s what’s in the air. You can’t just sit down and read Time magazine and say, “Okay, here’s a good idea for a Fold-in.” But there’s something in the air.
Right now, with the President [Clinton] involved with various women who are accusing him of things, if I focused on one particular accusation, it just wouldn’t work. What I do is I try to get the general feel of the thing, and make some kind of satiric or humorous comment about it.
But I must say that I come into Mad with a list of things I have a feeling about. Some of the things I have a feeling about are sort of in my age group, which is a much older group than the average Mad reader, and so they’ll kick it around and then they’ll say, “Our readers are not that much interested in say the financial crisis in Asia.” So we drop that and then I’ll come up with something that young people are more heavily into, and after a while we settle on something. It’s a group effort. In the early days, I would make a complete sketch and layout of a Fold-In idea, and I’d bring it in and either it would go or it wouldn’t and then, you know, I’d have to go back and do it over again. But now, we have editorial conferences on it, somewhat in the same way most magazines do.
As someone who was there then and now, do you ever feel that you have to live up to a legacy? Because the name Mad carries weight.
The big problem is that a lot of things that Mad did years ago have been picked up in one way or another by lots of other people. You know, Saturday Night Live didn’t exist when Mad first came out, and a lot of the kids that went on to write for S.N.L. and various other humor shows were big Mad fans forty years ago. So now we’re sort of competing with people who have taken our stuff a step further, and we’re in the difficult position of trying to top younger people who picked up a lot of stuff from us. But that’s fine, that’s the way it should be.
Another thing is that Mad was one of the early magazines that really socked it to the advertisers. The old Mad ads were really shocking, they were famous for being shocking. Now the advertising people have picked that up, and they do it to themselves.
I just saw, I think it was an ad for Fruitopia, which was a Mad Fold-in basically. It’s in the new Rolling Stone with the woman from the Titanic on the cover and it is a Mad “Fold-in.”
Well, the “Fold-Ins” are being done everywhere now. I have a whole collection of them. I’ll have to get that one to add to my collection.
I also remember seeing The Simpsons once when they were talking about Mad and Homer Simpson was like, “I’m so good at these ‘Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions’.” But he was completely wrong about it.
He was just giving straight answers, they weren’t snappy.
Right. He was like, “Yes, I would…dumbass!” It must be a bit weird for you to be watching a show and all of a sudden there’s a joke about something you do in Mad.
Yes, but it’s also flattering and at the same time. It’s exactly what I think should happen. Not so much that it’s flattering my ego but, the thing is that…. Isaac Newton said, “We all stand on the shoulders of giants.” Everybody stands on the somebody’s shoulders. None of the things that any of us do are completely original. But the trick is always to take it a step further, to be on top of things. Though I don’t know that I’m still capable of doing that because coming up with new stuff gets to be a little bit more difficult as time goes by.
Given that no one is completely original, what do you think a creative person can do to develop their own style? Because you have a very distinctive style.
Well, when I first started out, I tried to establish a style. I thought I was a total failure and then I gave up trying to create a style and I just drew what ever came to naturally. But now when I look back, I’m beginning to see that I did have a style, I just wasn’t conscious of it. Really it’s just something that develops, like your handwriting. If you want to try to develop a beautiful handwriting, you can work very hard at it, but I think it’s when you’re writing without thinking about it that you’re going to revert to your own style, your natural style.
If you don’t think about, it’ll develop on it’s own anyway.
It does because it really is like a signature. Everyone of us has a style of speaking and walking and talking and everything else, so I think that your drawing style — even in the case of where you’re influenced very heavily by a teacher or a mentor of some sort — when you leave that influence and you keep on working, slowly but surely your own style starts to come through. It’s just very natural.
Now I understand that a few years ago, Don Martin had some sort of falling out with the guys at Mad…
No, I have to correct you there. Don did not have a falling out with the guys at Mad. I think all of us…we all personally like Don a lot, and what Don wanted to do is get back all his originals from Mad and Bill Gaines, was the publisher at the time, had a policy of not returning the originals. So Don, being advised by other people, was told to take a stand: “Either give me my originals or I leave.” But Bill Gaines, who was notoriously rigid about such things said, “If you have to leave, you have to leave.”
Gotcha. How do you decide, in a situation like that, that it’s a good idea to side with someone who’s being wronged? Is there ever a good time to quit in the name of solidarity?
Well, you know that is one of life’s greatest problems. In this case, it’s really a minor thing. I’ve never really faced that, I’ve not been that confrontational. I try to make the best compromise I can. I think most of us have to do it. I don’t want to sound like a cheap philosopher here, but I think if all of us looked back on our lives we’d realize we’ve all made compromises all along the way.
Where it becomes difficult is when colleagues come at you and say, “How can work for someone that has a work-for-hire system?” Which Mad has by the way. Playboy used to have it, they don’t have it anymore. DC Comics used to have it, and they don’t have it anymore. Each individual has to assess his situation.
Wait, you’re not on the staff of Mad?
I’ve been freelance all my life.
But I’ve been fortunate in that the last forty years of my freelance life have been with a relatively successful magazine that was willing to keep me busy all the time. I have a great degree of freedom but, at the same time, I’ve never had any health benefits or any of the perks. And no retirement and no stock options or anything like that. I’m on my own.
So having done it for forty years, what kind of advice would give a young writer or illustrator who wants to do this freelance thing?
That’s something that does come up quite often, and I wonder what value my tips are because I really haven’t had a wide range of experience at being freelance because I’ve been kept busy by a single magazine. I might as well have been on salary, the way it worked out. I think it would be somewhat presumptuous of me to give out that kind of advice. I can talk in vague generalities like, “Keep doing the best work you can” and “Make the best deals” and what have you, but that doesn’t help anybody.
Finally, is there anyone doing comics these days, either comic books or daily strips, that you are a big fan of, that you really like?
I have a problem there in that I’m kind of locked in the past a little bit. My favorite people are, people like Milton Caniff [who created Steve Canyon] and Alex Raymond [who created Flash Gordon]. I don’t know if any of these names mean anything to you. And [Hal] Foster, who created Prince Valiant. Now the reason why those people were magnificent in their work was because comics were big circulation boosters and the newspapers treasured the comics so they treated them like movie stars and they would give them full pages on Sunday to do their comics. Now they cram four, five, six comic strips on to the same page, and they’ve reduced them to such a small page that the art becomes insignificant. Today, the artwork is inaccessible because of the space limitations, so the important thing has become the writing. It used to be artists who would incidentally write; now it’s writers who incidentally draw. Because if you take something like…what is the one about business now that is very hot?
Dibert. His writing is excellent, but his drawings are extremely primitive, and that is true of a lot of them because while some are primitive because that’s their style, a lot of other stuff comes off primitive because there’s just no space.