You may have never heard of Al Jaffee, but his work has most likely left a frustratingly indelible mark on your childhood, even for the oldest farts in our audience. For 55 years he has contributed artwork to MAD Magazine, most significantly with his 1964 innovation (which remains a mainstay to this day), the Fold-In. My sweaty little fingers could never quite get the back cover to fold just right, but whenever I managed it, it was a wonder to see the wild cacophony within Jaffee’s mind translate onto the awkwardly foldable page – even if I had to hide the resulting double entendres from my parents. At 89, he still contributes to Mad and is now the subject of an expansive biography by Mary-Lou Weisman, for which he created 65 original illustrations. Harper Collins has generously allowed us to print the complete prologue to Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, which further expound on this Jew’s wild career. Read on and check out the book, you won’t be sorry.
Prologue from Al Jaffee’s MAD LIFE
by Mary-Lou Weisman
“The plausible impossible” is a term of art unique to cartooning. It is what holds Bugs Bunny up when he runs off a cliff, traverses a yawning chasm, and continues running on the other side, completely ignorant of the terrible fate that, except for a magical, momentary suspension of the laws of gravity, should have been his. It is the guiding comic principle—at once thrilling and ridiculous—that lies at the heart of cartooning. This willing suspension of disbelief has a logic all its own. What keeps Bugs aloft, what makes the impossible plausible, is not looking down. It is a talent that eighty-nine-year-old Al Jaffee has displayed in his life as well as his art.
Al Jaffee enjoys a special relationship with the plausible impossible. For him it is more than a term of art; it is the story of his life. A résumé of Al’s formative years reads like a comic strip of traumatic cliff-hangers, with cartoons by Jaffee and captions by Freud. Al was separated from his father, abandoned and abused by his mother, uprooted from his home in Savannah, Georgia, reared for almost six years in a Lithuanian shtetl, and returned to America—all by the time he was twelve years old. To this day, Al has a problem with trust. Everything is not going to be all right. “I experienced so much humiliation that I became defensive about it. I am not trash. I am not garbage. Even homeless people, the lowliest of the low, have a strong sense of dignity.”
Al wears his dignity like a carapace, a surprising cover, perhaps, for a man who finds so much about life ridiculous. “He is always a gentleman, very well mannered without being a stiff,” says illustrator-writer Arnold Roth, who has worked with Al and been his friend for decades. Still, Roth notes, “There was always a certain sadness about Al. There were minor chords playing underneath. I knew nothing about the cause.”
Nick Meglin, who was Al’s editor and friend at MAD for decades, was stunned when he learned that such a funny man had emerged from such a sad and humorless childhood. “As a fan I’m as grateful as I am baffled that he did.”
Unless someone asks, Al doesn’t talk about his childhood—not the starved shtetl years in Lithuania or the indignities of living as a second-class citizen in other people’s houses. “I don’t volunteer the information. If somebody wants to know it, they have to get it from me.”
His flamboyantly perverse youth has made him the man he is today—a satirist, an artist and writer, a raconteur, an arrested adolescent, and an alien—a person uniquely qualified to introduce young Americans to the world of adult hypocrisy in the pages of a magazine called MAD.
Comic Illustrations by Al Jaffee
Original Artwork at top by Harisson Freeman