Perspective | From Mad’s Al Jaffee, a beautiful blend of intelligence and irreverence

For more than a half-century, Al Jaffee reveled in a high-profile position that most any true humorist would aspire to: He had the privilege of smartly corrupting generations of American youth. We are all the better for it.

To appreciate Jaffee, among the most beloved of the cartoonists behind the legendary Mad magazine, was to understand that although he pretended to wear the mask of juvenile mockery, he was a beautiful blend of intelligence and irreverence, perfectly designed to appeal to the sweet spot of adolescence. To discover the genius cartoon works of Jaffee at any point near puberty was to have your brain awakened to just what was going on behind the curtain called adulthood.

When Jaffee retired from cartooning in 2020 — at age 99 — he told The Washington Post that the job never felt onerous, because he loved his brush-wielding line of work: drawing attention to society’s dysfunction and malfunctions through the lens of comedy.

Jaffee, who died Monday in New York at 102, is being remembered fondly by fans and fellow cartoonists who have him to thank for altering their outlook at an age when they were profoundly open to the power of counterculture humor. The magazine’s satire long felt like a secret key to unlocking the next phase of life, and Jaffee was at the center of that appeal. In the 1960s and ’70s, Mad reached its peak of cultural influence as it spoofed social mores and shifting politics, with its circulation topping 2 million during the Watergate era. Without Jaffee and his fellow “Usual Gang of Idiots,” perhaps there would have been no “Saturday Night Live” or “The Simpsons,” no the Onion or “The Daily Show.”

“I was completely obsessed with Mad, and Al Jaffee was one of my all-time heroes,” “Weird Al” Yankovic told The Post on Tuesday.

“Jaffee warped me at an impressionable young age and left an indelible mark on my brain,” said Yankovic, who once guest-edited an issue of Mad. “He was arguably a comic artist for a longer period of time than anyone else in history, and yet he never once lost his delight in juvenile irreverence or his sick and twisted sense of humor. If anybody working in comedy today tells you they weren’t influenced by Al Jaffee in some way, they’re obviously lying.”

The late “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz liked to say that Jaffee could draw anything. And Sergio Aragonés, Jaffee’s longtime Mad “soul mate,” told The Post a few years ago that “the difference between Al Jaffee and every other cartoonist is that no matter how genius they are,” they typically have a specific area of excellence. He added: “Nobody has done what he has done: take every branch of cartooning and make it better.”

For all that success, one of the most virtuosic cartoonists of the past century did not need to be front and center. Since the ’60s, in fact, he was more than happy to be published in the back.

I once asked Jaffee about creating Mad’s Fold-In, a word he coined and a back-page mainstay he devised — a colorful, artful puzzle that required bending in the side of the page vertically to reveal a “hidden” satiric answer and image. In reply, Jaffee grinned a bit mischievously at the thought that he had persuaded millions of readers to “mutilate the magazine.”

The Mad Fold-In was invented as a would-be one-shot in 1964 — a sendup of magazine fold-outs popularized in news magazines and Playboy. (In the ’50s, Jaffee worked for Hugh Hefner’s short-lived humor glossy called Trump.) Problem was, Jaffee’s Mad editors liked it so much that they demanded another. And another. Until he had amassed several hundred of them, appearing in most Mad issues till 2020.

(A sample Fold-In from the magazine’s ’70s zenith: The conservation-minded question asked, “What beloved American animal will never become extinct because of overwhelming support?” The answer and picture: “Mickey Mouse.”)

Jaffee worked continuously, starting with Joker Comics in 1942, according to Guinness World Records, which in 2016 awarded him its title of “longest career as a comic artist.” He also received the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award. (Disclosure: I served on a jury that nominated Jaffee for the Eisner Hall of Fame a decade ago.)

In 2020, upon Jaffee’s retirement, Mad saluted him with a tribute issue — 65 years after he made his debut in the magazine — that included an inspired series of wordless strips by Aragonés, titled “A Mad Look at Al Jaffee.” The next year, when Jaffee turned 100, Mad published a center-spread article, titled “Amazing All-Seeing Al Jaffee’s MAD E.S.P.,” that highlighted Jaffee’s knack for imagining cartoon contraptions that later became actual inventions. (See: the multi-bladed razor and the “auto-correct” function.)

Retrospective: Al Jaffee retires at 99 after a record-breaking career

Longtime Mad caricaturist Tom Richmond told The Post in 2020 that within the comics community, Jaffee was respected as “Zeus among the lesser gods.”

To call Jaffee could indeed feel as if you were approaching Olympus. His voice would rumble in a commanding baritone, yet as he peppered his conversation with quick one-liners, it opened up to reveal great colors of warmth and wit.

The second time I met Jaffee, before moderating his spotlight session at 2016’s Baltimore Comic-Con, he didn’t simply say “hello.” He deeply intoned, “Are. You. My. Interlocutor?” — the sheer force of his friendliness breaking the ice.

During that one-hour session, he spoke of his tough early childhood, spent being shuttled between his father’s home in Georgia — Jaffee was born in Savannah — and his mother’s in Lithuania. (He never saw her again after World War II.) He recounted how he was inspired by the American newspaper comic strips his father would send overseas, and how his youthful creativity bloomed in the harsh and traumatic conditions of shtetl life. He learned to draw with a stick in the dirt long before poking a stick in the eye of the establishment.

Al Jaffee reflects on the tough childhood that fueled his creativity

At the same event, Jaffee recalled how he came up with another of his popular standing Mad features, “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”: He had been fixing an antenna on his roof when his son asked, “Where’s Mom?” That “inane” inquiry sparked the premise of “Snappy Answers,” in which each cartoon respondent replies to a silly question with a flurry of sarcastic retorts.

Three years ago, Jaffee had a snappy answer to my stupidest question: “Are you proud that your work with Mad endures?” Jaffee’s smart reply: “I would be stupid to say, ‘No.’”

And when I asked him how he had stayed so inspired for so long, Jaffee told me: “I guess I’m childish in a way. I’m living the life I wanted all along, which was to make people think and laugh.”

But don’t tell the Mad editors that, he said after an expert comic beat, or “they’ll stop paying me.”

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