Al Jaffee’s Mad, Sad Life

(Whenever a book about classic cartooning comes in, I ask my father Eli Stein to review it. This time I bought him a copy of the book as a birthday present — I wanted to keep my own copy — to help seal the deal, and he came through. Enjoy! — Levi)

Al Jaffee’s Mad Life is Mary-Lou Weisman’s heartfelt biography of her friend of many years, cartoonist Al Jaffee. Jaffee, now 89 years old, is still going strong, still producing his famous “Fold-In” page for MAD magazine and still coming up with “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” and other humorous features.

Ms. Weisman devotes about two-thirds of her book to Jaffee’s childhood, roughly from when he was six years old to his high school days. And what a dysfunctional childhood it was! (More about this later). I only bring up this fact because, in choosing to read this book, I was hoping to learn all about Jaffee vis-à-vis the glory days of MAD magazine and William Gaines, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder et al.

As Ms. Weisman says:

Due to a coincidence of longevity and talent, Al Jaffee has been with MAD magazine longer than anyone, staff or freelancer. He was there nearly from the beginning. In a sense, he was there before the beginning … One might even say, at least in retrospect, that given his artistic gift, Al’s mad childhood seems to have led him inevitably to satire and to MAD. For more than 50 years he has spoken to the awkward social outcast and the nerd in every MAD reader.

I was slightly disappointed that I had to wait until about page 165 of this 224-page bio for Ms. Weisman to get around to the 1950’s and for MAD magazine to finally make its appearance. But I have to admit that, for me at least, the comparatively few pages devoted to the MAD years were worth the wait. They were enlightening and entertaining.

Aside: My interest in MAD magazine is more than casual. In 1967, as a fledgling magazine gag cartoonist, I submitted an unsolicited two-page spread to MAD. It was fully written but only sketchily laid out. It was a gag idea that I couldn’t adapt to a single-panel magazine cartoon format, but I had the feeling that it would make a pretty good spread for MAD. To my utter amazement, I soon received a letter from Nick Meglin, one of MAD’s editors (his name comes up frequently in the book — he was one of Al Jaffee’s editors). He said he was interested in the basic concept, and the writing, but wanted to assign it to one of his staff artists to draw. Since I had sent it to them as a complete package, they wanted my permission to do so. I estimated what my chances of success would be if I insisted on drawing the spread myself (absolutely zero), so I agreed. The spread appeared in the October 1968 issue, drawn by Joe Orlando. I was credited as the writer. And that’s how I became one of MAD’s “usual gang of idiots”.

But I digress. I promised to get back to Al Jaffee’s dysfunctional childhood, and the reason the author decided to devote so much of her book to it.

At one point, Ms. Weisman quotes Al Jaffee as saying “I am a reverse immigrant”. Al was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1921. His mother and father were Jewish immigrants to the U.S., both from the same small town, or shtetl, in Lithuania. Al was the oldest of four siblings, all boys and all born in Savannah.

When Al was six years old, his mother inexplicably decided that she had to return to her home town in Lithuania. Her husband, well-established in Savannah, couldn’t agree to that. Mrs. Jaffee left her husband and with the four young children (six years old and under) made the arduous trek back to her old country. She apparently made no plans to ever return to Savannah.

A year passed. Mr. Jaffee suddenly showed up in Lithuania to reclaim his family and bring them back to the U.S. Al’s mother reluctantly agreed and there was another long trek (three weeks or so) to return to America. But the dysfunction continued. The reunited Jaffee family settled in the New York area, but Al’s father was forced to go out of town to find work and he was away most of the time. After another year of this arrangement, Mrs. Jaffee once again decided that she much preferred living in Lithuania. Al was now eight years old. Once again, sans husband and with the four children in tow, she made the long trip back to her beloved home town.

Four more years passed. Once again Al’s father showed up to reclaim his family. This time his wife refused to leave, but agreed that he could go back to America with the three oldest children (Al was 12 years old at this point). She insisted on keeping her youngest son with her. Mr. Jaffee took charge of three of his sons and again traveled back to New York.

Life in America was difficult in 1933 — the depression was raging. Al found himself being shuffled between relatives in the New York area, under near-poverty conditions and often separated from his siblings. His father tried to scrape out a living as best he could.

Long story short, Al eventually got accepted to the High School of Music and Art in New York, where he befriended Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman. Both of these future cartoonists figured prominently in the early years of MAD magazine.

Al Jaffee obviously had to do a great deal of adapting, adjusting and assimilating during those incredibly difficult childhood years. He had to come to terms with traumatic events in his life that were absolutely out of his control. I understand why Ms. Weisman focused her biography on that period in his life and I feel she succeeded very well in letting us know some of the influences in his life’s work.

On a sad note, the Jaffee family could never learn for sure what ultimately happened to Al’s mother and brother, but the assumption is that they were both victims of the Nazi holocaust.

“Al Jaffee’s Mad Life” includes plenty of new colorful illustrations by the artist, as well as many reproductions of previously published work.

7 Responses

  1. Great review – it’s now on my
    Great review – it’s now on my list of books that I want to read.

  2. Excellent review! I will
    Excellent review! I will read the book – was a Mad fan for many years. Levi, you should let your dad write more reviews….

  3. Very informative review that
    Very informative review that will be appreciated by Mad magazine readers.
    It is an interesting human interest story and one I would like to read,

  4. Great review. What a bizarre
    Great review. What a bizarre childhood. Can’t wait to read the book.

  5. I read Mad Magazine for years
    I read Mad Magazine for years and Jaffee was one of my favorites. I had forgotten about Mad’s phrase, “usual gang of idiots” when referring to their staff. I used to make my own “fold-ins” when I was a kid. Good book review, Eli.
    Tell that clod son of yours to let you write for Litkicks more often (remember in Mad, they were always calling someone a “clod”?)

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!