Mad Magazine artist Al Jaffee is famous for his "fold-in" cartoons, where a question is asked and then answered when the page is folded in, but his first reaction to his trademark feature was that it was a “mutilation.” Jaffee is the subject of this week’s One On 1 with Budd Mishkin.
Cartoonist Al Jaffee has been working on his characteristic drawings for so long, that what's old is brand new again.
"I was looking at the fold-ins that appeared on the internet recently and as each one came up I couldn't guess what it was,” said Jaffee. “I don't remember – I have to fold it to find out what the answer was.
Jaffee, 87, is famous for creating in 1964 the monthly Mad Magazine “fold-in,” where a question is asked and then answered when the page is folded in.
One example shows a map labeled “Tornado Zone,” and the printed question asks: “Who are the disaster victims that nobody ever helps?” Fold in the magazine page, and there’s a frowning cap-wearing baseball labeled “New York Mets.”
At his Upper East Side studio next to his apartment, Jaffee showed us how he creates the fold-in.
"I start with the folded version – then I cut it and I move it over to this side,” said Jaffee, “and then put an overlay [tracing paper] on it and then I fill in the middle."
Jaffee says ideas come to him all the time, and if he must leave the dinner table, that's what he has to do.
"I can't just write down like, 'George Bush react to blah blah blah,’ I have to make a sketch to capture a moment that I want,” said Jaffee, “and in that case you know I have to excuse myself and get a piece of paper and a pencil and do it."
Jaffee says he used to complete the entire process in five or six days.
"Now I take about 10 days because I have to take a nap every now and then," said Jaffee.
A more serious admission to age for Jaffee is a central tremor in his hand which makes the small designs more difficult.
"I recently, I looked at some works that I did about 50 years ago and I couldn't believe it, you know. The detail, the tiny work that I was able to do then and I wouldn't be able to do today,” said Jaffee.
Another predicament, as he’s worked on one creation geared towards a younger audience for 45 years, is that he has to remain current.
“As you get older, you become more interested in what's happening with Medicare and Social Security than who Lindsey Lohan is dating," said Jaffee. "I just call up the editors of Mad and I say,’Can I get away with this, is there any one interested in this?’ and very honestly they say, 'Al, forget it, and you know nobody cares about that.’"
But people do care passionately about his work. His Mad Magazine series “Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions” has been translated and published all over the world. A creation from his days at the old New York Herald Tribune, the “Tall Tales” comic strip, is also now published in a book.
And even stars admit their passion for the fold-in. Watching TV on the night of his 85th birthday, Jaffee suddenly saw a cake wheeled out by one of his biggest fans, Stephen Colbert.
"It was cut and he pulled the middle part of the cake out, and then he shoved the two ends together and it formed the words, 'Al Jaffee, you are old,’" said Jaffee. “You can't imagine the shock I and my wife went through.”
In his more than 60 years cartooning, one thing hasn't changed for Al Jaffee. People always give him suggestions for subjects, all lacking just one thing – humor.
Remembering one, Jaffee said, "’I saw the funniest thing the other day. A woman was crossing the street and she didn't notice a puddle and she stepped right into and got wet. Isn't that the funniest thing you've ever heard?’ I said, 'Yeah, I'm gonna use that, somewhere.’"
Living in a city that welcomed millions of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Al Jaffee stands out as the rare American who returned to live in the “old country.” Born and raised in Savannah, Ga., Jaffee went at the age of six with his mother and brother to visit their grandfather and family in Lithuania. His mother decided to stay.
"I hated it. I was a little Georgia kid, and I loved being in America,” said Jaffee. “But you know, after the first six months or so you either accept it or, you know, go crazy."
Jaffee said his father came to get the two boys in 1933, a month after Hitler had come to power in Germany.
His mother promised to rejoin them in New York after settling her affairs with her family, but then the months, and then the years went by.
“Then it was too late, because the Nazi invasion took care of it,” said Jaffee.
Jaffee never saw her mother again.
“So you know, my younger brother Harry was affected very severely by this. I was determined to move on and I did,” said Jaffee.
It had already been quite a journey by the time Jaffee, aged 12, came to live in the Bronx.
He went to the old High School of Music and Art, where he studied fine arts, which he still pursues as a hobby.
Jaffee says he loves his cartoon work, yet wonders what if he decided to be a gallery artist.
"Would I have gotten anywhere?” said Jaffee. “Would I've gotten any better than my high school work? Would I've perhaps even gotten become much better-known than I am through my comic work? Who knows?”
Jaffee started working for Mad Magazine in the 1950, but it was 1964 when he created his most famous feature -- the fold-in -- as a response to the glamorous foldouts in Life, National Geographic and Playboy.
"I came in with the idea of doing a cheap black-and-white fold-in, in opposition of these beautiful colored fold outs. I took it into Mad as a gag, and I knew they were not gonna buy it because primarily it mutilated the magazine,” said Jaffee.
It's been mutilating the magazine now for 44 years. And this year, the National Cartoonists Society named him the Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.
Early on, Jaffee knew the pain of a divided family and the loss of a mother, and responded by making people laugh.
"It astonishes me that I still am functioning at a fairly decent level,” said Jaffee. “Because there were a lot of dark days, but you have to reinvent yourself. You get knocked down and you pick up yourself and you move on."