Al Jaffee: Snappy answers to (not) stupid questions
The creator of Mad magazine's Fold-In tells Crave how he came up with the idea in the '60s and why it's still relevant. Plus, he dishes on the true origin of Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. Hint: It involves an antenna and a small boy.
q&a Mad Magazine has been running its back-page satire Fold-In since 1964. What many don't realize is that one man has been the driving artistic force behind every Fold-In since then: Al Jaffee.
Now 91, Jaffee is still painting the Fold-In monthly, and says he has no plans to give it up. It started as a parody of a regular feature called the fold-out in much higher-brow (and higher-profile) publications of the time, and caught the public's attention instantly.
He now has numerous collections and books out, including "Tall Tales," a collection of his syndicated comic strip from the New York Herald-Tribune that had a unique vertical orientation; "The Mad Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010"; and a biography by Mary-Lou Weisman called "Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography."
Jaffee hasn't missed an issue since he started, and his work is widely appreciated. In 2006, Stephen Colbert celebrated Jaffee's 85th birthday with the birthday cake equivalent of a Fold-In.
Since the Fold-In in this month's Mad answers the question, "What's the only thing unavailable on the Internet?" we figured we'd turn the tables on Jaffee and ask him some far less humorous questions of our own.
How do you make a Fold-In? Do you use a computer? We could see it being complicated.
Al Jaffee: I don't do anything digitally. Although, if I was much younger and could work with Photoshop, it would cut my time drastically. I paint in gouache and watercolor, and you can't easily paint over in watercolor. So I have to pretty much nail everything down mentally. I've been doing this so long that I don't even bother with color sketches; I can visualize the colors throughout.
I do a lot of preliminary sketches, and the one I just did for next issue took 10 times the number of usual sketches. They're done roughly on 8.5-inch by 11-inch bond paper. Then when a final sketch is approved [by editorial] I go to work and do the painting.
In pencil, I draw the answer first, which is half a page vertically, then I put a sheet of tracing paper over it and draw the middle. Then I put it on an illustration board and trace it. After I finish the board, I don't see a final copy until I get the magazine. The editors scan it in and make minor corrections digitally. They send a digital version to the printer.
This particular one didn't take me as long as others have, because a lot of it is typesetting. And I only had one figure in the middle of it. But the usual time is about a week for the artwork, and then I have to do the copy.
Does the Fold-In have a secret origin?
Jaffee: I was in comic books at the time, and then I got involved with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder and Wally Wood, who had worked on the original Mad comic book. Then Kurtzman did Trump for two issues, and Humbug for 11 issues, which is now in a box set. And because of my work on Humbug, they asked me to submit something for Mad the magazine.
The Fold-In was a one-time gag. Those of us who wrestle with creative material, I really expected it to make a one-time sale. When you're a freelance writer or artist like I was, you're just trying to make your next paycheck. All these fancy magazines like Playboy were doing these fancy colorful fold-outs, and I said to Mad, "Let's do a cheap black and white fold-in."
Then I was asked to come up with a second one, and by the third one I was getting into the spirit.
What happens to the paintings once they've been published?
Jaffee: I have a stack of them. Mad used to buy all rights, including ownership of the material. In issue 317 [published March 1993], which is ingrained in my mind, [publisher] Bill Gaines said that he was going to return all the work to the creators.
It was very common in the golden age of comics [for publishers] to keep the originals and do what they wanted with them. I did a sketch for Esquire in 1964 where a reader requested the original, and they sent it to him!
Gaines changed his mind. It may be out of the goodness of his heart; he was a good guy. On his own, he really did like all of us. He may have gotten to a point where he said, "Hey, I shouldn't keep this." Or it may have been new copyright laws, or sales taxes which made things complicated.
Right now, I keep them in storage for my children to do what they want with them later.
Why do you think the feature has been part of Mad for so long?
Jaffee: It's lasted so long because of my benevolent editors. (Note: Jaffee said this without even a hint of sarcasm in his voice.) I don't think anybody would've broken down Mad's doors if they canceled the Fold-In. The Fold-In didn't create more money, there was nothing to gauge what would happen to copies sold if they didn't have the fold-in.
Above: Al Jaffee performs a live reading of Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions with his friend Jeff Newelt.
How does your experience working on the Fold-In compare with the other feature you created for Mad, Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions?
Jaffee: Here again, it was a one-shot idea. I had an experience trying to fix the TV antenna on my roof and my 10-year-old comes up behind me. He wants to know where his mom is, and I'm on the roof, afraid of heights. So I told him that I killed her and stuffed her in the chimney.
After I apologized to my son, I realized that everybody gets bugged by questions with obvious answers. I pitched it to my editor, Al Feldstein, who approved it with one criticism. Why not include more than one snappy answer? And instead of two, why not three? Why not let the reader fill in their own?
What made you decide to make this month's Fold-In about the Internet?
Jaffee: The editors at Mad really came up with that one. From time to time, we work together on it. Or if something strikes the editors, they call me and we figure it out.
I'm not keeping up with everything, and so much material comes into Mad from freelance people, from outside, they're really more aware about up to the minute stuff.
What keeps you doing Fold-Ins after six decades?
Paying the mortgage! Although, I don't have a mortgage anymore. What keeps you doing it is that the public is receptive, and what's more important is that the editors are receptive to it. Except from the practical fact of making a living doing this, it's just a lovely challenge to solve these sometimes-complicated problems.