Al Jaffee's MAD Life: how a traumatized kid from the shtetl became an American satire icon

Back in 2010, It Books published Mary-Lou Weisman's biography of MAD Magazine icon Al Jaffee: Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography; I missed it then but happened upon Arie Kaplan's 2011 writeup in The Jewish Review of Books this morning and was charmed by the biographical sketch it lays out.

Jaffee previously) invented some of MAD's most enduring regular features, including the iconic back-page fold-ins and the "Snappy answers to stupid questions" section. But his story starts in Zarasai, Lithuania, where he grew up with his mother and younger siblings. Jaffee had been born in Savannah, Georgia, but his mother brought him back to the shtetl and left his father behind in the USA. Jaffee's mother was neglectful and indifferent, and when he could, he returned to America without her at the age of 12 -- she is believed to have been murdered by Nazis a few years later.

Jaffee's father, meanwhile, used to send him American comic strips rolled into cardboard tubes, inspiring his love of the form. In 1936, Jaffee's teachers at the Bronx's Herman Ridder Junior High School tested Jaffee's class for arts aptitude, and sent him on to art school, along with his classmate, Wolf William Eisenberg -- who would later change his name to Will Elder.

The Jewish Review of Books article examines Jaffee's relationship with Judiasm: he was an atheist who still drew illustrations for publication in Orthodox newspapers (he did it out of a fondness for "the kind and gentle souls of the people of Orthodoxy . . . or maybe I’m doing penance for my mother.")

Best of all is the picture, above, of Jaffee and Elder in 1936 in the lunchroom of New York's High School of Music and the Arts. Man, those are some great googies.

What effect did all this have on Jaffee’s eventual career? Jaffee is best known for the artistic ingenuity displayed in his famous “fold-ins,” in which the back-page illustration is transformed into a second image that wittily comments upon the first when the page is folded into thirds. Several generations of MAD readers remember their astonishment at the transformation when one simply folded the tabs “so ‘A’ meets ‘B.'” Weisman traces the origins of Jaffee’s comic inventiveness (“The Automated Ferris Wheel Rapid Parking Facility!”) to his difficult childhood years in Lithuania, where he and his brother were forced to invent their own toys. As Weisman notes, “This childhood pleasure of making things from virtually nothing would turn Al into a lifelong scavenger and inventor who prefers homemade to store-bought.”

There is also, of course, the familiar biographical irony of a miserable childhood leading to a career in comedy. Weisman sees Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” in which put-upon wiseacres respond to inane queries, as “Al’s way of getting back at everyone who had ever put him down, beaten him, starved him, neglected him, [or] abandoned him.” This is probably true, though it is questionable whether it gets to the manic source of Jaffee and MAD‘s perpetual adolescent brio.

Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography [Mary-Lou Weisman/It Books]

What . . . Him Worry? [Adam Kirsch/Jewish Review of Books]

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)