The Mad, mad world of Al Jaffee

Story highlights

  • Al Jaffee is a longtime veteran of Mad magazine
  • Jaffee created the Mad Fold-in and "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions"
  • His early life was bumpy; he was caught between parents, continents
  • At almost 91, Jaffee is still active in Mad, other pursuits
"Draw something," Abraham Jaffee was told.
A school monitor had pulled young Abe out of math class and told him to report to the art room. Sitting with about 50 students, Jaffee drew the first thing that came to mind, a scene of a village square in Lithuania, where he had spent several years of his childhood.
Jaffee, by then in his early teens, had already established a talent for art. His teachers admired it; fellow students encouraged it. After a bumpy several years in which he bounced like a pinball between his parents -- moving from Savannah, Georgia, to Lithuania, to one borough and then another of New York City, back to Lithuania and back again to New York -- art was something to hold on to, a way to establish an identity. He had no idea it would lead anywhere.
"Some folks' lives roll easy," Paul Simon once sang, "some folks' lives never roll at all." Jaffee -- you can call him Al now -- has had a life that's rolled downhill and uphill and occasionally clicked into place. It's like one of the Rube Goldberg machines he enjoys so much, those fantastical contraptions for simple tasks -- wiping your mouth, say, or closing a screen door -- that require falling bowling balls, agitated parrots, dropping hammers, kicking boots and snapping strings, turning minor chores into a symphony of wacky machinery.
Today Jaffee, who will be 91 in March, is known for his own contraptions, many designed during his long relationship with Mad magazine. There's the Mad Fold-in, the magazine's inside back page, which cleverly turns one Jaffee work into another by folding one portion over another. There's "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions," in which a humdrum question leads to several unexpected sarcasms.