Apart from Alfred E. Neuman, there is no Al more closely identified with Mad magazine than Al Jaffee. Born in 1921, he was around for more than 30 years before the launch of that satirical magazine turned American cultural phenomenon — and now, at age 99, he’s on track to outlive it. Just this week, the longest-working cartoonist in history and inventor of the Fold-In announced his retirement, and “to mark his farewell,” writes the Washington Post‘s Michael Cavna, “Mad’s ‘Usual Gang of Idiots’ will salute Jaffee with a tribute issue next week. It will be the magazine’s final regular issue to offer new material, including Jaffee’s final Fold-In, 65 years after he made his Mad debut.”
Over these past six and a half decades, Jaffee has drawn praise for his wit and versatility. But all throughout his career, he’s also managed to combine those qualities with seemingly unstoppable productivity. “I am essentially a commercial artist,” Jaffee says in this brief two–part interview from OnCreativity. “I will not try to save time, ever, on my work by going through it quickly and just getting it done. I have to be as satisfied with it as the person who’s going to buy it from me.”
When an assignment comes in, he continues, “I will not deliver it until I am satisfied that I would buy it.” This requires a clear understanding of the client’s needs — “you are there to solve their problems,” he emphasizes — as well as the willingness to turn down not-quite-suitable jobs.
Of course Jaffee said all this in his younger days, back when he was only 96. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that a man in his hundredth year would decide to step back from his workaday schedule (his Fold-Ins alone number nearly 500) and focus on the projects from which commercial exigencies might have distracted him. “I do fine art for my own amusement,” he say in this interview. “We should all feel free to amuse ourselves that way and just hang everything we do up on the refrigerator.” But he also expresses the wish to “create a couple more things before I kick the bucket.” This after, as he puts it to Cavna, “living the life I wanted all along, which was to make people think and laugh.” Now Jaffee’s younger readers have the chance to think hard and laugh harder as they catch up on era upon era of his past work — not that, strictly speaking, he has any older readers.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.