Remembering Mad Magazine

Remembering Mad Magazine April 19, 2023

Al Jaffee has died at the age of 102.

Does that ring a bell?  He was the last living cartoonist from the golden age of Mad Magazine.

Are any of you old enough–like me–to have read Mad Magazine as part of your misspent youth?

According to its Wikipedia page, which recounts the whole saga of the magazine, Mad got started in 1952 and kept going, with ups and downs and a reboot or two until 2018.  But it still has a web page, and a new “usual gang of idiots” is sometimes publishing reruns.  There came a time when it stopped being all that funny, but it definitely was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jeffrey Salkin, a Florida Rabbi who writes the column Martini Judaism for the Religion News Service has written a tribute called Why I am saying kaddish for Al Jaffee of Mad magazine.  (Kaddish is the Jewish funeral prayer.)  He writes:

I lived for Mad.

Every month:

    • “Spy vs. Spy” was a playful, silent introduction to the Cold War (along with Boris and Natasha from “Rocky and Bullwinkle”).
    • Dave Berg’s “Lighter Side of…” introduced me to the small absurdities of life (and when his daughter attended my college, and I met him on the first day of the fall semester, it was one of the most memorable days of my youth).
    • Don Martin’s cartoons. Yes, they were, in their own way, a little sadistic. But, as a 10-year-old, what did I know about sadism and borderline-inappropriate humor? They were hysterical.

Then, of course, there were the satires on movies and television shows. Those satires would introduce me to the art of satire and parody, which is a love I have maintained for my entire life.

Some of those satires became famous. . . .

But today, we mourn Al Jaffee, who was responsible for two of Mad’s most iconic features.

First, the fold-in of the back cover. This was Jaffee’s sardonic response to “Playboy” magazine’s fold-out in the center of the magazine. . . .

But, second — and even more important — was “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” For me, this was inspirational.

Which is why when people ask the 6-foot-4 me, “Did you play basketball?” I have (thus far, pretty much successfully) suppressed the inner response: “No. Did you play miniature golf?”

Salkin goes on to say that Mad was Jewish, as were many of its writers and editors, whereas the other humor magazine that he really liked, National Lampoon, was “Goyish” (i.e., Gentile).  I don’t know about that, and certainly didn’t know about that when I was a young reader, liking the former but disinterested in the latter.  Salkin quotes Thomas Carney on that satirical publication formerly known as the Harvard Lampoon:  “This was not Jewish street-smart humor as a defense mechanism; this was slash-and-burn stuff that alternated in pitch but moved very much on the offensive. It was always disrespect everything, mostly yourself, a sort of reverse deism.”

Mad, though, was different:

Mad was not that way. It did not snarl. It soothed. It told you life could be funny, but it did so in a way that was rarely cruel. It was the gentle, knowing joking of your uncle — not the elitist prank of the frat boy.

The Wikipedia article points out that Mad satirized conservatives and liberals equally.  It quotes some observers today who try to relate the magazine to the counterculture and the youth rebellion of the Sixties.  But Mad was relentless in lampooning the counterculture and the youth rebellion of the Sixties.   An equal opportunity offender, Mad went for any joke it could find, there being plenty of absurdities on all sides during the 1960s and 1970s.

I think Mad was a good influence on me.  It felt kind of transgressive to read the thing, but it never used bad language or tried to titillate with sex or dirtiness.  It is said of classic satire that it is the most moral of literary forms, since it judges and holds up to ridicule bad behavior.  Mad was sort of like that.  The magazine kept me from taking certain things seriously–such as youth culture, the high school social scene, the entertainment industry–that lots of my peers took way too seriously.  In doing so, it insulated me from some of its bad effects.  And it has certainly shaped my sense of humor to this very day.


Image:  Alfred E. Neuman Mad Magazine by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay



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