An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
Hippies and assorted filth are always saying that we should fight authority. They march around with placards stating "Question Authority" and generally mock the paternal elements of our society. But they only get it half right. What we should be fighting is stupidity. (Granted, authority and stupidity often go hand in hand.) And because Al Jaffee gave us the most important weapon against stupidity --- the snappy answer --- he will go down in history as our greatest American.
How did Jaffee bestow upon us the snappy answer? He created a series of cartoons called "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" that ran in the infamous MAD magazine (and were later collected in a series of paperback books by the same name.) The premise behind the cartoons was simple. Intelligent, erudite individuals -- the kind of people who read websites like acidlogic.com -- are constantly plagued by idiots and assholes pestering them with stupid questions. "Are you going to eat that sandwich?" they ask as we cram a turkey and rye down our gullet. "Are you taking your dog for a walk?" they bleat as we marched down the street, Shar-Pei in tow. And for years, there was no way to deal with these morons. Polite society demanded, well, politeness, so the best we could do was force an exasperated smile and answer the obvious. It wasn't until Jaffee's Snappy Answers came along that a Plan B was provided. Instead of dealing with these cretins on their terms, Snappy Answers argued that we should fire a return volley --- a sarcastic zinger so quippy that the person asking the stupid question felt completely and deservedly humiliated. It was the verbal equivalent of ripping out someone's belt buckle and laughing mercilessly as their pants fell to their ankles revealing a pair of Tickle Me Elmo boxers. Let's look at a few Jaffee penned examples.
Example #1: "Building a doghouse?" an annoying neighbor asks a man constructing what is obviously a doghouse. The wearied carpenter offers three responses.
"No, a spare room for my mother-in-law, Fido!"
"No, a hotel for dwarfs."
"No, a garage for my compact car."
Example #2: A policeman excitedly runs toward the scene of two smoking vehicles that have collided in the middle of a road. He looks at the two drivers exchanging insurance information and asks, "You guys have an accident?" They reply, again in triplicate...
"Of course not! Didn't you ever see two cars mate before?"
"No, we simply got tired of owning two little cars and decided to make one big one out of them."
"No, we got lonely and this was the best way we could think of to draw a crowd.*"
* I'm the first to admit that not every one of Jaffee's snappy answers is a winner. But he has a pretty respectable batting average.
Snappy answers could have only been born in the mind of Al Jaffee, and they certainly could have only been printed in a magazine like MAD. First published in 1952 by famed EC comics editor Bill Gaines, MAD Magazine was a culture bomb that exploded across the landscape of staid Americana, immolating political and corporate authority figures with its searing flame of parody and skeptical satire. During the course of its golden age (arguably, the 50s to the 80s) MAD employed a core group of writers and artists whose work defined the style and look of the magazine. People like writer/artist Dave Berg known for his "The Lighter Side of..." cartoons, illustrator Antonio Prohías known for his dialogue free "Spy Vs. Spy" stories, cartoonist Sergio Aragones who specialized in tiny drawings stuffed in the magazine's margins and of course Al Jaffee and his Snappy Answers.
But Snappy Answers weren't the only famous contribution Jaffee provided for MAD Magazine. He also created what has since become a cultural institution, the MAD Fold In, a concept even casual readers of the magazine are familiar with. The MAD Fold in is a painting, lovingly rendered by Jaffee, that appears on the back page of the magazine and asks a question which can only be revealed by folding the page in upon itself. One example from 1969 initially appears to be a painter toiling away at a piece of modern art. The question is asked, "Which modern artist is most successfully communicating with his audience?" Upon folding the image in, the viewer sees the face of Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Snoopy and realizes that the answer is Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz --- an obvious slap in the face of high culture elitists who would never deign to offer their accolades to something so pedestrian as a newspaper comic strip.
The MAD Fold In was originally proposed as a one-shot idea, but it was instantly popular and has appeared in almost every issue of MAD following its inception. While the main source of its appeal is its comical mocking of political and cultural hypocrisy, it's also something of a technical wonder. How Jaffee manages to design an image that can become something else when folded (while giving little indication of its secret in its unfolded state) has been a source of confusion for many an artist. Sergio Aragones once attempted a Fold In himself and reported the results. "I spent hours on it but it was the worst. Before you folded it in it was so obvious what it was supposed to be, and once you did fold it in didn't look like what it was supposed to be." The MAD Fold Ins are more than just a cartoon, they're a puzzle, and half the fun is guessing the answer.
But to focus on Jaffee's comic banter and visual trickery is really a disservice to his raw artistic ability. It's his mastery of the art of cartooning that really sells his ideas. Even without the punch lines, Jaffee's drawings just look funny. This is partly due to his love affair with the grotesque. If Jaffee draws some dull-witted child sitting in the street, the child is almost invariably sitting in a pool of urine. When rendering a crowd of people, Jaffee always draws at least one person with a finger up their nose. Additionally, like Eightball cartoonist, Dan Clowes, Jaffee has a fetish for adding a lot of subtle mini jokes to the master gag. The tiny printing on a truck reveals it to belong to the "Monte Merde Fertilizer Co." (you have to speak French to get that one.) And like Alfred Hitchcock, Jaffee often inserts himself or other famous MAD Magazine contributors into the sidelines of his scenes.
But Jaffee's greatest asset is his mastery of comic expression. Akin to New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, Jaffee can communicate a characte r's core emotional essence --- from exasperation, to stupidity, to menace --- with a minimum of pencil strokes. This is best exemplified in one of my all-time favorite Jaffee cartoons. The illustration is a fake product advertisement for a miniature windshield that mounts onto a soda pop can to prevent soda from shooting into the face of the drinker. Pictured in the advertisement, as a sort of "Before" image, is a beleaguered gentleman getting blasted in the eye by his carbonated beverage. The gentleman isn't expressing shock or anger at the liquid assault but rather weary, unblinking acceptance. He's the kind of fellow who's so used to getting kicked in the groin by life that he doesn't even raise an eyebrow when it happens. And Jaffee manages to perfectly summarizes his character's inner life in a doodle that probably took about two minutes.
This is the core of Jaffee's work: the idea that to be alive is to be constantly beleaguered by annoying idiots, poorly designed products and the unapologetic ferocity of fate. Competence and intelligence are not rewarded in life but punished. This is, in fact, the major theme of MAD magazine. Just look at the magazine's mascot: Alfred E. "What Me Worry?" Neuman. Neuman is the quintessence of the common idiot --- a cretin totally devoid of self-awareness. But the result of Neuman's refusal to live an examined life is that he is always happy (as evidenced by the shit eating grin constantly plastered across his face). MAD, and Jaffee in particular make the argument that human exceptionalism --- the desire to rise above the mediocrity of your environment --- is doomed to failure. (As Homer Simpson once sagely stated, "You tried and you failed. The lesson is, never try.")
MAD, of course has lost some of its glow in recent years, but that's partly due to the fact that so much of its sensibility has been absorbed by mainstream culture. I'm reminded of another Al Jaffee Fold In that ran during the Vietnam War. It asked, "What is the one thing most school dropouts are sure to become?" When folded in it provided the answer, "cannon fodder.*" Such cynicism and dark humor runs so rampant across modern outlets like Comedy Central (which, I think it can fairly be said, is the television heir to MAD --- much more so than the TV show MAD TV.) that it's become benign. But consider how that joke played during the social upheaval of the 1960s, especially in a magazine that purported to be for children. Mainstream, or, for lack of a better word, "straight" society still had some sense of the United States as a noble beacon, a city on the hill**. For MAD to run a cartoon that so openly spoke to the sense of waste the Vietnam conflict was generating truly earned it the label of "subversive."
* What catches my eye about this joke is that despite its ghoulish edge, it has a certain parental sensibility with the message of, "stay in school!" And one can't help but wonder if this is an added layer to the gag --- a wry comment on the fact that the educated class gets to avoid fighting wars.
** I'm a bit reticent to pen such sentences, since I think there's a least some truth to such sentiments --- looking at the full scope of its history, America has offered much to the world. But I think what MAD was subverting was the ultra-nationalistic sense of patriotism that argued that America was great simply by existing, and no sense of vigilance was required of its citizenry to steer their country along the right path.
Jaffee still works for MAD, and still creates the monthly MAD Fold in. Indeed, no other artist has contributed to the magazine for as long a period as he has. At age 87 it's anyone's guess for how much longer his run will continue. But certainly his work --- and life --- are immortalized any time someone stops a stupid question in its tracks with a jagged reply, or contemplates how an image can be two things at once. MAD's impact on American culture is at this point beyond debate, and Al Jaffee deserves his share of the credit.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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