Al Jaffee, the genius behind many great features at MAD Magazine, has died at age 102. I consider him the man who installed my sense of humor.
In 1968, I was 9-1/2 years old when I was sent to spend the summer with my grandparents in Massachusetts. One fine summer day, my uncle Dickie came home and handed me a copy of MAD #121, featuring Alfred E. Neuman done up as Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi being carried by the Beatles. I was a MAD devotee from then on through my childhood and young adulthood.
One of the artist-writers I quickly began to look for in every issue was Al Jaffee. Whether it was the many pieces he wrote featuring ingenious inventions (some of which were eventually made real), or his cartoons, such as the first one I ever saw, in the above-named issue, in which a kid figures out how to get more bang for his nickel when buying fireworks (he buys one small rocket, lights the fuse, and tosses it into the fireworks store, blowing up the whole building), Al always made an impression. Eventually, when he started his recurring feature, “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” I was ruined. Here is the true story:
I was incredibly fortunate to be serving as a member of the CAPS (Comic Art Professional Society) Board in 2011, when Al was chosen to be the recipient of that year’s Sergio Award, named for Al’s MAD colleague, Sergio Aragonés. As an officer, I was obliged to have Dinner with Al and his wife Joyce the evening prior to the event, at which my bride gently restrained me from going full-bore fanboy. But I was able to tell him how important he and his work were to me.
The next night there was a hilarious interlude that I have to share. One of the CAPS members, Jim Wheelock was an early arrival and had taken a seat at a table in the middle of the room. Jim is a big guy with black-frame glasses, long grey hair, and a bushy beard. In other words, he looks very much like the late William M. Gaines, the founder-publisher of MAD. It happens that I was near the door to the room when Al and Joyce arrived; my wife and I greeted them, and we walked in together. As we enter the room, Al takes a step back and slaps his hand to his chest, saying “Oh my God!” I turn to him, and he tells me, “Who is that? I swear I thought it was Bill Gaines! He’s haunting me!” So naturally I walked him over and introduced him to Jim. The rest of the evening was an Al Jaffee love-fest, with a big book of original art and memories in tribute to Al from all the CAPS members, along with a congratulatory video from Stan Lee; Al had worked with Stan on humor comics such as Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal for Timely – later Marvel – in the early 1950s.
Because Al was about 90 at the time of the banquet, his doctor felt that he and Joyce should extend their stay in Los Angeles for a few days before flying back home, as air travel can have health risks, so we happily provided a hotel room for them, and on the following Monday, a couple of us accompanied Al and Joyce to the Getty Center for a visit. CAPS President Pat McGreal and myself, with my youngest daughter Kate and her best friend Abby, spent several hours strolling the gallery, enjoying lunch, and just talking about everything from his childhood in Lithuania to the shenanigans at the annual vacations that MAD’s contributors and staff used to take every year. It was the kind of day that fans would have paid thousands for.
That memory had already become a bittersweet one; Joyce passed away in 2020, Pat died in 2021, and Abby was taken by cancer at age 29 earlier this year. And now Al’s gone.
But I’ll always have the memories of my dinner with Al, the banquet where a mob of cartoonists lauded him, that day at the Getty, and the joy of knowing that one of my lifelong heroes was worthy of that label and that I had the chance to tell him so in person.
Rest in peace, Al Jaffee. You were one of the greats.