circa 1910 postcard that inspired the later creation of Alfred E. Neuman

I have not read Mad magazine for many years–decades–now, but read with great interest this Washington Post article about the impending retirement of Al Jaffee. For those who may not know, Jaffee was one of the early pioneers of Mad. In his 60+ years with the magazine he wrote and drew over five hundred of the fold-ins, which were something of a spoof of the Playboy centerfold in which one saw a question and accompanying drawing that, when folded it together, satirized some political figure or topic of the day. Jaffee was also a key figure in writing Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, which my brother, sister, and I avidly read aloud in book form in the 1970s. Jaffee is 99 years old and–in the end of an era–next week’s tribute issue will be Mad’s final edition of new material.

Jaffee was born in Savannah, Georgia just after the end of the Great War but moved back and forth from the United States to Lithuania with his parents. I have always found it fascinating how immigrants created so much of the high, middle, and low American culture that we take for granted. We breathe it in like oxygen without even thinking about it. Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, and even Christmas carols are just a few examples. I imagine this insider-outsider identity gave Jaffee his unique perspective and ability to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, all while maintaining his sense of humor, intellectual curiosity, and generosity of spirit.

Popular culture can be a tricky thing. Done well, as it was for decades in Mad and is today in The Onion, it can inspire and educate. Done poorly or consumed in excess, it enervates one’s faculties. I was telling someone just last week that I can no longer watch the late night television shows because Neil Postman’s 1980s warning of the dangers of amusing ourselves to death has become reality. Our obsession with entertainment is the reason why actors and reality television personalities have in recent years become able to enter the public sphere in the manner that they have. If you are satirizing this or that figure in a late night sketch but then hanging out with that same figure at some after party two weeks later, what does your satire actually mean? These were hazards to which Jaffee and his Mad colleagues never succumbed.