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The world of Mad

Meet the Staff of Mad, promotional 7" 45 rpm recording
Ralph Gardner Jr.

The death this week of Mad magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee at 102 years old has sparked a totally justified, excessive, cathartic, head-scratching, at times maudlin outpouring of tributes and nostalgia from all corners of the culture; seemingly as much for the lost youth of those honoring the cartoonist as for the man himself.

It also got me scrambling to listen to “Meet the staff of Mad,” a record that was included in a 1959 issue of the magazine and that I have absolutely no idea how I came into possession many years ago. It features the publisher and editor being drowned out by laughter as they try to introduce themselves.

For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Al Jaffee is the guy who in 1964 – a very good year -- invented the fold-ins on the inside back cover of Mad. As opposed to other magazines of that era such as Life, which published foldouts, the reader folded Mad’s back cover in upon itself to reveal a very different image than the original one. He also created “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” retorts the reader could have come up with were he or she smarter and faster.

If you’ll allow me to give you an example of a fold-in. It’s from the June, 1964 issue. “Who wants to be president more than anything?” the headline asks. It’s accompanied by a drawing of Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater squaring off for the Republican Party Presidential nomination. But folding the page from right to left reveals an image of Richard Nixon who truly wanted to be commander-in-chief more than anything or anybody.

Frankly, I didn’t love the fold-ins for a couple of reasons. Some of the jokes went over my head. But mostly I hated to mutilate the magazine. That’s how sacred a role it played in my childhood.

In May of 1964 I won the Browning School fifth grade Field Day trophy. That might not sound like a big deal and it wasn’t to anybody outside my immediate family. But by the time I returned home from school I was greeted by my exultant mother who threw a party in my honor, including a cake that she’d run out and bought. She always prized athletic over academic achievement, probably because school came easily to her but sports not at all.

Milking the moment for all it was worth, I persuaded her to double my allowance for that week from a quarter to fifty cents; expressly so I could afford the double issue of Mad then on newsstands.

At least that’s my memory of events. What I’ve learned over the years – and my impression is that a growing body of research proves it – is that memory isn’t static. It’s a story that changes and gets embellished over time. I’m also fortunate that my mother kept a diary of every day of her life from the 1930’s through the late 70’s so I can compare my memory to her contemporaneous notes.

I found the full story of my Field Day triumph on May 13th, 1964, a Wednesday, together with references to the cake and a rendition of “Congratulations to you.” (I assume to the tune of Happy Birthday.) There’s no mention of my lobbying for a temporary increase to my allowance or of Mad magazine, for that matter. But that’s a detail that undoubtedly meant more to me than to her.

However, Al Jaffee’s death prompted me to explore the Internet to see if I could find an image of the double issue of Mad in question since I knew the exact date, or nearly, when I would have purchased it. But as I said, memory is an imperfect and subversively subjective instrument. According to Dan Gilford’s Mad Cover Site – a digitized repository of back issues – there was no double issue in May 1964. There wasn’t even a single issue in May 1964. Mad published single issues in April and June.

And probably for good reason. Leafing through those issues online I was impressed by the sheer amount of content, of humor, that each issue of Mad managed to squeeze between its covers. Unlike Playboy magazine – the joke was that readers bought it for the articles, not that I had personal experience with the publications until several years later – Mad was nothing but articles and cartoons. The stories took pride in skewering the hypocrisy of politicians, bursting the balloon of self-important celebrities, and spoofing TV and the movies. Mad’s hard-working staff probably did more to get me to read than all my books and teachers combined.

My hope, even after I discovered I was wrong about the existence of that double issue, was that the covers would spark memories. April featured Alfred E. Neuman, Mad’s intellectually challenged mascot and surrogate for all of us who didn’t excel academically, as the Academy Award nominated Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Or rather Alfred of Arabia.

But what impressed me most of all – even more than features like Spy vs. Spy and Don Martin’s Visit to the Dentist – were the send-ups of ads for products such as Lady Clairol, Contac cold medicine and Wilkinson sword blades. They were teaching children, and I suppose adults, too to be highly skeptical of our consumer culture and conformity. And also, how to employ humor as a weapon to assert power, whether in the playground or corporate America.

For that I owe Al Jaffe and the writers and editors at Mad an unrepayable debt of gratitude.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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