Al Jaffee Spent A Lifetime Making Fun Of Movies And TV – But He Did Write One TV Special

Al Jaffee, the stalwart artist and writer for MAD Magazine, passed away on April 10, 2023. He was 102 years old. The world lost a giant.

Jaffee is the notable inventor of the MAD Fold-In, which invited readers to crease an image on the back cover of the magazine, pushing the sides of the drawing together and forming a new, previously unseen image. Jaffee drew Fold-Ins for MAD from 1968 until 2019. He was also known for his "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" books, as well as strange sourcebooks of fun, crazy inventions. He once argued that smokers would someday smoke three-foot-long cigarettes, arguing the design's many advantages. He also thought up several clever ways to dispose of dog waste. Jaffee began his cartooning career in 1942 and retired officially in 2020, earning him the Guinness World Record for having the longest career of any cartoonist. 

Working for MAD Magazine, of course, meant that Jaffee's influence on film and TV is immeasurable. MAD corrupted the minds of generations of children, leaving them with a healthy skepticism of seemingly organized institutions like schools and hospitals. Madison Avenue was a particularly hated object of MAD's derision, and many advertisers feared placing their ads in its pages, fearing readers would mistake the magazine's clever, acidic spoofs for the real thing. Anyone who read MAD also likely learned to never take pop culture seriously, as they regularly parodied the hottest films and TV shows of the day. Jaffee's impish sense of humor leaked insidiously and gloriously into the minds of any youths with even the smallest propensity for punk dismissal and giggly pranksmanship. 

Jaffee was an active, credited writer only once on a TV project. In 1974, ABC commissioned what would become "The MAD Magazine TV Special." 

What, me worry?

Because advertisers feared them, it took MAD many years to make it to the TV screen. MAD had no issue with mocking the makers of commercials, so one can see why no businesses would want to sponsor a primetime animated series. This was confirmed by MAD writer Dick DeBartolo, who, in a 2009 interview with Cartoon Brew said: "Nobody wanted to sponsor a show that made fun of products that were advertised on TV, like car manufacturers." In the opening of the special, an announcer says that the show was "brought to you by ..." and then remains silent. Sponsors were to be filled in later.

The special, by the way, has nothing to do with "MADtv," the MAD-branded "Saturday Night Live"-like sketch comedy that ran from 1995 to 2016.

According to a 2019 retrospective in Vulture, MAD Magazine was at the height of its popularity in the early 1970s and had inspired a number of imitators in the print marketplace (National Lampoon was also big at the time). It seemed the time was ripe to move into television. Like the magazine, "The MAD Magazine TV Special" was constructed of a series of vignettes or segments, each one drawn in a different style. Indeed, in many cases, the drawings from certain MAD segments were used as the direct templates of their on-screen counterparts, with the likes of Jack Davis, Dave Berg, Don Martin, Antonio Prohias, and Mort Drucker represented beautifully. ABC funded the pilot, but it did not get picked up. For many years, it floated around in obscurity, only handed off with all due respect by early VHS adopters. 

Eventually, the special leaked onto the internet, where some enterprising fans cleaned it up. Its actual release remains unauthorized. It's a little awkward in terms of its pacing, but it's something to behold. 

A Peek Behind the Scenes ... at a Hospital

The segment written by Al Jaffee and based on his art was called "A Peek Behind the Scenes ... at a Hospital." It was based on Jaffee's own typical article types that showed one massive overhead scene packed with hundreds of people, "Where's Waldo" style. A reader's eye could meander idly around the page and catch small scenes, each one with its own written joke. As was Jaffee's style, there were also myriad visual gags hiding in every corner. Poring over a Jaffee comic often rewarded one's careful attention. A reader got the impression that each Jaffee scene was a chaotic mishmash of hundreds of jokes happening simultaneously. 

"Hospital" featured, like on the page, an exploded, top-down view of, well, a hospital, where every room was visible. Nurses and doctors, all incompetent, quipped about how badly patients were treated and how expensive modern medicine had become. Recall this was 1974. 

Because this was an animated segment, however, and not a static image on a page, each joke has to be read out loud by voice actors. The camera had to drift around the hospital and settle on each vignette in turn. In drifting, a viewer had to wait several seconds for each gag to begin, killing any sense of comedic timing. Jaffee's chaotic brilliance was, quite unfortunately, made linear, henceforth completely wrecking his "all-at-once" approach.

Fans of MAD, however, will likely be overwhelmingly dazzled by seeing Jaffee's drawings moving. So dazzled, in fact, they'll want to reach for the actual magazine to compare notes.

Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy blecch

"Special" was directed by Chris Ishii ("Terror Faces Magoo"), Jimmy Murakami ("Heavy Metal," "Battle Beyond the Stars"), and Gordon Bellamy (artist on "The Iron Giant," "Space Jam," and hundreds of others). It was well-meaning, but lacked the madcap madness of MAD. The pacing dragged, the gags delivered too little punch, and some segments took up way too much time; "The Oddfather" was funny, but lasted a good 10 minutes of the show's 24-minute runtime. 

After the segment, Al Jaffee and the usual gang of idiots went back to MAD, staying well outside of television for another 21 years (Jaffee was not a credited writer on "MADtv"). Jaffee's bonkers ideas and clear-line drawings, however, continued to influence generation after generation. No comedian could not cite MAD as an influence. "Weird Al" Yankovic even served as a guest editor for a single issue in 2019. 

Jafee retired from MAD in 2020 after the magazine itself underwent a major overhaul. It was rebooted in 2019 with a new editorial staff but only lasted an additional 10 issues. MAD continues to this day by selling special editions and reprints but features very little new material. Jaffee's Fold-Ins are still included. Even after his death, Jaffee will remain an influence on naughty kids everywhere.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was once hired as a writer for MAD Magazine and was even put on the company payroll. Every single one of my ideas was shot down, and not a single piece I wrote was published. MAD folded less than a year later. Whether or not my presence there changed the fate of the magazine must remain in the realm of speculation. 

Fingers crossed that I, too, can make it to 102.