Interview: Al Jaffee [unabridged]

By DAN MAZUR  |  November 18, 2010

When they made the transition from Kurtzman to Feldstein, was there a big change? Yes. Kurtzman was a dreamer. He just loved creating and working with creative people, and improving and improving and improving, and anyone whose worked with him knows that you bring your artwork in to show it to Harvey, and he says, "Leave it and I'll get back to you," and two days later you go in to meet with him and he's put tracing paper over it with ten-thousand corrections on it, and now you have to go back and work on it for another couple of days. I didn't mind doing that, because I knew that Harvey was very, very bright and every change he made was an improvement. From a practical point of view it was costing money because you couldn't work on anything else. But from an artistic point of view, Harvey would never say, "Ach, its good enough, let's go with it." Harvey would never do that, that would destroy him.

Harvey was heavily on the creative end, on the art end, and he really didn't want to know about the business problems, he didn't want to know about the cost of printing. Feldstein could handle both. Feldstein also was an artist, as was Harvey — I mean we all went to the High School of Music and Art. Feldstein was a very good painter, but Feldstein, I don't think, was heavy on the humor-and-satire aspect of it. He would not have created a Mad magazine. Harvey was. I could work with Feldstein very well, because he understood my work, and he apparently liked it, because we worked together for many years. But I could also work with Harvey because I didn't have a problem with him either. I mean, I knew what Harvey wanted and it was tough as hell, because he wasn't going to let any tiny little thing that was wrong, he was not going to pass it through. But I learned things from all of them.

Do you think that the later Kurtzman projects failed commercially just because he was a poor businessman or was he trying to do something that was too sophisticated and couldn't find a wide enough audience? There are a lot of arguments about that. Everyone who was involved has a different point of view, so all I can say is what I have I heard. When Harvey left Mad, which was a 25-cent, cheap paperback black-and-white magazine that caught on in the colleges because it was so anti-establishment, anti-garbage, anti-McCarthy — not directly anti-McCarthy, but, y'know, it was brave enough to stand up to American institutions, which risked being labeled at that time anti-American and pro-Soviet — those were such ridiculous times. Mad was getting away with it because it was such a preposterous little rag. Although J. Edgar Hoover did have a dossier on Mad.

Along comes Hefner and says, "Harvey come with me, we'll do Mad but we'll do it better, we'll put full color in, and it'll have the quality of Playboy magazine and it'll have a 50-cent price tag." [This was Hefner and Kurtzman's short-lived attempt to rival Mad.] Well there are people who say the 50-cent price tag is what killed it. Other people say that it got too fancy for its own good. When it [Mad] was a cheap black-and-white, newsprint, throwaway thing, it looked rebellious. When it became a fancy full-color, National Geographic, Playboy-type thing it [Trump] looked like part of the establishment. Well, I don't know which one of those was true.

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