] That has been known to happen.
After 73 years of doing this, have you successfully proved the moral unreliability of adults?
Well, I don’t think I’ve proved anything. I’m not an educator or a preacher. I think the important thing, in my line of work anyway, is that you’re helping the reader to think for himself.
It’s not just about getting a chuckle from them. When you expose hypocrisy or nonsense or plain ol’ stupidity, you want to do it in a way that makes the reader connect the dots. Don’t tell the joke, just hint at the joke. If you over-explain it, it’s no good.
So you trust their intelligence?
All human beings are intelligent, with the exception of people who are mentally ill. And it’s possible that all the readers of Mad are mentally ill. [Laughs]
When we were growing up, it felt like reading Mad, and your work in particular, made us smarter. Or at least made us want to be smarter. There were the dog poop jokes, sure.
Nothing better than a dog poop joke.
But you also wrote about government bureaucracy and nuclear proliferation and consumer manipulation. A kid had to do his homework to keep up with Mad.
That’s when I feel like we were doing our best work, when the readers needed to keep up, or at least take a more active role. It’s not just about the references. What I always loved about the Fold-In is that it couldn’t be enjoyed passively. I don’t think people want to be lumps, letting you fill their heads with ideas. They want to participate.
It’s like that “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it” riddle. If a Fold-In isn’t folded in, does it really exist?
It’s a joke that never finds its punchline.
It needs that interaction. Most of our readers try to guess what it’ll be before they fold it in, and they work very hard at it, from what I’ve been told. My job is to make it impossible for them to guess in advance.
You’ve been doing this, trying to outsmart your readers, for half a century.
Has it been that long? I suppose so.
And it’s really just one joke, done over and over and over and over . . .
. . and over and over and over . . .
. . . and over again. You’ve done Fold-Ins for longer than most marriages last. But you’ve kept it up for 52 years, doing more or less the same thing every month, without throwing in the towel.
Because I never approach it as the same thing. I’m always thinking, can I surprise them again? Surprise is what creates a genuine laugh. I think I get the same joy in doing the Fold-In every month as people who love doing crossword puzzles week after week. A crossword is always the same general concept, but if it’s done well, it’s different and challenging. You never tire of using your brain.
The Fold-In was supposed to be a one-time thing, right?
Exactly. I was making fun of the fold-outs you’d see in Playboy or National Geographic or Life Magazine. They had these big, fancy, full-color fold-outs. Well, at Mad we didn’t have that kind of budget. So I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to do the exact opposite? We’d do a cheap black-and-white fold in. It was a silly gag, but I never thought the publisher would go for it.
You’d have to ruin the magazine. But Bill Gaines, our publisher, really loved the idea. He said, “If they mutilate the magazine, they’ll buy a second one to save.” [Laughs] I always loved that logic.
Have you ever done a Fold-In that you regretted? Something that crossed the line of good taste?
There was one, and we ended up not publishing it. Well, we did, but then we all had second thoughts, and they shredded every copy before they could be shipped out to newsstands.
Wow. What was it about?
I don’t want to name the exact event, but it was one of those terrible mass shootings. Where a gunman walks in and murders everybody. The Fold-In actually had a really positive message. It was along the lines of, well, let’s hope we never have to experience something this horrible ever again.
What’s wrong with that?
It wasn’t the message, it was the image. The Fold-In art tends to be very realistic, and it just . . . it wasn’t something I was comfortable with. The intentions were good, but I just don’t want to use tragedy as a way to get a laugh. Even if the laugh is about recognizing the absurdity of what’s happening, it’s still, I don’t know . . . I don’t think it’s respectful to the survivors. You really have to be careful with these things.
You were one of the original “Gang of idiots” from Mad’s heyday, which included cartooning greats like Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, Frank Jacobs, and Dave Berg.
They were like family.
It’s hard not to imagine the Mad office as hilarious bedlam, with nobody wearing pants, farts being set on fire, and everyone fueled on pizza and cocaine.
I wish I could say yes to that.
Then say yes!
It was a bit duller than that, I’m afraid. The truth of the matter is, it wasn’t all that interesting. Most of us were freelance artists, and time is money when you’re in freelance. We were very serious about it. Our motto was “Humor is no laughing matter.”
That’s kind of disheartening.
It’s not like the office is a particularly fertile ground for comedy anyway. That’s not where you get the real inspiration. You find it in places you don’t expect.
Well, take something like “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.” That came out of a real experience. I was living in Long Island at the time, and like everyone in those days, there was a television antenna attached to my chimney. A storm had come through and knocked out the antenna, so I was up on the roof trying to fix it. I was really struggling with it, and all of a sudden I heard these footsteps on the ladder. It was my son, home from school, and he said to me, “Where’s mom?”
Did he think she was on the roof?
That’s the thing. She obviously wasn’t there. It was just me wrestling with this antenna. So I looked at him and said, “I killed her, and I’m stuffing her down the chimney.” He of course retreated very rapidly, and I had to apologize to him later for being such a wise ass. But that got me thinking, there might be an idea for Mad in here somewhere.
So you’re not getting your best ideas sitting behind a desk?
Never. That’s not how creativity works. Actually, some of the best, most inspired times I ever had with the other Mad contributors wasn’t at the office. It was when we’d go on these big group trips. Bill (Gaines) would take the entire staff on vacations, and we’d go all over the world. He took us to Greece, to the Soviet Union, to Thailand and on an African safari.
And that got your creative juices flowing?
Sometimes it was just about cracking ourselves up. The first trip we ever took was to Haiti. All the Mad artists and writers, we went over to Haiti.
That’s a weird place to take a company retreat.
It was, sure. It was ostensibly about bonding as a group, everybody getting to know each other a little better. But the second day we’re there, Bill rents a bunch of Jeeps, and he tells us “We’re going to visit someone.”
That’s all he tells you?
We have no clue what’s happening. So we all get in these jeeps, and we drive out to some neighborhood in Haiti, and pull up in front of a house. Bill knocks on the door, a guy answers, and Bill says to him, “We’ve all come here to find out why you canceled your subscription to Mad.”
No he didn’t!
He really did. [Laughs] This guy was Mad’s only Haitian reader, and Bill didn’t want to lose him. So he brought the entire staff to his doorstep. We all just started begging, “What can we do? Come back to us!” He eventually said yes. And the guy next door, his neighbor, he became a subscriber too. So we left Haiti with two new Mad readers.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Vanity Fair