A Belated Birthday to an Unlikely Futurist!

Posted by Rob Noble on March 23, 2011

A late happy 90th birthday to Mr. Al Jaffee, Playboy cartoonist, creator of the Mad Magazine fold-in and the Tall Tales comic strip, among other noticeable pieces of boyhood snickery. His birthday was March 13th, and I’ve been meaning to say something about him for a while.  Not only is he a national treasure and a swell read, but he had an almost-psychic knack for predicting our present day consumer glut.  Mad Magazine often had spreads depicting their “crazy ideas” with an ad man’s eye for illustration. Al JAffee may have been an unlikely futurist, but he successfully imagined what might come next when he put pen to paper.

Here, I found this interview with him in Mike Sack’s And Here’s the Kicker:

In re-reading your Mad articles, I found that you predicted, or perhaps invented, quite a few modern-day products.

I did?

I’ll give you a few examples. In a piece you did in March 1967, you drew an illustration of a machine, and wrote: “The idiot-proof typewriter will include memory tapes and store millions of words, phrases and correct grammatical expressions.” Sounds very similar to the spell-checker on a word processor.

Wow! I don’t remember that.

You pre-dated the re-dial option on telephones and a cell phone’s address book when you came up with the “automatic dialer” in 1961. Punch cards were inserted into a phone, which then automatically dialed the saved numbers.  And you created “snow surfing,” basically, snowboarding, in 1965.  “Using a regular surfboard, the Snow Surfer has trees, rocks, and annoyed skiers to lend dangerous excitement.”

No kidding.

And it goes on like that: Dog doo vaporizor, e-cigarettes, the peel-away stamp, the three-blade razor.  He invented all of them while doodling at his desk.

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about 1960s advertising lately.  Some of it has been for a Small DoggiesMagazine column I wrote on Putney Swope, and some of it has been by accident (I’m a big fan of mid-Century design, and the push to “modernize” homes during the Space Age.) In this, Al Jaffee stands like a mental x-ray of the middle-class American man, circa Mad Men Season 4. Every thought, every desire, is about getting people to buy more products, to buy newer products. I don’t know how relevant a “Buy-More” subtext would be if these themes were found in later Mad issues.  I don’t see it in old Flintstones or My Favorite Martian episodes.

But I canNOT look at these old Jaffee cartoons and see anything but the consumer-item-obsessed future, poking its head around the corner.

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