Before the Fold-In, Al Jaffee’s (1921-2023) Tall Tale Telling

With the sad passing of Al Jaffee this week, cartooning lost its oldest and longest-working artist. In fact, the man behind 55 years of MAD magazine Fold-Ins held the Guinness Book of World Record for having the longest career in the field. But his 1964 invention of that classic foldable end-page gag was not his first stab at rethinking form. His inspiration for the fold-in was an inversions of the then-trendy magazine fold-out. But it turns out that zigging when others zagged was a bit of a thing with Jaffee. Back in the mid-1950s he broke into the syndicated newspaper comic strip market by literally turning convention on its side. He called them Tall Tales.

“The only thing I could think of was a comic feature that could fit into spaces that other comic features couldn’t. After exploring every gimmick I could think of, I came up with the idea of a vertical format instead of the standard horizontal one – seven inches tall and one column wide. The natural title came to me: Tall Tales. It could be put on any page of the newspaper: the classified section, the editorial page, or anywhere else the editor wished to attract special attention.”

Originally he followed a pantomime format, but a clueless editor at the Herald Tribune pressed him to add voices. He did introduce an ongoing character, Sidney Sneath, who often acted as an observer to the gag. In the end, the strip only lasted six years. And soon after, Jaffee riffed on his format-bending imagination to start the Fold-In for MAD in 1964.

But the Tall Tales strip was both innovative and often sharp. It played against our habit of scanning across pages to deliver setup and punch line in the same frame. The viewer’s own myopia was a part of the joke.

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