Mad Magazine was one of the most influential satires of the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine “The Simpsons” or “SNL” without the earlier irreverence of Mad.
In its heyday in the 1970s, Mad had a readership in the millions. And though its influence has faded, it still has a pulse.
Over the years, contributors to the magazine have been known as “the usual gang of idiots.” We meet Johnny Sampson, a local cartoonist who is one of the last members of the gang.
Marc Vitali: Since 1964, a signature feature of Mad Magazine has been the “fold-in” – a cartoon riddle that is solved when the picture is folded.
These days, the fold-in is conceived, written, sketched and painted by cartoonist Johnny Sampson.
Johnny Sampson: It’s a dream job, and it’s big for me. Honestly the biggest part was getting a letter from Al in the first place, saying, “I think you can actually do this.”
Vitali: “Al” is Al Jaffee, the legendary Mad cartoonist who originated the fold-in and made it till he retired in 2020 at age 99.
Sampson created this birthday tribute to Jaffee before his retirement – and he now carries on his Mad tradition.
Sampson: I’ve really tried to stay faithful to Al’s methods. It was basically Photoshop before Photoshop. He’d draw it on separate bits of vellum paper, chop them up and stick them all over. It was literal cut-’n-paste, you know?
I prefer analog materials. I start with pencil and paper. Well actually, I start with the idea because if you don’t have that you don’t have a fold-in. From there you need to go, all right, how’s this gonna work? Will this work?
Vitali: Before he worked for Mad, Sampson made what he called a “rip-off” fold-in for Pitchfork – the riddle resolved by showing Jaffee himself answering nature’s call.
But that wasn’t his first attempt.
Sampson: My very first fold-in was a comic book I did for the school newspaper. It was this dumb comic but when you folded it, it said: “Everybody’s so full of sh*t!” I got an in-school suspension for it.
Vitali: Sampson does gig posters for local events. He’s made album art for rapper Action Bronson and rocker King Khan.
And he contributes to kid-friendly publications as well.
Sampson: It’s weird, especially as a freelancer, you never know where it’s coming from next. You can knock on doors to a certain extent, but it’s usually: “They’ll call you.” You don’t call them. But they do call and that’s nice. It’s nice to be called. Please call me.
Vitali: Mad only has two full-time employees right now and a handful of contributors like Sampson.
Content is mostly recycled material from the archives. The magazine’s future was in question even before it was acquired by AT&T.
Sampson: And now AT&T has unloaded Time Warner Media, which is the parent company of DC and Mad, to merge with Discovery Media. This deal is in the works and it may not be complete for a year, two years, I don’t know. So there might be something after that. We’re holding onto hope.
Vitali: Being one of the last keepers of the flame is a bittersweet burden.
Sampson: For me that’s part of the responsibility and honor of doing the fold-in, you know? It’s heavy.
But it’s really sad because now Mad is just all reprints. It still means a lot to me, but it kind of has an asterisk next to it, you know?
Hard copies of Mad Magazine are still available at comic book stores and through subscription. And Al Jaffee turned 100 years old in March. Find out more about cartoonist Johnny Sampson on his website JohnnySampson.com.