Secret Histories of Snappy Comebacks to Stupid Questions

Or, verbal Rube Goldberg machines

Way back when, the current U.S president dismissed aspiring challenger Pete Buttigieg by saying that “Alfred E. Neuman cannot be president of the United States.” The 37-year-old Democrat responded by saying, “I’ll be honest. I had to Google that. I guess it’s just a generational thing. I didn’t get the reference.”

Reader, I got the reference. But as I scoured the city for a copy of the special “All Jaffee” tribute issue of MAD Magazine, I recognized I was in the minority.

For everyone else, Alfred E. Neuman is the ancient humour magazine’s gap-toothed mascot and Al Jaffee is the 99-year-old artist and writer who has been part of the Usual Gang of Idiots since the 1950s. The Jaffee celebration issue doesn’t explicitly state that it commemorates his retirement, likely because any actuary could tell you that a 99-year-old’s retirement rarely lasts long and any collector could tell you that a tribute issue would be more valuable. 

Jaffee’s genius was in creating perpetual gag machines, repeatable formats that could be eternally refreshed with new jokes. Hence the Fold-Ins rewarding careful creasing with hidden groaners at the end of each issue.

Less famous but more lucrative for Jaffee were his Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions, a long-running series that offered help to readers “plagued by clods who ask stupid questions.” The very first instalment appeared in 1965 and is reprinted in the new issue. It features such highly hypothetical exchanges as:

Is this the end of the line?
No, it’s the beginning! We’re all facing backwards!

Have an accident?
No, thanks! I already have one!

Is it raining?
No, I came home by sewer!

Jaffee as long said that he got the idea for Snappy Answers — note they are not billed as witty or clever — when he was on the roof of his house, straightening the TV antenna. As he explained in 2011:

“I’d have to borrow a ladder and climb up, though I’m terrified of heights, and straighten the antenna. One day I’m up there and I heard footsteps on the ladder behind me, and the footsteps arrive closer, and it’s my son, who says, ‘Where’s Mom?’ And, you know, I’m clinging for dear life, and I said, ‘I’ve killed her and I’m stuffing her down the chimney.’ Two benefits resulted from this: One was that I was able to create a number of books based on ‘Snappy Answers,’ and the other is that my son stopped talking to me.” 

That’s the version I went with in my book Elements of Wit, and it’s the story that helped Jaffee sell more than two million paperback copies of Snappy Answers. But looking at it now, there’s a snappier history to be told.

Jaffee was in many ways the spiritual heir to Rube Goldberg, the early 20th-century cartoonist who designed fanciful machines to accomplish prosaic tasks. What we now call Rube Goldberg Machines fixed breakfast for Pee-Wee Herman, fooled Ferris Bueller’s parents, and more recently made Joseph Herscher a YouTube star.

Al Jaffee did his share of riffing on Goldberg machines, though his were slightly more plausible and, in the case of The Automated Ferris Wheel Rapid Parking Facility, occasionally even prescient. But the real Rube Goldberg inspiration can be seen in Jaffee’s Snappy Answers, which seem to be a direct descendent of Goldberg’s Foolish Questions series.

Jaffee has paid tribute to Goldberg, and the actual provenance of the idea isn’t as interesting as the underlying similarity between the two cartoonists. It’s no coincidence that Foolish Questions and Snappy Answers were generated by the same brains that effortlessly concocted Goldberg Machines: The pre-planned retort is the verbal equivalent of the needlessly complicated contraption.

They don’t really work, they’re not supposed to work, and they’re more work than they’re worth — but wouldn’t it be great if they did work?

Preparing a Snappy Answer to a Stupid/Foolish Question scratches the same itch as an elaborate series of levers and ropes that will squeeze you a glass of orange juice just as soon as you hit the snooze button. The setup is onerous, the execution is tricky, the payoff is laughable, and that’s the whole point. Here’s to another 99 years of Al Jaffee’s snapping.

Quick quips; lightning

“To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”
— Gustave Flaubert

“It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are.”
— Clive James

“Many of the younger generation know my name in a vague way and connect it with grotesque inventions, but don't believe that I ever existed as a person. They think I am a nonperson, just a name that signifies a tangled web of pipes or wires or strings that suggest machinery. My name to them is like a spiral staircase, veal cutlets, barber's itch—terms that give you an immediate picture of what they mean.”
— Rube Goldberg

The reader of GWQ No. 59 exhales mightily upon reaching the fine print (A), which spooks a passing housefly (B), who has a heart attack and plummets onto a carefully constructed tabletop of Mousetrap: The Game of Zany Action on a Crazy Contraption (C), which proceeds to fail as it always does, causing a small child (D) to disgustedly flip the game board, knocking a well-thumbed copy of Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting off the bookshelf and into a roaring fire (E), generating a puff of white smoke that selects a new Pope (F), causing a second schism in the Catholic Church (G), and setting off the smoke detector (H), confusing our original reader (A) to absentmindedly reach for the Pause button (it seems wrong to call it a Snooze button, though isn’t it one?) and instead tap the ♥️ below.