Do you now this Jew? He’s one of “The Mad Jews” behind Mad Magazine


Jordan Palmer

When a recent storm passed through St. Louis, knocking out power to many homes in South City, I found myself sitting in the house looking for something to do. “Read something,” my beautiful wife said. “You have two shelves of books sitting there, read something.”

I have some good books on that shelf. Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” several Philip Roth selections, as well as a nearly complete collection of World War II biographies by Stephen Ambrose. After much consternation, I chose “Good Days and Mad,” A Historical Tour Behind The Scenes Of MAD Magazine.

Reading bliss.

While the book stands on its own, the author Dick DeBartlolo makes good use of his pages to heap praises on the several Jewish writers, illustrators, and artists. One specifically represented is Will Elder.

Born Wolf Eisenberg to a Bronx family that called him “Meshugganah Villy,” Elder was, according to Mad publisher William M. Gaines, the “funniest artist” at MAD.

Some Mad artists chaffed under tight editorial grip, of fellow Jew Harvey Kurtzman, but Elder transcended order via what he dubbed “chicken fat”—that is, comedic “schtickery” unrelated to storylines.

Mad disciple Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame explained chicken fat as “jokes on jokes on jokes.” Larding Kurtzman’s scripts with layers of seemingly unrelated gags, Elder’s dollops of schmaltz also reflected the New York Jewish milieu of his upbringing.

Cartoonist Daniel Clowes put it best when he called Elder  a “descendant of Bosch and Bruegel.” Elder, he wrote, offered a “crystal-clear vision of a world gone mad”—a world that must be seen to be believed.

Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner said, “He was a zany, and a lovable one.”  Longtime Mad writer-cartoonist Al Jaffee called Elder “Absolutely brilliant… he was the star from the beginning. He had a feel for the kind of satire that eventually spread everywhere.”

Elder was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2018, the Comics Reporter‘s Tom Spurgeon described Elder as “an amazing artist, a sneaky spot-holder on the top 20 of the 20th century.”