The Mad Jews Behind Mad Magazine


From Hillel and Shammai to Jagger and Richards, some of the greatest art in history emerged from collaboration. The partnership between illustrator and comic artist Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman, the creative genius behind Mad magazine is one such example.

Born Wolf Eisenberg to a Bronx family that called him “Meshugganah Villy,” Elder was, according to Mad publisher William M. Gaines, the “funniest artist.” (“Much funnier than me,” Kurtzman affirmed).

Some Mad artists chaffed under Kurtzman’s tight editorial grip, 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.

Watch a trailer for Chicken Fat, a film about Elder:

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