LONG AGO, a Trump magazine was born as an emblem of American greatness. It was glorious. It was glossy.
And it had absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.
No, Trump the high-energy Republican nominee was still a 10-year-old Queens lad in short pants when Trump the high-quality periodical was launched 60 years ago this January.
This new graphic-humor publication was bankrolled by Hugh Hefner, the Playboy founder who wanted to create a version of the satirical MAD magazine, but for a grown-up demographic. And so Hef wooed legendary MAD editor Harvey Kurtzman to come work for him, giving him the keys to a new project: an upscale mag featuring an all-star roster of writers and artists.
Kurtzman bit, moving over to Playboy, where his creative contributions would run for more than three decades. The new Trump editor then hired such MAD talent (a.k.a. “the usual gang of idiots”) as Will Elder, Wally Wood and Jack Davis (who died last month) — as well as fellow legend Al Jaffee, whom I will moderate in his spotlight appearance next month at Baltimore Comic-Con (Sept. 2 to 4).
“I submitted ideas to Harvey Kurtzman, and eventually Harvey had to run all the ideas through Hefner,” Jaffee tells Comic Riffs, recounting the launch. “I either would get a go or a no.”
Also hired were such humorists as Mel Brooks, Arnold Roth and novelist and TV writer Max Shulman (creator of the character Dobie Gillis). There were also Russ Heath, Robert Blechman, Doodles Weaver and Roger Price (co-creator of “Mad Libs”).
And so with such talent, Trump was launched in January 1957 — with more than 50 slick pages at a sticker price of 50 cents. The more sophisticated irreverence was evident, including a fake cigarette ad that parodied the show “Sgt. Bilko,” a “Giant” movie spoof and Brooks’s parody of “Death of a Salesman” — all offered in polished art that positively glistened. This was no low-rent MAD.
Within several issues, Trump was dead.
Hefner, according to lore, would say: “I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it.” But according to some accounts, the short run had more to do with how Playboy was moving its money to other ventures. Either way, Trump never had time to build a readership.
“A friend of mine, a professor of psychology, said Trump was too fancy,” Jaffee, 95, tells me, “and at twice the price” of MAD. In the 1950s, notes the cartoonist, speaking by phone from New York, the difference between 25 and 50 cents was significant.
By that theory, MAD appealed to teen readers because it tapped into the rebelliousness of youth, and its visual aesthetic — a comic-book format printed on cheap newsprint — fit the tone of its “smart-stupid” content.
Trump, by contrast, launched with a sheen as high-end as Playboy, Jaffee says.
“Harvey and I and the rest of us also felt an obligation to be fancier,” Jaffee notes. At MAD, the creators were “knocking out this stuff for what was essentially a comic book,” he says. At Trump, they were trying to “enter the fancy market for magazines like Playboy and Colliers.”
“I think that’s what affected us,” the cartoonist says. “I think we became more pretentious than with what we created for MAD.”
“You can’t take Abbott and Costello,” he says, “and do Shakespearean comedy.”
Hefner may have wanted a “highfalutin version” of MAD, Jaffee says, and Hef’s expenses certainly reflected that mission. “But we didn’t attract an adult audience” — despite doing topical humor about housing prices and gas shortages and addiction to sedatives.
Jaffee also points to the switch to a different production schedule, which can affect the flow of the creative juices. “We came from the comic-book field, where he knocked out six-page stories, penciled and inked, in three to four days,” Jaffee says. “Here, we were working on one page a week.”
Jaffee returned to MAD, where — among his numerous features — he created the magazine’s back-page fold-in for many decades.
“We all tried to do the best we could, but it’s about timing,” Jaffee says. “There comes a time when it’s just a good thing that comes along at the right time.”
In other words, his lesson learned from Hef’s experiment, which Dark Horse collected and published in a 2009 treasury:
Right Trump, wrong time.