Books & Arts

Remembering Frank Jacobs, the ‘poet lauridiot’ of Mad magazine who inspired comics like ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic

“I absolutely devoured every issue, and Frank Jacobs was a big reason for that obsession,” Yankovic told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “I can’t swear that Frank’s work was my first-ever exposure to the art form of parody, but it was definitely the first time I had seen the craft approached with that much skill, wit and attention to detail. Frank laid out the template for me — he irrevocably changed my DNA.”

Jacobs, who died Monday, entertained and influenced generations as he “set the standard in satire and parody,” Mad said in its announcement.

He was best known for cutting lyrics set to standards from the great American songbook — including such tuneful spoofs as “East Side Story,” “Flawrence of Arabia” and “Keep On Trekin’ “ — and his musical parodies were even at the center of a landmark copyright-law case.

Music publishers and named plaintiff Irving Berlin sued Mad over a 1961 special edition that featured more than 50 parody lyrics to such songs as Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” which Jacobs turned into “Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady.” In 1964, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled in Mad’s favor, with Circuit Court Judge Irving Kaufman writing in his decision: “We doubt that even so eminent a composer as plaintiff Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter.”

Jacobs began writing for Mad in 1957, crafting early pieces such as “Why I Left the Army and Became a Civilian,” which humorously contrasted the discipline of military life with the demands of being an everyday married commuter. He also liked to spoof other cartoons, including in works such as “Obituaries for Comic Strip Characters” and “If the Characters in ‘Peanuts’ Aged Like Ordinary People”; the latter spoof was published in 1972, when Mad was at its pop cultural peak, reaching millions of readers each month.

“What is really amazing to me today is that there still are people who can sing all the words to some of his parodies,” says his son, Alex Jacobs.

Jacobs could deliver almost any type of satire in the magazine, including fill-in-the-blank news stories, era-mocking greeting cards and birth announcements, and rhyming guides to sports and advertising.

“The breadth of his writing was breathtaking,” former Mad editor John Ficarra said. “He wrote virtually every formatted article, and he perfected the ‘What If?’ premise article.”

Ficarra joined Mad in 1980 and was impressed from the get-go. At one of Ficarra’s first story conferences, Jacobs pitched about five ideas; all were greenlit — a remarkable batting average at the magazine. If Mad were the Yankees, he says, Jacobs was like watching Babe Ruth.

“Frank was so damned clever,” Ficarra says. “It was a real master class to hear him talk about the craft.”

A die-hard solver of puzzles, Jacobs would work and rework and rework his prose till every syllable sounded and scanned just right. And his words were often illustrated by fellow stars among the magazine’s “Usual Gang of Idiots,” including Wally Wood, Al Jaffee, Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Sam Viviano and Paul Coker Jr.

“Frank had a very good imagination,” Jaffee said. “He was intelligent and well-read, and he kind of looked at everything going in with disbelief.”

And as a colleague, the sports-loving Jacobs could be lovably particular and gracious in the same moment, Ficarra said, recounting that editor Nick Meglin posted a sign in the New York offices that read: “Frank is ‘The Odd Couple.’ “

Jacobs, who was born in Lincoln, Neb., in 1929, moved to New York in the mid-’50s after serving in the Army and heartily embraced the home city of the fledgling magazine.

He received the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing in 2009.

“Honestly, considering Mr. Jacobs’ considerable impact and influence on the world of comedy, I thought I would be part of a rabid, sweaty, standing-room-only crowd packed in a huge auditorium,” Yankovic wrote. “I was genuinely surprised to find that his panel was actually held in a small classroom, with maybe a dozen rabid, sweaty people in attendance.

“It was quite the intimate setting — once in a while Frank would make a comment about the parody business and then turn my way and knowingly mutter, ‘You know what I’m talking about, Al.’

“It was actually pretty awesome.”

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