I bet you know of MAD Magazine, but I doubt you know of many of its contributors. If you do know of one, it’s probably founder Harvey Kurtzman. If you know of more than one, it’s probably one or more of the magazine’s early artists who worked under Kurtzman and have since reached iconic status among comic aficionados — artists such as Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and Basil Wolverton. MAD’s writers, meanwhile, are widely ignored by the masses.
Perhaps in an attempt to address this ignorance of the masses (or maybe just to reward those readers in the know), MAD has partnered with Running Press and launched its “MAD’s Greatest Writers” series. The series, in the coming years, will do the obvious and highlight the magazine’s greatest writers, with each installment dedicated to an individual writer who, at least in this case, gets to act as editor and select which pieces to include.
In this first installment of the series, Frank Jacobs is the great MAD writer whose greatest work from over 50 years at the magazine is reprinted in a sturdy, hardcover, coffee-table sized book with thick silky pages. Jacobs is the obvious place to start because, with work in more than 300 MAD issues and over 575 individual credits to his name, he has the distinction of contributing more to the magazine than any other writer or artist.
Jacobs is a product of MAD Magazine, just as much as MAD Magazine is a product of him. He started as a freelance writer with the magazine by getting four articles published in MAD #33, followed by three in MAD #34, and four more in MAD #35. As former MAD editor Nick Meglin writes, “Batting a thousand in one’s first eleven attempts is far less probable in the freelance writing game than in baseball.” From then on Jacobs constantly made the All-Star team for the next half-century.
Because Jacobs’ career is so entwined with MAD, so too are the sensibilities and styles of his humor. I can’t say whether he influenced the magazine’s narrative voice or whether it was the other way around, but I can say that his writing is MAD to the max. Most all of it has a pop-culture, political, or capitalist tint of satire, and the playfulness of his parodying poems and songs arguably define what the magazine is all about.
In fact, his parodies are what most people first think of when they think of MAD, even if those people don’t know the name of the man who penned them. They are also, as to be expected, what makes up the majority of this first collection of “MAD’s Greatest Writers”. While most humor is fleeting and easily out-dated by its very nature, parody is the most fleeting and easily out-dated of all humor forms. Any given piece, after all, can only be as funny as any given reader’s knowledge of the parodied subject.
I’m sure no one is more aware of a parody’s short lifespan than a master of the form, and with this collection Jacobs — a master if there ever was one — makes sure to include only the most timeless of his pieces. He offers more than one spoof of our favorite national holidays, such as in “The Month Before Christmas: a non-scheduled visit from St. Nicholas”, provides hilarious commentary on American stereotypes in “An Instant Guide to American Regional Types” and, on more than one occasion, pokes fun at classic literature as exemplified in “William Shakespeare… At the Post Office”.
But the fun definitely doesn’t end there.
There is his “If Comic Characters Were Psychoanalyzed” where he throws classic comicstrip characters such as Charlie Brown and Beetle Bailey into a shrink’s chair and has them analyzed to poke fun at both the strips themselves and the institution of psychotherapy. Charlie Brown goes to a shrink because he feels depressed about his failure to fly a kite, but after getting analyzed and learnning about his sub-conscious he stops feeling depressed and instead feels… rotten. Beetle Bailey, on the other hand, goes to a shrink because he can’t seem to get a promotion as a soldier, but after getting analyzed he learns to improve his mental attitude and gets a promotion to… Vietnam.
Then there is the “Famous Quotations ... and How the People Back Then Reacted to Them” bit, in which he has the likes of, among others, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin saying some of their famous quotes while including what the people of their day might have said at the time that is left unrecorded by history. “A nation can not endure half-slave and half-free!” says Lincoln, to which an unhappily married woman responds, “I get it! You want to abolish marriage!” And when Franklin says, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise!” Jacobs has a mistress respond, “And boring as hell!”
Also scattered throughout the book are the song parodies that Jacobs is perhaps best known for. In fact, his lofty reputation as a lampooning lyricist is supported by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic who writes the forward to the book. Yankovic calls Jacobs “A seminal force in my life and perhaps my earliest source of musical inspiration,” and goes on to say Jacobs’ work in MAD was his “First real exposure to the art form of parody.” Besides letting loose a constant steam of admiration, Yankovic also mentions the precedent-setting copywrite case that Jacobs was involved in that went to the Supreme Court and forever changed parody law for the better.
But you probably don’t need Yankovic to convince you of Jacobs’ talent. If you’re admirer of any of MAD’s ‘usual gang of idiots’, then you’ll be an admirer of this book which collects the greatest work from the magazine’s greatest writer.
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