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Frank Jacobs, Mad magazine writer with a lyrical touch, dies at 91

Frank Jacobs, an inventive satirist who in his 57 years at Mad magazine mocked popular culture and politics, often in pitch-perfect verse and lyrics, died April 5 in Tarzana, Calif. He was 91.

His son, Alex, confirmed the death,

Mr. Jacobs brought a quick wit, a deep well of ideas, and a love of rhyming to Mad in 1957, becoming one of that smart-alecky humor magazine’s most prolific contributors, especially during the 1960s and ’70s, when it was at the peak of its irreverence and its cultural influence.

“He was the ultimate craftsman,” said John Ficarra, a former Mad editor. “He could be persnickety, for sure, but you had to respect him: He was in an endless search for the perfect word, the perfect phrase and the perfect rhyme.”


Working with artists Mort Drucker (who died last year), George Woodbridge, and Gerry Gersten, Mr. Jacobs parodied movie musicals such as “Fiddler on the Roof” (which he turned into a sendup of suburbia in “Antenna on the Roof”); critiqued the policies of President Reagan in a line-by-line satire of Poe’s “The Raven”; wrote obituaries of comic-strip characters such as the hapless white-collar worker Dilbert (who suffocated from a lack of ventilation in his cubicle) and the working-class layabout Andy Capp (whose death was caused by a drunken driver); and devised Christmas carols for dysfunctional families.

Arnie Kogen, a former Mad writer, said in an interview: “Frank’s stuff sparkled. It was smart, classy, and always funny. He was the best writer Mad magazine ever had.”

A fan of musical theater, Mr. Jacobs teamed with Drucker to turn “West Side Story” into “East Side Story,” a musical battle at the United Nations between gangs led by the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet premier (and gang leader) Nikita Khrushchev sang:


When you're a Red

You’re a Red all the way

From your first Party purge

To your last power play!

When you’re a Red,

You’ve got agents galore;

You give prizes for peace

While they stir up a war.

Mr. Jacobs’s parody of the Great American Songbook prompted Irving Berlin and a group of song publishers representing the work of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and others to sue Mad’s parent company, E.C. Publications, for copyright infringement.

At issue was “Sing Along With Mad,” a pullout section published in 1961 that consisted entirely of song parodies by Mr. Jacobs and Larry Siegel. Among them were “Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady” (a lampoon of Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”) and “The First Time I Saw Maris” (a spoof of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris”), about the commercialization of New York Yankee slugger Roger Maris during the season he hit a record-breaking 61 home runs.

He signed a contract with Gillette

To plug their razor blades.

And when he found he cut himself

He went and plugged Band-Aids!

The last time I saw Maris

He plugged six brands of beer!

The Democrats should pay him

To plug the New Frontier.

In 1964, the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals decided in Mad’s favor.

In his opinion, Judge Irving R. Kaufman (most famous for presiding over Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s espionage trial) wrote, “The fact that defendants’ parodies were written in the same meter as plaintiffs’ compositions would seem inevitable if the original was to be recognized, but such a justification is not even necessary; we doubt that even so eminent a composer as plaintiff Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter.”


The Supreme Court declined to review the decision.

Franklin Jacobs was born May 30, 1929, in Lincoln, Neb. His father, David, was a traveling salesman and owned a costume jewelry business with Frank’s mother, Miriam (Frosch) Jacobs, who also helped start a Jewish temple in Lincoln.

“Some say that as a baby I gurgled in 4/4 time,” Mr. Jacobs said in an interview for “Frank Jacobs: Five Decades of His Greatest Works” (2015), the first book in a projected series called “Mad’s Greatest Writers.” “In truth, I recall coming up with rhymes when I was in grade school.”

He graduated from the University of Nebraska Lincoln, where he edited the campus humor magazine (and slipped in some verse). After serving in the Army, as an editor and reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, he worked in a public relations firm, was the secretary to a press agent, and wrote for Fishing Gazette magazine.

Mr. Jacobs was bored and looking for direction when he bought the April 1957 issue of Mad, whose cover image was of Alfred E. Neuman, the magazine’s gap-toothed mascot, on the wall of an Egyptian tomb.

“As I leafed through the pages, I realized I’d found what I didn’t know I was looking for,” he was quoted as saying in the 2015 collection of his work. He called the magazine’s office in Manhattan and met with its publisher, William M. Gaines, and editor, Al Feldstein, and pitched his ideas.


They were quickly embraced. The June 1957 issue included several features written by Mr. Jacobs, among them “Baseball’s Hall of Shame” and “Why I Left the Army and Became a Civilian.”

It was the beginning of a long association. He wrote nearly 600 pieces for the magazine; numerous Mad paperbacks, on subjects such as sports, stamps, and fathers; and “The Mad World of William Gaines” (1972), a biography of the magazine’s founding publisher, whom he described as “the last of the great fat eccentrics.”

His last piece was published in 2014, five years before Mad ceased regular publication of new material in favor of recycling past material with new covers.

In addition to his son, Mr. Jacobs leaves his wife, Barbara (Stellman) Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs often returned to well-known poems for parodic inspiration. He used Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” to decry deforestation and to lampoon George H.W. Bush during his 1988 presidential campaign, and “Casey at the Bat” to lament the state of baseball. In 1991 he turned “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” into “The Hymn of the Battered Republic.” One of the verses went:

In the alleys of our cities where the poor and homeless dwell,

You can see the victims dying from the crack that pushers sell,


While the bankers launder money from the Medellín cartel —

The crime keeps marching on!