Monday, August 15, 2016

Perfectly Frank

I was looking at a collection of Frank Jacobs' work.  He was a regular at MAD magazine for decades, and is best known for his verse and song parodies.  Deservedly so.  He may be the best writer of light verse of the past few decades. (There's not as much competition as there used to be, but still.)

Just a couple things about what he's done.

First, American law (other law, too, I suppose, but I only studied American law) is sometimes tricky when it comes to parody.  In the 1950s, Jack Benny was sued by MGM for his takeoff on Gaslight, which the company claimed was too close to the original.  MGM won, and a lot of parodists were scared.  Since then, however, most cases have come down on the side of satire.  If they hadn't, MAD as we understand it would have been impossible.

One of Jacobs' specialties was writing lyrics to be sung to famous tunes.  This got MAD in trouble in the 1960s when he wrote "Blue Cross," to be sung to Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." Berlin was highly protective of his work and sued.  It's an odd case, when you think of it.  All Jacobs did was write some words.  No one reproduced a note of Berlin's work--the magazine merely suggested you might think of that tune while you read this new verse.  It's a bit like a chef suing you for theft because you asked someone to imagine his superior fare while eating your TV dinner.

Anyway, the courts found for MAD and today we live in a world where "Weird Al" Yankovic roams free.  Thank you, Frank.

Second, the reason Jacobs was a master, in addition to his wit and imagination, was his strict construction.  He hewed to the exact meter of the original compositions, and never used false rhymes.  Perhaps that doesn't sound like a big deal, but not only is it hard work, it's all but a lost art form.

From the start Jacobs parodied show tunes, generally from Broadway musicals, because they followed these old rules.  Once rock started taking over, where you don't have to have proper rhyming, and meter is whatever you make it, parody may be easier to pull off, but loses some of its impact.  This is why Jacobs, even in later years, generally stuck to older songs.  And also, perhaps, why we'll never see another quite like him.


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

In the Denver Law Club, we have occasionally wondered if our not-for-note parody songs step over any line for permisible use. But since no one takes credit (admits blame) for writing any of our parody lyrics, and sincethe club has no money or property and doesn't charge for performances, we don't lose too much sleep over it.

If you want to see a sample, you can find it on YouTube (r): .

10:29 AM, August 15, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Singing them to someone's tune might be different legally from printing a sheet of lyrics.

12:15 PM, August 15, 2016  

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