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By Scott Gosar

11/12/06


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The Bard strikes a pose at one of his many bookcases- Nov. 2006

SG: First, Frank, I would like to start by saying that you have been a role model and an inspiration to me for many years and I want to thank you for having me as a guest in your home, which leads me to my first question:
Why would anyone want to leave beautiful, safe, healthy New York City for this palm tree-lined, bleached blonde, silicone and skimpy bikini-infested hellhole known as Southern California? A guy could get skin cancer from all this sunshine, you know.

FJ: It seemed like a good idea at the time.

SG: Describe a typical day in the life of Frank Jacobs

FJ: A typical day is me getting up around 6 o’ clock in the morning, taking a walk, going to the computer, checking my e-mails, checking certain sites that I go to, checking the (LA Times) obituary page to see if my name is in there. Right now, I’m starting a journal and I’m also doing biographies of people I’ve met during my life. I’m doing a few things for MAD, but not nearly as much as I used to. I’m not always on their wavelength, although we have mutual regard for each other. I talk mostly with John Ficarra, the Editor, who’s doing a brilliant job holding things together and keeping up with the new pop culture, which I’m not particularly interested in, but which the magazine has to be interested in. And that’s about it on my day. There’s not much else to tell you.

SG: How do you prepare yourself to create a fresh new MAD script? What is the greatest source of your inspiration?

FJ: Stealing from myself. (SG laughs) Answering this question, I have to refer to the past. That’s when I was just churning this stuff out. And some of it was just new premises, and even today everything is the premise. Everything hangs on the hook. So I get a premise, and in the old days, I would go in to see the editors, none of whom are around anymore, with five or six ideas, and I would pitch the ideas, get the OK or not the OK, and then it was published almost all the time. And if I came up with an idea like “The All-Inclusive-Do-It-Yourself” story, I kept doing those because those are always well-received. I can’t explain how the ideas came, but they did. I knew what the magazine wanted and needed and I was able to supply it, and Al Feldstein, Nick Meglin and Jerry DeFuccio and I had a very good rapport going. I never really had a problem with any of them. Some people did. I didn’t.

SG: You’ve been a major contributor to MAD for nearly a half century now. Have you been more or less exempted from the editorial rejection process or does a script of yours not make the cut from time to time?

FJ: Most scripts—I ask at the beginning if it’s an assignment. If it’s an assignment, I do it, and ¾ of the time, it’s published; ¼ of the time, I get a “kill fee.” That’s just the rules of the game. What doesn’t make the cut from time to time are ideas—where I perhaps send in one idea with one sample—if it’s a series of things within the piece—and then they’ll say “go ahead” or “don’t go ahead” and that’s the end of that, but my output has decreased greatly. In my best year, when it was eight times a year with 48 pages, I turned out a total of 50 pages. I’ll never hit that again. And that was in…I’d say…the early ‘80s or the mid-1980s. I can’t remember the exact year. But I do know that I had 50 pages, which was a lot when you consider that I wasn’t usually doing movies or TV, there were always five pages of Dave Berg, three pages of Sergio Aragones, at least four pages of Don Martin, and what was left really didn’t amount to a sizeable number of pages. But that was my best year. Then, I’d say in about the early ‘90s, maybe mid ‘90s, my output really fell off because the new pop culture replaced the old pop culture that I was quite familiar with. I really wasn’t all that interested in the new pop culture, but MAD had to be, for its readership. It just had to be, and that’s the way it was. So my contributions have decreased steadily since the mid-1990s.

SG: What’s the deal with Fresno? What happened in that central California city to cause its name to manifest itself into such a large body of your work?

FJ: That’s a running gag. I’ve used “Fresno.” Now, I’m using “Altoona” to go with Fresno. It’s a funny word to me. There are just certain places that work;--that are funny if used in a certain context. I can’t explain it. I’ve probably used it 10 to 20 times—Fresno—thrown it in someplace. John Ficarra is always kidding me about Fresno or Altoona. The last piece I did this past week—I threw in Amarillo. There are just certain places that I think are funny; that work.

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Frank's offices boast an abundance of tributes from colleagues, fans and well-wishers. Here are tributes from (top) MAD Artist Rick Tulka, MAD's Art Director Sam Viviano and
the late, great George Woodbridge.


SG: Which was your most controversial, “I’m canceling my subscription”-type hate-mail generating MAD article ever?

FJ: Ok. First I have to talk about the mail. In MAD’s heyday, in one of the offices there was a big bowl containing all of the fan mail coming in, addressed to various MAD contributors. The writers got the least, the artists got 80 percent. Of that 80 percent, at least half was for Don Martin. The rest were divided. Maybe Sergio came in second, but Don Martin was well ahead of everybody. I got maybe 5 or 6 letters a years—the other writers? The same. And what was my most controversial piece? I don’t think I had a controversial piece. I might have had a word or two, or some phrase, and there was one instance where someone couldn’t understand why I used a certain phrase, but I never got an attacking letter or anything like that. In fact, I rarely got any significant correspondence about any piece that I ever wrote. There might have been somebody from some newspaper who reprinted something of mine, but I never got anything like a hate letter.

SG: Had there never been a MAD Magazine or any humor magazines for that matter, what career path might you have chosen instead?

FJ: Good question. Before I started contributing to MAD, I was in a public relations company that bored the hell out of me because there wasn’t enough to do. I just sat around most of the time. About that time I’d collaborated on a musical revue for a summer stock company, and I might have tried to be a Broadway lyricist. But a week after the PR firm folded, I picked up a copy of MAD, said, “I can do this stuff,” and discovered that I could. But when you ask me this question, it’s quite difficult. I don’t know what I would have done if there hadn’t been a MAD. I have no idea.

SG: Nobody’s ever asked you that before, then.

FJ: No. Nobody ever has. Great question.

SG: If you could be any MAD artist for one day, which one would you be and why?

FJ: George Woodbridge, for these reasons: He had a reverence for the past that I appreciated a great deal. He was a student of history and he had an attention to detail that was extraordinary. Every one of the stock MAD artists, going back to the old days, has something going for him and that’s what George had going for him. I can also pay some compliments to others. The versatility of Paul Coker is incredible. The work of Bob Clarke—in the way that he could imitate a comic strip, for instance -- was wonderful. And of course, there’s Don Martin, who was untouchable—I mean, he was unique. Don Martin was MAD’s Maddest Artist—and stood out from all the others—because he was so…funny. His pictures were so funny. The other artists were fine…but their pictures weren’t funny in the way Don Martin’s were FUNNY. He was a classic.

SG: What is something that very few people know about Frank Jacobs?

FJ: Oh…I dunno. Maybe it’s my tremendous love for the American musical theatre. I’ve had a collection of 78s and I still have my LPs and I’ve put together long, long tapes which cover the musical output of the great composers like Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Noel Coward, Irving Berlin, and a couple of others. I have a passion for the great popular songs.

SG: Its been widely speculated that you are preparing to travel to Malawi to adopt your very own African baby. Care to comment?

FJ: I don’t know how that got out. The truth is that I’m searching for a light-skinned mulatto woman about 24 years old, about 5’7”, with an incredible body and who doesn’t have mood swings. I’m glad we could clear that up.

SG: How often do you communicate with the editorial staff at MAD’s New York offices? Describe a typical teleconference between you and the MAD editors.

FJ: I talk to John Ficarra maybe once every couple of weeks. Sometimes, we talk about an issue and I give him my opinion, which I think he values. Sometimes, I pitch an idea. Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of doing a piece, the speakerphone is on, I can hear the staff and they can hear me, and we talk out whatever I’m working on. Over 90 percent of my conversations are with John. I usually email any of the others.

SG: MAD Magazine discontinued its line of pocket-sized paperback books in the early 1990s. What was the MAD paperback that you always wanted to write but didn’t get a chance to?

FJ: There wasn’t one. My favorite MAD paperback is “MAD Goes To Pieces,” and “MAD’s Talking Stamps” isn’t bad, either. I knew from my royalty statements that there were too many MAD books out. And then when NAL stopped distributing the books and Warner took over, I remember when I went to a store and saw the space that the various paperback publishers had, and Warner books had a very small amount, and of that amount, a very small amount were for MAD paperbacks. So, they weren’t seen and sales went down. In addition to the original paperbacks that all of us did, they were competing with the paperbacks that contained old MAD material…you know…like “The Inflatable MAD,” “The Portable MAD.” Sales plummeted. There were too many—well over 100 -- competing against each other. Moreover, Warner didn’t have the clout or the sales force to get enough books in enough places for people to see and buy.

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A Bob Clarke tribute to Frank Jacobs

SG: A few years ago, the buzz was that you were negotiating with HBO to adapt your book “The MAD World of William M. Gaines” to the small screen. You even went on to say that you’d like to see the actor Oliver Platt portray Gaines. Whatever became of this deal? Will we be seeing a Bill Gaines movie at some point in time?

FJ: My book, “The MAD World Of William M. Gaines,” was optioned six years ago by HBO. They held onto it for five years, then FOX/Searchlight productions, a division of FOX, took over, and now they’re finding that they don’t have enough in their budget for the film we want. So now it looks like FOX is selling the rights to another studio. I don’t know where it’s at right now, but I’m still waiting for the movie to be made. And it (the book) still has a good cult following, which pleases me. I get nice comments about it from time to time. So far as Oliver Platt goes, he seemed the choice early on. It had to be a young actor who was portly, who could pass for Bill Gaines because the script of the movie starts with Bill Gaines coming in knowing nothing, developing EC, and coming up with the horror comics. It covers the whole horror period, and the script ends with MAD becoming a success. It also covers the Harvey Kurtzman incident, you know, when Harvey demanded 51 percent, couldn’t get it, and Feldstein took over.

SG: When was the very last time that you met with Bill Gaines in person? What did you guys talk about?

FJ: The last time I saw Bill was at his wedding. I flew in and he put me up at a hotel. That was a fascinating day. I called up Jerry Stiller, who I’d done work with. And Jerry said, “Come along…I’m having a late breakfast with Henny Youngman.” I said “great,” so we all sat in the Stage Deli with Henny monopolizing the conversation. Then we all walked down 59th Street to the Plaza Hotel, where we had lunch. That night was sort of poignant—one of Bill’s very favorite restaurants was at the top of the World Trade Center. So, I went down to the wedding, and there were seating arrangements—and who did I sit next to but Henny Youngman, whom Gaines loved and engaged for the evening. So I had three meals with Henny Youngman in one day.

SG: (laughs) Take my day, please!

FJ: Yeah. Exactly.

SG: Let’s pretend its 2007 and MAD has just announced that it has revived the Usual Gang of Idiots’ traditional “MAD trips.” You have been named “Executive Planner.” Where would you lead the Idiots and what are some of the activities you would organize?

FJ: Do you want me to talk about places we haven’t been?

SG: Mmm Hmm. Somewhere where you might have wanted to go.

FJ: Australia, for one. The Galapagos, for another. Antarctica, for another.

SG: Now that would have been a MAD trip.

FJ: Those are the three places. Would have been neat. But those days are gone. I think they had a trip or two after Bill died, but it wasn’t the same. And I didn’t go. Now here’s something that has never been published. On one of the trips, we went to Paris. And during one of the days in Paris, we went on a guided tour of the underground tombs where the bones of Parisians of years or centuries past are buried. I was wearing a raincoat—it was a rainy day. And I went past this one pile that had hip bones on it, which were about 12 inches long. And I touched one that was loose, and I took it and put it in the inside pocket of my raincoat. All of this was terribly illegal. There was a rule about that I think you could see when you went in. So, we got out of there and went back to the hotel, and I went to Bill’s room, and the phone was your standard rotary phone, so I removed the receiver and put the bone in the place of the receiver. Bill went bananas when he saw it. For one thing, he didn’t know how to get rid of the bone. Thought it was wonderful, of course…a wonderful gag. And I confessed that I did it. And I think he thought more of me after that.

SG: It sounds like you’ve had a wonderful life.

FJ: I was in the right place at the right time. They’ve done a wonderful job saving the magazine…with color, a better paper stock and taking advertising. It’s the only way the magazine could have survived. For that, I admire them. I particularly admire John Ficarra and art director Sam Viviano. Nick Meglin retired not long ago and I miss his input. It’s a tough job for everyone. Also…it’s not being run by Gaines anymore. It’s being run by corporate and that makes it harder. When MAD was taken over by Warner, MAD was a separate entity and had its own offices away from the main Warner offices. Everything was done Bill’s way. And he held it together until he died. Even when he was quite ill, he was still holding it together.

SG: While we’re on the subject of the coming year, 2007 will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of your very first MAD article, “Why I Left The Army And Became A Civilian” in MAD # 33, June 1957. How do you plan to commemorate this awful milestone in your career?

FJ: Probably by injecting some illegal substance into my body.


© 2006 Scott Gosar

 

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