Each week for the rest of the year, we'll be posting excerpts from the essays Frank Jacobs wrote for our 60th Anniversary book, Totally Mad: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity. Last week we posted "Who Was Bill Gaines?" Today we delve into MAD's early legal troubles. Be sure to come back next week to read the (partial) answer to the question "What Were the MAD Trips?"
During Bill Gaines’ reign as publisher, MAD was probably the only publication that included “Lawsuits” on its masthead along with the name of its chief attorney. This was a service offered to offended readers so they would know whom to contact when they sued.
An example was the complaint of one Cynthia Piltch, then a freshman at Brookline High School in Massachusetts. The cause of her displeasure was an item in “Protest Magazine,” a 1966 MAD piece spoofing the protest movement. Writer Larry Siegel had included this item:
Cynthia Piltch and her parents felt the similarity in names was too close for coincidence and sued MAD for $250,000. Cynthia had been “injured in her reputation and health” and had “suffered damage to her feelings, mental anxiety and annoyance.” It was a coincidence, of course, but a pesky one. MAD’s attorney Jack Albert suggested that Gaines settle the case out of court. Gaines refused. To him it was cut and dried. MAD was a magazine of satire and was not obliged to check out every made-up name it used in its articles. If anything, the piece had raised Cynthia Piltch to a position of some fame in her school. Furthermore, another Piltch, namely Annabelle Piltch, of Flushing, NY, was delighted to see her family name in the magazine. Wrote Annabelle:
“The success of your satires, I feel, is due to your imaginative choice of fictitious names. The most hilarious name thus far…is Yetta Piltch. I trust that all your readers have as fine a sense of humor as we do.”
Gaines pondered it all. It seemed that one Piltch’s meat was another Piltch’s poison. He reconsidered and decided that perhaps MAD had hurt the Brookline Piltches. If this were so, MAD should make amends, and so MAD did, settling out of court for what may be described as a modest sum.
Almost all the lawsuits involving MAD would wind up no more than footnotes in law journals. One case, however, changed the face of American pop culture.
Part of MAD’s business model was to publish “annuals.” These issues contained previously published articles but were sweetened with an item that no true MAD fan could pass up. Sometimes it was a small-size recording featuring an original song, or a thingamajig mobile such as the MAD Zeppelin. For one of the annuals in 1961 the choice was “Sing Along With MAD,” an inserted mini-magazine containing parodies of popular songs.
Larry Siegel, myself, and the editors collaborated on 57 parodies. The lyrics were almost completely distorted as were most of the song titles. “Easter Parade” became “Beauty Parade,” a spoof of beauty pageants. “Cheek to Cheek” was turned into “Sheik to Sheik,” a commentary on oil-rich desert potentates. Song after song became parodies to reflect “the idiotic world we live in today.”
The songbook was well received by MAD’s readers. It was not, however, well received by the Music Publishers Protective Association, which felt that 12 of its member publishers had suffered copyright infringement. MAD, the association charged, had marketed versions of songs, without any authorization, which “caused substantial and irreparable damage” to the publishers and the composers and lyricists of the songs.
The plaintiffs were not small-fry. Among them were such giant corporations as Irving Berlin, Chappell, T.B. Harms, and Leo Feist. Twenty-five of their songs had been parodied — songs by such greats as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and, of course, Irving Berlin.
The association was playing hardball, suing Gaines and everyone connected with writing, illustrating, editing, and distributing the songbook for one dollar per song per each copy the magazine sold. More than one million copies had been sold, which meant that Gaines and his codefendants were being sued to the tune of $25 million.