By Heidi Simmons
There is something very special about a man with a great sense of humor. Add a high level of intelligence, artistic ability, kindness, generosity, and a full head of hair and you have a picture of the marvelous and talented Jack Mendelsohn.
If you grew up reading comic strips, comic books or watching cartoons, variety television or situation comedies, it is very likely that at some point you were exposed to the writing and sly humor of Mendelsohn. His career spanned over 70 years with credits that include EC Comics, MAD Magazine, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Steve Allen Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Three’s Company,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Teenage Mutant Turtles” to name just a few on a long list.
Mendelsohn was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. During World War II, he left high school to join the Navy. Later, he entertained the troops as part of a USO Korean tour. He was an autodidact with broad knowledge. He was curious, open-minded, wise and easy-going.
Working as a cartoonist, Mendelsohn didn’t feel he had the same level of professionalism or inherent skill for drawing as the other artists. He said he would work on one drawing for days, whereas writing came naturally and quickly. He discovered that a lot of very talented cartoonists were “ill at ease” when it came to writing, so they turned to Mendelsohn to do the writing.
But the truth of the matter, whether Mendelsohn would agree or not, he could draw and he drew well. He was able to capture attitude, action and emotion in a quick sketch or detailed panel.
Mendelsohn was most well known for Jacky’s Diary, a Sunday cartoon published and globally syndicated in over 65 papers from 1959 to 1961. It still has a cult following today. With child-like illustrations, Jacky’s Diary age 9½ features a curious boy as he explores and misconstrues the crazy adult world that surrounds him. The simplistic drawings and subversive bits are a perfect combination of cartoon form and function, and a reflection of Mendelsohn’s innocuous wit and love of word play.
Published in 2013, Jacky’s Diary at age 86 ½ (IDW Publishing, 192 pages) is a complete compilation of the original Sunday strip in an oversized, colorful, hardcover, coffee table book. The first 31 pages include a Forward by cartoonist Mort Walker age 90½ (Beetle Bailey) and a Backward by Mell Lazarus age 86 ½ (Mama). These cartooning giants are just a few of Mendelsohn’s incredibly talented colleagues.
The book has a well-illustrated brief history of Mendelsohn’s extensive career and the amazing and famous friends he met and worked with along the way. Well-written and filled with sly humor, the pages are meticulously laid out with great vintage photos, illustrations and reproductions from the era.
Declining an invitation to London, because he was too busy writing the Yellow Submarine screenplay, Mendelsohn never met the Beatles. He took a leave of absence from Hanna Barbera so he could fully commit to the animated feature film adaptation of Ringo’s whimsical tune.
Mendelsohn worked on the Beatles’ based short cartoons for television writing more than half of the series. The four-minute cartoons became the number one show on Saturday mornings.
Created from Beatle songs, Mendelsohn would “visualize the music” to build a story. He said, “Although it was a lot of work, it was also a lot of fun.”
Mendelsohn spent six years in Mexico in the 1950s. He wrote about his wild experiences and crazy encounters in a semi-autobiographical book called Montezuma’s Revenge. He also wrote the incredible, mostly unknown, true-life story of Pat Morita: The Dark Side of a Star.
His book, Funny for Money is a backstage look at show business over his 70 years in the industry. It includes witty stories from his experience working in animation, television, movies-of-the-week, feature films and variety shows. The anecdotes and first-hand stories are hugely entertaining and quite revealing about the nature of the “Hollywood” industry. Truthful, but never mean spirited, Mendelsohn names names making the unpublished manuscript hard to put down.
Mendelsohn’s three books are pending publication. He liked to stay creative, busy and actively engaged. Mendelsohn wrote every day until he couldn’t.
Mendelsohn was the first to receive the “Bill Finger Award” (co-creator of DC’s Batman) for his excellence in Comic Book Writing at Comic-Con San Diego. The Finger Award seeks out important cartoonists and writers who rarely received credit for their significant contributions.
Mendelsohn was most proud of being acknowledged and presented with the Writer’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award for Animation Writing. Unlike today, writing for animation in the 60s and 70s was not considered “real writing” and animation writers were not protected by the Hollywood unions.
At 90, Mendelsohn was sharp and droll with incredible recall. The two sure things that made Mendelsohn laugh and smile were his beautiful wife Carole and his handsome, goofy cat Harpo.
Mendelsohn was a gifted writer and artist. His writing style was fluid, easy and natural with intelligent insight and wit. He tapped into something fundamental about our human condition.
I was honored to read his manuscripts and grateful to know him. He was always encouraging and generous with his time and contacts. Mendelsohn highly valued his friends, family and the gift of life itself. Thank you for shaping my sense of humor and for all the great laughs. He is deeply missed.