Planet Threatened by Grumpy Lawyers!
Can you lampoon a joke? We've just been talking to Kate Llewellyn, editor of the Planet, the wannabe-hip year- old humor tabloid cooked up on a Macintosh each month or so in Lincoln Park. What exactly is the Planet? we asked her.
"Good question," she said. "The way we see it, it is sort of a combination of Spy and Weekly World News" (the raggiest rag in your local Jewel). "It's sort of a parody of Weekly World News, which is a parody of itself, with political overtones. It's stealing their format to say our own things."
Trouble is, the Weekly World News is funnier. Inspiration ebbs as much as it flows at the Planet, which lacks WNN's finesse and wherewithal. "Nobody gets paid," Llewellyn told us, "so it's hard to get professional writers."
Compare covers. The Planet's most recent page one labors too mightily, hawking "The Redneck Murder Exemption Plan," "POLKA WARS," "JFK SHOT HIMSELF," " The Attack of the Christo Umbrellas," "New City Crushed . . . " (heralding some dubious whimsy inside about a made-up softball game; the Planet doesn't have a team), "Bob Greene and Oprah Winfrey Exposed," and "Michael Jackson's Nose Vanishes!"
Meanwhile, last week's WWN spun one of its effortless masterpieces. "ALIVE! GIRL FROZEN IN BLOCK OF ICE IN 1939 REVIVED." "Thawed out & brought back to life--AFTER 52 YEARS!" "She wakes up & wants to see 'Gone with the Wind.'" Plus "EXCLUSIVE PHOTO."
But the Planet has had its moments, and in October it drew blood. Llewellyn (who earns her living free-lancing comic books and computer graphics) came up with three cartoons making fun of love is . . ., the inane daily panel peopled by clothesless, sexless moppetoids that's carried locally by the Sun-Times.
Love is, according to Llewellyn, "Befriending other genitalia-lacking drawings like yourself." It's "A teenage suicide pact." It's "Understanding your partner's needs," the need here shown to be an electric vibrator.
The crowning touch was a line at the bottom of one cartoon: "'love is' parodies copyright 1991 K. Llewellyn."
Not that Llewellyn had actually copyrighted anything. But in the words of her admiring publisher Jim Cicenia, her brazen pretense threw "this great little curve" at love is . . .'s powers that be. Charles T. Price, executive vice president of the Sun-Times Company, fired off a letter noting Llewellyn's copyright claim and continuing fiercely:
"The copyright to the 'Love Is' cartoon panel is held by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and the Chicago Sun-Times holds the exclusive rights to use of the cartoon in the Chicago metropolitan region. Your publication of these purported parodies using the manner and style of 'Love Is' cartoons is a violation of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate's copyright and the Chicago Sun-Times' rights as its licensee in this market.
"The purported parodies are patently offensive and as such cause damage to the Sun-Times' reputation and the commercial benefit it gains from publication of this feature.
"If you continue to publish similar cartoons, we will pursue all appropriate action . . . "
Steve Christensen, executive editor of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, added his own harrumph:
"I understand the Sun-Times has already contacted you objecting to these so-called parodies. We want you to know that we are also very committed to protecting copyrights for our features and do not hesitate to take any steps necessary to protect those copyrights. Additional concerns are raised when material such as that cited above damages the image and integrity of a feature . . . "
Tact and conciliation seldom come into play when property is threatened, and a copyright is property. Eternal vigilance is the price of keeping it. The bluster that blew down on the Planet could have surprised no one there, and was even welcomed by these foes of bombast.
"In a way," says Cicenia, who underwrites the Planet with profits from a computer consulting firm he owns, "it's losing our virginity."
Price would not discuss the affair, other than to register his annoyance that his letter had made its way to our hands. Suffice it to say he's a lawyer, and he wrote the kind of letter lawyers sometimes feel obliged to write, whatever their private sympathies for humor, bawdry, and flights of fancy. When lawyers grit their teeth, parody is always "purported" or "so-called" and retributive action is always "appropriate." A chilling effect on Llewellyn's free expression? you say. A chilling effect is exactly the effect intended.
Christensen was more willing to talk. "A reader in Chicago sent me a copy [of the Planet]," he explained. "We brought it to the attention of the Sun-Times. They are the holder of that property in Chicago. I was informed they were going to write a letter. I may have suggested a letter should be written."
"They have every right to sue," Llewellyn acknowledged. "I don't want to make them do that. We'd be under in a day. We don't exactly have a big pool of money set aside for law fees. I suppose the laws are made that way, but it's a petty little thing. If I'd said 'love isn't . . . ' I probably could have gotten away with it. Doesn't Mad do that kind of thing all the time?"
So the Planet caved in. Senior editor Bob Rudner composed a response full of rude wit ("Boy, we wouldn't want to put the Sun-Times out of business. . . . I personally spanked Ms. Llewellyn and then she spanked me . . . ") that Price will easily ignore. He'll spot the promise he's looking for: namely, that "the Planet will cease and desist." Watch for this capitulation in the December issue of the Planet, which was days overdue while the staff searched for enough advertising to bring it out.
Pop of Ages
Henry Hanson tells a funny tale in the new Chicago magazine about gift alarm clocks all going off at once during the CSO's centennial concert in the Art Institute gardens "as Georg Solti was conducting and Daniel Barenboim was playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, which you may know as "Tonight We Love."'
We have no quarrel with Hanson for nodding wryly at one of the million tiny details that make the gaps between generations unbridgeable. At any rate, "Tonight We Love" was adapted by Freddy Martin for his orchestra and vocalist Clyde Rogers in 1941, and if you're under 50 chances are you've never heard it in your life.
Lifting from the masters was the fashion back then. We wish we'd get a nickel every time a reviewer feels a need to add that Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto is "popularly known as "Full Moon and Empty Arms."' Mind you, "Full Moon" was adapted from the concerto's third movement by Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman and recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1946.
This odd compulsion to identify classical music with a pop version that hit the charts half a century ago is erratically exercised. WFMT manages to put Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" on the turntable without citing Kismet. And we have never heard anyone introduce Chabrier's Espana Rhapsody by adding "which you may know as Perry Como's "Hot Diggity."'
A Sportswriter Needs His Stats
Ever since Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive, a debate has raged in the press over whether he's a hero or not--and if so how much of one, and if not why not. This is less about AIDS per se than about rampant wick dipping and how we're all supposed to feel about it. What if Mike Tyson now stood in Johnson's shoes? wondered Dave Anderson of the New York Times: "Would he be considered a hero? Not likely. Tyson's history of sexist incidents has established a different image. But with Magic acknowledging so many trysts with so many women in so many cities, he seems to be equally sexist."
Equally sexist? Sexually opportunistic, no doubt. Irresponsibly careless, perhaps. But no one's accused Johnson of battery or rape. He merely had a good time too often for Anderson.
"Before I was married," Johnson testified in Sports Illustrated, establishing his heterosexual bona fides, "I truly lived the bachelor's life. . . . I was never at a loss for female companionship. . . . I did my best to accommodate as many women as I could." Martina Navratilova was as troubled as Anderson by this assertion, but wiser in finding fault. "If it had happened to a heterosexual woman who had been with 100 or 200 men," she argued, they'd call her a whore or a slut and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon." If it had happened to Navratilova herself, a homosexual, they'd say, "I had it coming." Navratilova was levying her own charge of sexism, but against "they," against "the corporations."
It comes down to a matter of parameters. Men enjoy more latitude than women, and gay people none at all. But everyone must live within limits. For Johnson to maintain that he'd accommodated no women at all would have been inadvisable. They'd have said he had it coming. On the other hand, when Wilt Chamberlain reported more than 20,000 accommodations, the public was revolted.
But somewhere between 0 and 20,000 there must be an acceptable number of times a single athlete (or rock musician or combine salesman) can accommodate on the road without violating the rules of society. Just what that number ought to be remains to be decided, and we hope ethicists and theologians will weigh in as well as sportswriters. Sweeping judgments come too easily to sportswriters. Our guess is that if Anderson had more stats at his fingertips, if he knew exactly how many trysts with how many women in how many cities Johnson had perpetrated, and could measure his performance against NBA averages and Johnson's own numbers earlier in his career, he would judge Magic's transgressions with even greater confidence.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.