THE FUNNY PAPERS By Mel Robertson
Recently I wrote an article about swimming in the 1920s and used the word "funny" as a word employed at the time to describe any child who did not do what every other child was doing. I had no racial, sexual or mental slurs in it but was just the way of describing a non-conformist. However, over the years attitudes have changed and now anyone who is so thoughtless as to describe anyone as "funny" is apt to be leapt upon by a number of power and publicity-seeking groups who interpret it as an "unacceptable" insult of a sexist, racist or social nature. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms will be quoted freely by people who know nothing about it and the poor ignoramus might be "hauled up" (an old expression - is it "acceptable"?) by the omnipotent Civil Rights Commission. In other words,the word "funny" has joined the encyclopaedia-sized list of words like "boys" and "girls" which cannot be used without the danger of legal action. We have reached a time when humour has become a very serious thing with so many restrictions that people are afraid to laugh unless the sound-track tells them to do so. Indeed, the only safe jokes now appear to be those against heterosexual, male, white, Anglo-Saxon smokers. How attitudes have changed. As a child of Scottish descent I laughed at the many 1920s jokes about cheap, tight-fisted Scotsmen. English and Irish people told jokes about themselves as did French-Canadian, German, Italian and Jewish people. However,enough of that lest something I write will be nit-picked by some self-important, two person, "National Coalition" as an insult to the red-backed salamander and I will be dragged before the Supreme Court (at public expense). Just let me say that I intend to use the word funny frequently in this article. I will use it to describe something that made children laugh in the 1920s - The "Funny Papers".
"Funny Papers" were special weekend editions of such large newspapers as the Chicago "Tribune". They consisted of full-page, eight or 12 panel, layouts of cartoons, big single panel cartoons, pages of cut-outs, paper dolls, cutout ship, train, auto or aeroplane models, cut-out peep shows, cut-out doll houses, short stories for kids and sensible how-to-do-it sections telling children how to make things and how to keep themselves amused. To these would be added a rotogravure section of news pictures, sports pictures and animals pictures designed to make children laugh. Kids called these sections the "Funny Papers" because they made them laugh. The "Funny Papers" could run to about 30 pages and cost 10 cents. Children also took some pride in the realization that great newspapers had paused in their furious daily round to print something just for them. I was fortunate as a child in the 1920s in having an uncle
who was a History professor at the University of Chicago.
'Uncle Jim was a shy man who never married but who loved children. Thus every week he tied up the "Funny Papers" from the "Chicago Tribune" and sent them to me. On the odd occasion when work or illness presented him from sending the papers, I would get 10 cents from my father and hasten to George Robinson's barber shop where the Buffalo "Funny Papers" could be purchased.
Most of the cartoon characters who inhabited the 1920s "Funny Papers" have long left the scene but it may be of interest to recall a few. However, before I do so, it should be remembered that many of the things that were thought to be humorous in the 1920s are not considered to be humorous in 1991. For example, "boffo", slap-stick humour such as a pie in the face, slipping on a banana peel, a bulldog tearing the seat out of mailman's pants, children
playing messy pranks on adults, sitting down on a cream pie, etc. flourished. Cartoons about "hen-pecked husbands" in which domineering wives beat submissive, stupid husbands with rolling pins or crockery were laughed at by both sexes. Typical of this type of cartoon was "Maggie & Jiggs" or "Bringing Up Father" as it was called later. In this Maggie was a formidable, quick-tempered, social-climber who detested Jiggs' love of corned beef and cabbage and his association with such "low-life" pals as Dinty Moore. In displaying these aversions Maggie hurled rolling pins and dishes at poor Jiggs. Occasionally a beautiful daughter appeared. It was always rumoured that the cartoonist had been repulsed by the mother of a girl he wanted to marry. Thus, it was said, he always portrayed Maggie in an unfavourable manner and the daughter with perfection. Another example of the "Domineering wife" cartoon was Barney, "had a wife three times his size" who sued him for divorce and made him live with his horse, "Spark Plug", a non-winner who always raced in a horse blanket. Yet another strip "Toots AND Casper" featured a beautiful "Toots" who spent her time making a fool out of her dim-witted husband "Casper".
"The Gumps" presented the family in a slightly different way. Mrs. Gump or "Min" was the dominant figure to which her husband "Andy" turned for all sorts of advice. Andy's limited mental awareness needed Min's assistance so often that the phrases "Oh Min" and "That's all I wanted to know" became popular sayings among children, dther characters in this cartoon were a prank-playing son Chester and a friend "Doc". A mechanical character was a red, open, two-seater car named "No. 348" that ejected large parts as it sped along. Later in the cartoon a young man and young lady were added as a romantic touch. They became very popular until, for some reason, the cartoonist decided to get rid of them, he did this by having the young lady die suddenly before the young man could reach her bedside. This caused real sorrow among those who followed the cartoon and its popularity waned.
Many children in the 1920s cartoons were depicted as pranksters. Chief among these were "Hans" and "Fritz" in the cartoon "The Katzenjammer Kids", or "The Captain and the Kids" as it was called later. These "kids" spoke can-nabalized German-American and spent all their time playing nasty tricks on "the Captain", a fat character in a sea-captain's uniform and "The Inspector" a long-coated, long-bearded, high-hatted and short-witted nincompoop who accepted the daily indignities that were heaped on him with dignified stupidity. This cartoon was not one to show how children should be disciplined for it usually ended with the Captain either kicking the "Kids" in the butt, or spanking them. In spanking the Captain demonstrated the unusual ability of whacking both Kids at the same time. A more sedate prankster was "Buster Brown" who was obviously the son of well-to-do parents. He wore "Little Lord Fauntleroy" clothes with lace collars and had a bulldog named "Tige". This cartoon never descended to the cheap depths of "The Katzenjammer Kids" and usually ended with a panel in which "Buster" and "Tige" expounded some maxim of good behaviour. Buster's pranks usually specialized in lowering the dignity of pretentious people. Of similar social Consciousness was the cartoon "Regular Fellers" that appeared in the Toronto "Globe". These were a group of preteen age boys who promoted traffic safety. Clubs were formed and it was possible for kids to get a button that read "Always look up and down before crossing the street." Burford Public School had such a club in the 1920s.
Teenagers in the 1920s had "Harold Teen" as their hero. Harold was a "Joe College" type who wore a bow-tie, a college sweater and a silly hat. He was always accompanied by other teenagers including a girl named "Lillums Lovewell" whose specialty was "Jazz Garters". This group did nothing but eat banana splits, drink sodas and yell such expressions as "Whoopie Doopie", "Hot Diggity Dog", "So's Yer old man", "Hot Patootie", "You ain't Seen Nuthin' Yet", "Red Hot Momma" and other intellectual phrases. Their favourite handout was a soda fountain where they danced "The Cailesfon" and talked about football.
Feminists in 1991 like to describe the 1920s as a time that was "male dominated" and in which women were "put down" and had few "rights". This was probably true but it is ironical to note that all the comic strips which showed men as stupid individuals and women as dominating figures were drawn by men. For example, the cartoon "Happy Hooligan" was about a shiftless dope who wore a tin can as a hat. "Boob McNutt" was, as the name suggests, a real loser. "Moon Mullins" was in the same category although his life was brightened by a smart-ass kid named "Kayo" who wore an out-sized derby hat. Twin dummies were "Mutt & Jeff - tall and short fools who between them could not muster half a wit. Yet another boob was "Salesman Sam", a store clerk who worked for a man named "Guzz Guzzlem" in a store that featured signs like "Not less than one to a customer". On a higher social plane was a cartoon whose name I have forgotten. I featured a silly fop named "Cedric" who catered to every whim of a bunch of "society" ladies. The 1920s may have been "male dominated" but its cartoons showed that men knew how to laugh at themselves.
Female-centred cartoons were few but a couple deserve mention. One was "Tillie the Toiler" about a quick-with-a-quip stenographer who always got the best of any argument with her boss. Another was "Winnie the Bread-Winner" who not only dominated the men she worked with but also her little brother "Perry" who ran a gang named "The Rinkydinks".
Among the eight and 12 panel comic strips were a number of large single panel cartoons which showed everything in one large picture; leaving the viewer to sort out the many activities that were depicted. On^e such cartoon was "The Doodads" - little horned people of no particular race or sex and no noticeable clothes. They lived communally and packed all sorts of comical acitvities into their little town. Another single cartoon was "The Teenie Weenies", a well-drawn cartoon about a group of little people of all races, professions, trades and occupations. This cartoon made no attempt at a story Kiit ""-"-w iV..™*^ ™-.^u.
their daily work and making mistakes like everyone else. One feature of this interesting panel was the racial harmony it promoted. It was a very gentle comic that said a lot without being "preachy". Children liked the "Teenie Weenies" for they felt that since they were also little people they had something in common. Later a large book about the Teenie Weenies" was published and I have a copy. A more localized single cartoon was "Toonerville Trolly" about a rural community that was served by a rattletrap trolly and which had a blacksmith whose favourite expression was "Hold 'er Ffewt, she's a-rearin'" every time he shod a horse.
The longest running 1920s cartoon was (and is) "Gasoline Alley". This began with a rather overweight young man named "Walt" who owned a garage in "Gasoline Alley". His last name was "pallet" and he had friends named "Avery" and "Doc" who hung around his garage. He also had a girl friend named "Phyllis". Walt's activities were routine until one morning he woke to find a baby in a basket orjhis front porch. He then married Phyllis and they began to raise the baby who they named "Skeezix". From then on the comic strip aged gradually with Skeezix growing up, going to school, starting a career, getting married and raising a family of his own. Walt, Phyllis, Avery and Doc have aged slowly. This is a remarkable feat on the part of the cartoonist. The strip continues today but I do not know who is the cartoonist.
"Funny Papers" in the 1920s' sense have left the scene. Children have become computerized and violence and insolence now rule the so-called "comics". "Unstructured Time" for children is a "No No". "Quality Time" is time that must be filled with organized conformity. Children are told that unless they laugh themselves silly at such "intellectual" cartoons as "Doonsberry", "The Far Side" and "Bizarro" they have no sense of humour and need psychiatric analysis. Our "humour" is controlled by humourless power-seekers who insist that "empowerment" is preferable to "enjoyment". In our haste to be everything to everybody we are rapidly approaching a time when we will be nothing to anybody. Would anyone dare to suggest that such a time would be "funny"?
It is easy to sneer to 1920 "Funny Papers" for they had many faults. However, in our efforts to nit-pick them for examples of "unacceptable" words,phrases and "thoughts" we should pause to note that they made people laugh at themselves. The ability to laugh at one's self has been described as the greatest test of maturity,intelligence and sensibility. Have we reached a point where people have become so self-important that they are losing this precious ability?