True Stuff: Metahumor from 1927

These “True Stuff from Old Books” artifacts are from 1927 issues of the humor/satire magazine Judge. Full of articles, cartoons, jokes and poems, Judge, a predecessor to the New Yorker, chronicled the entire first half of the twentieth century.

These cartoons by Judge staff artist Ellison Hoover are emblematic of a crisp, streamlined cartooning style that came into fashion in the twenties and thirties. I really love the Lincoln on the first page (unfortunate racial caricatures aside) and the baseball scene on the second — with their expressiveness and playful take on history, both remind me of Kate Beaton’s work. (click images for bigger)

BOTTOM CAPTION: “If they’d lived in the days of ready-made clothes”

BOTTOM CAPTION: “Confused condition of little Bobbie’s mind during his history lesson.”
“Santa Claus at the Battle of Bunker Hill”
“Napoleon at the ole Swimmin Hole”
“Babe Ruth at Valley Forge”
“The little girl across the aisle founding St. Petersburg”
“Washington crossing the Delaware”

This third page, also by Hoover, is entitled “The Perfect Newspaper Comic.” Metahumor’s probably existed for as long as humor itself has existed, but I love seeing examples of it in media that we normally only ever see classic material from — the ephemera I happen across in my research, stuff that nobody bothered to reissue in a special gold-foil commemorative hardbound edition, is always fun to discover. This cartoon apes the tropes of contemporaneous newspaper comics like “Mutt & Jeff”, “Barney Google” or their less-remembered brethren: the mismatched couple, the slapstick violence, nonstop patter and, of course, the classic fall-backward-upon-punchline-delivery (which probably has a formal name somewhere).

Finally, more metahumor, in the form of an article by regular Judge contributor Don Herold. Entitled “A Criticism of the Theatrical Criticism in this Morning’s Paper”, this piece would feel perfectly at home in something like the Onion today. Click for a larger image, or the full transcription is after the jump.

A Criticism of the Theatrical Criticism in this Morning’s Paper
Illustration by the Author [not pictured]

THE criticism by Sharpley Harpoon, in this morning’s Star, of last night’s performance of “Sheets and Pillow-cases,” started off promisingly. For two paragraphs it seemed that originality had at last come into its own in dramatic criticism. Here, finally, you felt, was a dramatic critic whose one idea had not been to get to bed. Rare knowledge of the theatre was shown in every one of the first two paragraphs. The critic had actually seen the show.

The remaining twenty-six paragraphs were something else again.

While there was still — in fact, stronger — evidence that the critic had seen the show he was criticizing, there began to appear, in the third paragraph, an unmistakable sleepiness. The suggestion of “Sheets and Pillow-cases” was too much for Mr. Harpoon. His third paragraph was a stifled “hum-hum-hum”; his fourth paragraph was a frank yawn. And at the start of the fifth paragraph it was perfectly obvious that he had used scissors and paste, for the next sixteen paragraphs were given up entirely to a revelation of the plot. Nobody who read those sixteen paragraphs will care to see the show; they robbed the story of any interest that it might possibly have. But, it is safe to say, nobody read them, so the sum total of nightly attendances at “Sheets and Pillow-cases” will be in no way affected by Mr. Harpoon’s criticism.

On the whole, the criticism was much too appreciative, as are all criticisms today. When shall we have dramatic critics who will condemn ninety-five plays out of 100? (It makes little difference which ninety-five. They all need it. If dramatic critics will just do that for a while, until the public again has some confidence in their discretion, they may then increase the number gradually. But even the “gladdest” of critics should not be permitted to appreciate more than fifteen plays out of 100. We should have a criticism censorship to see to that.)

As for the last eight paragraphs of Mr. Harpoon’s comments, it was clear that he wrote them standing up, putting on his hat and coat all the while. He must have been half way out of the office before the last paragraph was complete. When, oh, when, will our dramatic critics quit going home before they write their criticisms?

It almost makes us drowsy to write about Mr. Harpoon’s criticism of “Sheets and Pillow-cases.” Even we critics of critics must watch ourselves, or we shall give occasion for the creation of a new professional group: critics of critics of critics. Is it possible that a person may become too smart to criticize anything except criticism, or criticism of criticism? Perhaps that is why we have so few first-rate first-hand critics today.

5 thoughts on “True Stuff: Metahumor from 1927”

  1. James Lileks refers to the classic fall-backward-upon-punchline-delivery as the Givney Flip, but that’s fairly specific to a comic strip called “Jerry on the Job.” He has coined a name for the punchline, though — The Violently Ordinary Rejoinder.

  2. Whoa! A friend and I spend a good part of the week boggling our minds over the fall-over-backwards-at-punchline effect in Spanish-language cartoons like Condorito.

    We figured it was some sort of cultural divide we’d never be able to bridge… but to find that it was picked up from an older form of comic is amazing!

    Although these examples didn’t have Condorito’s signature “PLOP!” associated with the falling over or flying inexplicably out of frame.

  3. I was JUST gonna say that here in Chile, and other places where the Chilean comic strip Condorito is sold, the falling over backwards effect has even entered into the language. You’ll frequently hear in Chilean Spanish the phrase, “quedó plop” which means someone figuratively fell over backwards, most often in surprise or shock.

    That’s interesting to know that Condorito is as much a product of its times, since it launched in 1949, and that North American comics influenced artists everywhere.

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