WQCS Header Background Image
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'American Cornball' A Taxonomy Of Humor In The U.S.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Christopher Miller has researched old American comic books, jokes, comedy dialogue, cartoons, vaudeville routines, light verse, everything that made people laugh once upon a time. And the result is a book called, "American Cornball: Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny." And Christopher Miller, you should explain it. By laffopedic in this case, you mean that this book is actually ordered alphabetically from absent-minded professors to zealots with cross references - things Americans used to find funny. That's the idea.

CHRISTOPHER MILLER: Right things that our grandparents and great-grandparents found funnier than we do. Like safes falling out of high windows or angry housewives waiting with rolling pins for their drunken husbands to come home.

SIEGEL: So this is a work of meta-humor, it's kind of funny to read about what used to be thought of as funny, but is no longer funny.

MILLER: Right and I've always been fond of old humor - old comic strips, and radio comedy and so. But most of it isn't very funny anymore. What's funniest is the fact that these things did get a laugh, I just feel like there's nothing more evocative of other times than how people used to be, than what used to make them laugh.

SIEGEL: I'll tell you what strikes me about your book, I've been browsing through it randomly while working on the program - on this program and many of the serious, sometimes deadly serious things that we report on here used to be considered hilarious. For example we observed the problem of concussions and actually head injuries and amnesia used to be considered just the stuff of punch-lines you write.

MILLER: Yeah probably the most common final panel in early comics, say in the first two decades of the 20th centaury was a police man hitting someone over the head with a nightstick and there were also a lot of bricks thrown at people's heads people, people hit by motor-cars and landing on their heads. There was almost a convention in the old days that the head was as resilient as the romp. So people got whacked on it a lot

SIEGEL: We can throw in police brutality as a funny thing too in the case.

MILLER: Yes, and that's sort of related to the fact that a lot of police were Irish and there was a lot of anti-Irish humor back then. So even in Chaplin films, there "Keystone Cops" and a lot of that is actually ethnic humor as well as anti-authoritarian humor.

SIEGEL: Even more striking is that domestic violence rates an entry in your laffopedic collection of things that used to be funny. Americans used to consider, mostly men who beat their wives, but also vice a versa to be funny stuff.

MILLER: Yeah, there were whole comics strips based on that premise - a lot of comic strips where the wife was bigger than the husband and terrorized him. Maybe the most famous is "Bringing Up Father" where Maggie the sort of terrifying (Unintelligible) wife is always (Unintelligible) with a rolling pin. That has sort of vanished from the comic for the most part, except for Andy Capp. The comics have gotten more family-friendly.

SIEGEL: You sent me back to look up the verse of a famous old Rodgers and Hart song - "I Wish I Were In Love Again."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH I WERE IN LOVE AGAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The sleepless nights, the daily fights, the quick toboggan when you reach the heights. I miss the kisses and I miss the bites. I wish I were in love again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (SINGING) The broken dates, the endless waits - the lovely loving and the hateful hates. The conversation with the flying plates, I wish I were in love again

SIEGEL: The broken dates, the endless waits, the loving loving and hateful hates - the conversation with the flying plates. This was really funny that husbands and wives would fight with each other.

MILLER: Yeah. There was a lot more rough sort of slapstick humor knockabout humor in the early days. And I think if you can ask about global changes in American humor in the past century it has become less violent.

SIEGEL: You include a little poem by a humorous poet named W.E. Farbstein , who used to write for the New Yorker as well as other places. In the entry on spanking as a subject of humor - and his poem was (reading) mothers who raise a child by the book, can if insufficiently vexed hasten results by applying the book, as well as the text. Meaning hit the kid with the book. This today is a story of child abuse.

MILLER: You know spanking was huge in early comedy. And especially early comic strips. There were strips like "Buster Brown" and "The Katzenjammer Kids," which virtually every strip ended with a spanking.

SIEGEL: Here's something else that was funny. A bum that sleeps on the street, a guy who can't afford clothes and walks around inside a bottomless barrel that he holds up. These were stock comic images of people who were down and out and living on the streets.

MILLER: Yeah, barrels were everywhere a hundred years ago. The barrel wore usually with suspenders by someone who's lost his shirt or who's a pauper.

SIEGEL: Well, we've touched upon domestic violence, child abuse, serious head injuries.

MILLER: Right. All the funniest things.

SIEGEL: The funniest things. Spankings, poverty, homelessness, I'm thinking back on all the things we've talked about this week. There is also an entry in your book on Scotsman that too is a funny thing.

MILLER: Yeah, there was a lot of about immigrants in the early 20th century and it's possible to overstate that. And with Scotsmen the stereotypes was stinginess, you see old cartoons of Scotsmen crawling under the doors of paid toilets. A lot about golf, 'cause it's a Scottish game and a lot about drinking.

SIEGEL: How do you understand this process by which things that for one generation are considered hugely funny are regarded by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren as utterly unfunny?

MILLER: I think for all sorts of reasons nothing is more personable than humor. And so it's rare. There’s like virtually no American humor before the Civil War that's still funny.

SIEGEL: It depends on the context of the times for one.

MILLER: Right. Just our assumptions of what the world's like. How things are supposed to be, because so much of humor is about incongruity, it's things surprisingly different than what we would expect. That keeps changing. I've never really seen it explained satisfactorily why humor dates so fast.

SIEGEL: Were you surprised to find something that people were laughing about 150 - 200 years ago that people still laugh at?

MILLER: Yeah, during prohibition there is so much humor about alcohol. Most of it wasn't very funny but just because alcohol was outlawed, even mentioning it or showing people drinking it was kind of a transgression. And I think it's very similar to humor about marijuana nowadays. Most of which isn't funny at all, but it accounts as humor just because it's illegal. Certainly laughter at new technologies - the new (unintelligible) people nervous. So there was a lot of laughter about telephones when they first came out and the difficulty of communicating by phones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hello, are you there? What number do I want? Well, what numbers do you go?

MILLER: The first novelty record to sell a lot came out around 1910. It was called "Cone On the Telephone" and it was just a dialogue about a man with a heavy Yiddish accent trying to communicate with an operator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I want 10 - 2 - 2 - 4 - 8 please. That's right. 2-4-8? I say miss, am I suppose to keep on saying are you there and hello will you come back again.

SIEGEL: So "Cone on the Phone" as a double. It was an immigrant with a funny accent that he made fun of and also a new fangled device that you're making fun of.

MILLER: But it's interesting because it's almost like the guy with his accent and difficulty with English already has trouble communicating. Maybe that record should be revived because of cell phones.

SIEGEL: We still can't understand people on the other end of the phone.

MILLER: Yeah, we once again have that problem.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Well Christopher Miller thanks a lot for talking with us about your book

MILLER: Great, thank you.

SIEGEL: Christopher Miller has assembled a few hundred pages of things that used to be funny into a book called, "American Cornball." Thanks for talking with us.

MILLER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.