Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Side-Splitting Salute to Christopher Miller's "American Cornball."

I may have complained a bit about how I haven't read as much in 2014 as I have in years previous. And while there are lots of excuses, one of them is that I had trouble finding the right books to capture my attention, and I wound up getting bogged down in a number. But it just goes to show that when you find the right book, it doesn't matter how busy you are, you find time to read it.

That was my experience with the 500-plus page behemoth that is American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller (photo credit Marlene Sauer). From absent-minded professors to zealots, Miller reviewed old films (including silents), television shows, radio, comic books, magazine cartoons from the New Yorker to racy men's magazines, novelty postcards and catalogs, and of course comic strips, with Al Capp's Lil' Abner seemingly being particularly influential on what Americans thought was funny for much of the 20th century.

Some things are funny because we don't much see them anymore, like boarding houses, which went out of fashion in the 1950s. One of the things you learn about humor, is that it would sometimes take years for a trend to truly be a subject for humor (the heyday of the hippie-themed strips in Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy is the seventies, not the sixties) and even longer for a punchline to go out of fashion, sometimes as much as twenty years. But in their day, boarding houses were hilarious--a stern landlady (yes, always a woman), crappy food (you paid a flat rate, so lots of hash, another topic in the book), one bathroom, and lots of people living together who had nothing in common. It was the Real World of its day.

Many topics went out of fashion because let's face it, the folks creating the humor for popular culture were mostly White men. At one time, what could be more funny than an old maid? And yes, Miller chronicled the images on numerous decks of playing cards. Yes, at one time we got our humor through playing cards. Miller doesn't really chronicle all the different ethnic and racial stereotypes; it's my feeling that he realized that this would push the book into uncomfortable territory, though he certainly does note some. But what might be more surprising to many younger folks nowadays is how many scorn was held for the Irish, and that humor was vitriolic.

One of the revelations of American Cornball is that every age has their own taboos. I mentioned the craze of dead baby jokes in the seventies and the person I was chatting with who hadn't remembered this craze was rather disturbed. Children are such sacrosanct images in our day, but at one time, we had the Gastlycrumb Tinies and Struwwelpeter, two books that killed off numerous younguns, who were admittedly poorly behaved. Nowadays we'd blame their parents, or even more likely, their school teachers, right? But who'd take responsibility for those disturbing Little Audrey jokes, and how did she morph into that cute little moppet of comic book and cartoon?

Sex is always a subject for humor, taboo but in different ways. There was a time when ankles were fetishized and thus the subject of humor, but nowadays, the same sort of humor would be reserved for other parts of the body that were simply not discussable. Even pants, because they hold our genitals, held much humor. And of course what couldn't be said resorted to innuendo, which Miller thinks is why there is so much water squirting in humor. And oh, the lines that were crossed in Marx Brothers movies!

Humor is really a cultural boundary of acceptability that we draw in our lives. Just inside the line and it's funny, but venture too far and you're in bad taste territory. One thing that both Shakespeare and most modern-day folks find funny that was relatively taboo during most of Miller's research was farting. It just didn't come up much. Now spanking, that was funny. Ask The Katzenjammer Kids.

Miller notes that much humor (and the source of laughter in general) does really at its core reflect a schadenfreude. Much as we like to "laugh with", we're often really "laughing at." But there are many subjects for humor that are there just because the creator and his (in this case, I am specifically using the male pronoun) audience simply liked to spend time thinking about them--things like fishing and hunting and  golf.

Just about every entry has some fascinating tidbit. Why was amnesia so funny on 1950s and early 1960s  sitcoms, such that just about every show had an episode devoted to the topic? It was a very special kind of amnesia, in that the character (almost always a principal player in the show) didn't forget everything, but instead changed personalities. It usually started with a blow to the head and anyone out there about the age of forty probably knows how to cure such television-induced memory loss.

But you get these sorts of tidbits in almost every entry. Yes, it's a great book in the vein of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, but if you don't read it straight through, you'll miss out on a lot. It's one of those books that is not just great to read, but is much fun to talk about afterwards. You'll never think about a bindlestick the same way again.

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