My mother’s humor was different from (even antagonistic to) my father’s, but their inherited combination forms a solid core that has been my mainstay even in the darkest times. And unlike most things, it has grown more pronounced with age (well, my nose…). I watch the blithering goofballs running the world and I picture them piling out of a Ringling clown car with their big floppy feet and red noses, bowing to the spectators – heyugh, heyugh. If only they could be that entertaining.
In my teens, I wanted to be a humor writer. I loved Robert Benchley, Stephen Leacock, and Don Marquis, the classic humor “essayists” of the first half of the 20th century. Some of their stuff falls flat these days, but a lot is timeless (like Leacock’s “How My Wife and I Built Our Home for $4.90”) . I wish I’d kept some of the bits I whacked together back then. I remember one about why elephants can’t walk backwards (oh, they can? Damn).
The Sunday comics where my reward for having survived the morning’s Catholic Mass. We bought the Sunday editions of both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Record, until it folded around 1948, when the Evening Bulletin introduced a Sunday edition to take its place. In both papers, the comics were multi-section, an unending spill of color, adventure, belly-laugh and often superb artwork.
The Inquirer lynchpin was the eight-page insert of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit.” I started reading “The Spirit” in 1946, at age seven. I can identify the year because later, dated reprints include episodes that never left my head. (One of the most delightful Christmas presents ever was a pile of Spirit reprints from daughter Erin.)
Eisner was a towering figure in the history of American comics, and “The Spirit” was his masterpiece. Tabloid size, it slipped inside the other comic sections, each week’s episode telling a complete, often labyrinthine tale of masked urban crime fighter Denny Colt, who lived in a well-appointed cavern beneath his own supposed grave.
Tough, death-defying (though not super-powered), he was also a noir mix of startled naiveté and emotional confusion. His flawed humanity foreshadowed much of the Marvel Comics output (Jack Kirby was one of Eisner’s crew, as was Jules Feiffer, and Wally Wood of Mad Magazine fame).
Eisner excelled at both storytelling and a rambunctious sense of humor. His best stories often featured The Spirit only as a background figure, while the downtrodden of Central City lived out their fractured lives. To add to the fun, Eisner insinuated talking bulls and cockroaches, guns that shot by themselves, a little man who learned how to fly, and a ghost madly intent on posting his income tax before filing deadline.
I still read the comic strips daily – but online, creating my own “page” so I don’t have to have to close my eyes to skip over crap like “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and “Tank MacNamara.” My favorite single strip today? (glad you asked) “Overboard.” There’s nothing else quite like it for endearing looniness.
Most classic strips went to pot when the originators died off. Walt Kelly’s widow made a short-lived, unfortunate attempt to keep “Pogo” going, but its swamp humor was one man’s mind laid out for all to study. Other old strips kept going but tumbled into eternal senescence, like “Mutt & Jeff.” (“Shoe,” to my amazement, is going strong decades after Jeff MacNelly’s death, keeping its nasty sarcastic tone with help from his widow, Susie.)
Writing for the Philadelphia weeklies, my humor often got me in hot water. I couldn’t resist absurd captions for movie photos and was told by the business manager that they kept the paper from getting ads from the Hollywood PR factories. A local geographical society regularly sent in stills from film travelogues that always, no matter what part of the world, featured some old coot with chasmed lines channeling his face. I pretended these were a recurring figure, The Old Geezer – until the society politely asked me to stop.
Under my brief editorship of the Philly Welcomat in the early ’90s, we had the most wide-ranging, totally wacko group of cartoonists ever assembled in one publication – John McCormick, Tom Reeves, Kev Monko’s ”Zym Zzyzzo, the Last Guy in the Phone Book”, Ben Katchor’s “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” “Steve Nicks’ Other Thoughts” (unlike anything else that existed before or after), AWest’s “Duckhead.” As soon as I left the paper, the new editor axed every one of them. No accounting for lack of taste.
I never – honestly – want to upset anyone, I just find funny what most people take seriously. My worst offense was my explication for a kids’ Christmas-show photo that featured a guy wearing a massive turban like a gift-wrapped trash bag. My caption noted that he suffered from “HAIDS, a sexual inflammation of the brain.” Lord, did the PC crowd whomp my butt for that one.
(The righteous uproar over jokes really pisses me off, no matter which direction it flies. A prime example: James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, spent his hours in office trying to strip the environment bare (in the fundamentalist belief that since Christ was coming back soon, who needs trees?). Yet what forced him out was making a pretty funny joke about the diverse composition of one of his committees: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” For that one instant, I liked the man. Moral: You can eviscerate an entire continent, but god help if you giggle about the unfortunate.)
Daily life can be a hoot, especially when it sneaks in from odd angles to slap you upside the head. After dropping my daughter’s friend off in West Philly on Halloween, I stopped at a red light on Baltimore Ave. Suddenly there’s a slam against the driver’s door – and a gorilla staring in at me. I snapped alert and then let loose a happy bellow. The teen backed off, removed his mask and waved, laughing too. I snorted and howled and whooped the whole way home.
Again: I’d just crossed 20th St. at Market, on the way to the Welcomat, when a homeless guy, probably in his 50s, turned from watching the traffic. He wore a bedspread or a tablecloth draped over his shoulders. He gazed at us workaday walkers, and in a serene, conversational but booming tone, commented: “WELL, SUCK MY ASSHOLE.” I didn’t oblige, but I did carry a smile for the rest of the day.
Maybe three times in my life I’ve gotten into physical fights, and each time I broke into sniggers half way through. One example: When my first wife, Julie, and I lived on the 500 block of Delancey St., the family on the first floor – a very loud electrician and his two even louder (and loutish) teen sons – had a chow dog that lay across the bottom step of the stairway and snapped at our ankles as we attempted to ascend. I finally kicked the beast a good one, which brought the younger, physically over-developed cretin out of their apartment to remonstrate.
We stepped outside and started swinging. To get better aim, I started to remove my sweater. I had it half over my head when it hit me how uproarious the whole thing was. I kept swinging, ineffectually, and kept laughing.
I’m glad that Linda puts up with my exponentially increasing need to pun. I make fun of death and destruction, infirmity, politics (or course!), celebrities, TV, signs (ah, signs!) animals, people, even trees. And I find myself endlessly ridiculous.
Humor, for me, is the measure of man, the justification of existence. Life is a kiddy car on wobbly wheels.