June 1, 2022–As a kid, I expected to see a lot more anvils dropping on heads.
Like every child of the black and white TV era, cartoons and comics informed my worldview.
Inside the pages of those Sunday funnies and on the Saturday morning Looney Tunes, we learned the Toon Town tenets of physics:
-When you ran off a cliff, you remained suspended in mid-air for however long it took you to realize you had run off a cliff (I also expected to come across a lot more cliffs than I actually have)
-If you placed your finger over the barrel of a shotgun, it backfired into the face of the shooter
-Every time a bad guy confronted you on a city street, a piano–a GRAND piano–fell on him
-If you were running from pursuers, odds were that two workmen were hauling a large pane of glass across the sidewalk
-If you were standing near a guy carrying a 2 by 4 on his shoulder, be ready to duck because he always turned around and smacked an innocent bystander upside the head
These realities carried over to small-screen westerns:
-You can’t get a drink of sarsaparilla without a guy in a black hat staring you down
-Every bar fight requires at least two chairs and one poker table splintering (I’ve seen a few bar fights, and nary a chair was injured)
-There was always a good guy nearby with a pistol he could use to shoot a gun out of a hand or cut the hanging rope in the nick of time
And quicksand lurked everywhere.
Alack, my life has been devoid of both sarsaparilla and quicksand.
In a delightfully arcane book American Cornball, Christopher Miller systematically describes and analyzes all the comic tropes from the mid-20th century. In addition to the afore-mentioned anvils, he includes in-depth treatises on: Barrels, Burps, B.O., Castor Oil, Desert Islands, Fishing, Golf, Henpecked Husbands, Ladies’ Clubs, Murphy Beds, Opera, Paperhanging, Pie Fights, Rolling Pins, Squirting Flowers, and Traveling Salesmen.
Some categories are not suitable to discuss here, including jokes about all ethnicities, blondes, outhouses, fat people, and drunks.
Oh, the things our grandparents laughed at. Why are they unfunny to us? Partly because writers and humorists drank from the same well for 50 years. How much humor can a hack wring out of a couple on a desert island, a dog on an analyst’s couch, a hillbilly shotgun wedding, or tossing shoes at alley cats? Especially since not one of those scenarios occur in real life.
Even as kids watching Saturday morning cartoons, did we ever even giggle at the antics of the Three Stooges or get the joke about the poor fellow wearing a barrel. We recognized all the situations that were supposed to be funny, but they never made us laugh out loud.
Comics and their images were really shorthand for explaining larger truths. To show that a guy was a hobo–another anachronism–the artist showed him with a cigar on a toothpick, toes sticking out of shoes, and carrying a bindlestick.
A bindlestick! Has anyone in the history of homelessness every tied up his possessions in a bandanna and fixed it to a stick stuck over his shoulder? No. But there it is, in every cartoon depiction of the little tramp.
Comic artists had to communicate ideas that were 1) identifiable in black and white line drawings, and 2) fit in small boxes. One example is the development of the light bulb to signify a cartoon character having an idea. Or the flurry of punctuation marks and planets to indicate indelicate language. They were the emojis of a pre-texting era.
In retrospect, I’m glad so few of our childhood fears came to fruition. Today we can walk Main Street in full confidence no one will drop a flowerpot from the window.
I still look around cautiously, however, whenever I see a roadrunner.