Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Mommy, Where Do Jokes Come From?

There’s a problem with telling topical jokes. There is only a limited number of topics to go around. So the same topics are joked about over and over and over again.

That certainly applied to radio comedy/variety shows in the 1940s, as Herald Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby pointed out in his inches of June 17, 1946.

The topics weren’t restricted to radio, either. Fans of old cartoons will recognise most of the topics mentioned below. A whole Frank Sinatra parody was worked into Tex Avery’s Little ‘Tinker. Avery even had a Truman presidential joke at the end of Droopy’s Good Deed. Woody Woodpecker dealt with the housing shortage at the start of Woody the Giant Killer. There’s a Warner’s cartoon with a Lost Weekend gag where a Ray Milland character is exchanging a typewriter. Hurdy-Gurdy Hare has a Petrillo reference in it. And you likely needn’t be told that Foghorn Leghorn’s personality was shifted a bit to more resemble Kenny Delmar’s Senator Claghorn.

In case you don’t know, John L. Lewis was the president of the United Mine Workers union and always seemed to be agitating for a strike. I.J. Fox was a New York-based furrier.
An Assortment of Jokes
Jokes, Jokes, Jokes.
Nothing gets standardized more quickly than an idea on the radio. In case that sentence opens too many vistas in your brain, I hasten to say I’m referring to jokes and only certain ones. Let’s see, there are nylon jokes, Sinatra jokes, President Truman jokes, “lost week end” jokes, Senator Claghorn jokes, housing shortage jokes, two-way stretch jokes, “owned and operated exclusively by Bob Hope”; Petrillo jokes and Jane Russell jokes.
Lately I have detected a regular path that these jokes traverse. The first person to become aware that something in the news is funny seems to be Fred Allen, who appears to read the newspapers rather than listen to other radio comedians. Edgar Bergen, or Charlie McCarthy, as we usually think of him, is another original wit who gets his jokes from the life around him rather than a gag file.
Then the jokes progress downward to Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Jack Haley and finally Abbott and Costello. Cantor, for instance, is still gagging about the nylon shortage. After all, nylons have been scarce for five years. For some time, Allen has been fashioning jokes out of nylon lines, which is a later manifestation of the shortage. Mr. Allen is more alert than Mr. Cantor.
I’ve amassed a huge file of these jokes and I don’t know what to do with them, but these jokes are non-inflammable, like pastifoam. You can’t drown them either. They float just like Ivory soap, although, so far as I know, they contain no secret oils. In fact, these jokes are virtually indestructible like those new Victor records. So to get rid of them, I pass the jokes back to the radio comedians so they may keep abreast of what’s going on in the rest of the industry.
As a gesture of respect, we’ll start with the Presidential jokes. Has every one got his laugh meter ready?
“I’m from Missouri”—
“Why aren’t you working in Washington?”
“Because I won’t play second fiddle to his piano.”
Here’s one about Sinatra from the Vallee program:
“Frank Sinatra walked in and all the girls fainted. Then I walked in and Sinatra fainted.”
And the nylons from the Cantor show:
“The bobby-soxers are wearing their stockings at half mast in memory of nylons.”
“Lost Week End” joke from Frank Morgan:
How would you feel if you rehearsed a role for thirty-five years and they turned around and gave the part to Ray Milland?
Clothing shortage from the Hope program:
“I bought a two-pants suit. I won’t say the trousers were large, but all the way home I was followed by a kangaroo.”
John L. Lewis joke from the Bert Lahr program. Same joke on the Allen show:
“Can you tell when it’s spring?”
“Sure, John L. Lewis comes up out of the ground.”
Housing shortage jokes from the Durante-Moore program:
“I’m going to become a hermit—if I can find an empty cave.”
Claghorn jokes from Art Linkletter’s “House Party”:
“A man was persuaded to sit on eggs like a chicken.”
“That’s a yolk, son.”
Just for contrast, let’s hear some real wit. Several weeks ago, Charlie McCarthy started a perfume business, and there’s an industry that’s wide open for satire. Charlie’s slogan was, “You look swell, but how do you smell?” He was marketing a perfume called “Love Life,” which came in 30 or 60 watt sizes. “Now, here’s a perfume for the outdoor girl,” Charlie told Bergen. “We call it High Heaven.”
“Because that’s what it smells to. It’s also good for killing gophers. We make it from rose petals soaked in alcohol and mixed with diluted water—that’s hard to get. The other day when we were mixing some, a skunk walked in waving a white flag.”
On his Easter Sunday program, in a delightful bit of fantasy, Charlie went hunting for the Easter Bunny and bumped into an educated owl, who cried “Whom Whom.” Pursuing his search, he found the Easter Bunny, who told him mournfully that a rabbit’s life was a hard one.
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Charlie. “Hare today and mink tomorrow.”
I like mink jokes provided it isn’t the one about meenk is for football. Here’s another one from Fred Allen’s Easter Sunday show. Portland was telling Fred about the platoon of minks who paraded up Fifth Avenue to Fifty-seventh Street, where they spelled out I.J. Fox.
“Ah,” murmured Allen, “If only I.J. could read!”
Another hobby of mine is collecting insults, of which my collection is one of the world’s largest. The art of insult is as American as frankfurters, and some time soon I’ll string up a whole column of them.
We’ll continue our promise to post a week’s worth of Crosby columns. The comedy quiz It Pays to Be Ignorant was reviewed by Crosby on June 18, 1946; we posted his pronouncement on it here.

Meredith Willson’s summer replacement show got a look in the June 19th column. Willson was the composer of The Music Man. He was the musical director on the Burns and Allen show for a time in the late ‘40s and later waved the baton on The Big Show, NBC’s star-studded radio spectacular series of the early ‘50s.

The various types of murder mysteries on the air was Crosby’s subject on June 20th. While the types of narrative may have been various, many of them had the same kind of characters, ripe for parody.

Crosby’s first television review was printed on June 21st. You don’t think of television being around in 1946. There were about a half dozen commercial stations and a handful of non-commercial stations in all of North America then. ABC didn’t have a station yet, let alone a network. Du Mont’s network was still experimental and the company had no studios yet. Stations were forced by the FCC to be on the air 28 hours a week; Du Mont claimed that was a hardship. Yet the American Television Society handed out its second annual awards that month (there were no Emmys yet), and the ceremony was aired live on Du Mont’s WABD. (Broadcasting, June 17, 1946). At this point, TV broadcasts on the East Coast generally consisted of films or remote pick-ups; Crosby is reviewing a remote. Broadcasting of June 24, 1946 gave the telecast huge coverage with raves from a number of New York newspaper columnists.


  1. June of 1946 would have been right around the time "Hour Glass" debuted, at least locally, on WNBT; it was the first really serious effort to try an upscale variety show on TV, though various things (like musician strikes and low viewing numbers) hobbled it. Supposedly, audio recordings (though not video) of "Hour Glass" survive, and there are some stills in contemporary magazines.

  2. "There’s a Warner’s cartoon with a Lost Weekend gag where a Ray Milland character is exchanging a typewriter."

    That would be SLICK HARE (1947)