Wait, did Funky Winkerbean just have a talking monkey kill someone?


I apologize to everyone wanting a plot recap for Terry Beatty’s Rex Morgan, M.D.. It’s just been ferociously hot lately. Incredibly hot, to the point that it’s impossible to do things besides exaggerate the heat. It’s been so hot our goldfish are sweating. It’s been so hot when I look at comic strips on my computer the characters burst into flames. It’s been so hot that our ice cubes melted while still inside the freezer. We think the compressor blew. We have a new fridge scheduled for delivery Tuesday.

The point is I’ve been busy drinking every chilled citrus-y beverage on the eastside of Lansing and taking a cold shower every twenty minutes. I haven’t had time to re-read, or think how to condense, three months’ worth of soap-opera comic plot. I don’t want to leave you with nothing, though, so I’ll just answer the question posed in my subject line. Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean is one of those comics that I doubt needs to be in the What’s Going On In series. It, like Greg Evans and Karen Evans’s Luann, has ongoing storylines. But their storytelling pattern makes a What’s Going On In unnecessary. They have a bunch of ongoing storylines. They focus on each for a time, usually a couple of weeks. Thing is they resume each thread with enough of a reminder of what’s going on that readers aren’t lost. But there will sometimes be a strip so bizarre and wild that it draws attention from non-regular readers. They’ll be baffled. Funky Winkerbean, by the way, gets a fun daily roasting over at the Son of Stuck Funky blog. That’s a community with people who have, maybe enjoy, a staggering knowledge of the Winkerbean universe. I couldn’t have found many of the strips I reference here without their daily essays and tagging. I don’t know a snark blog that reads every Luann in similar detail, although, of course, the Comics Curmudgeon discusses both regularly.

News lady Cindy Summers was interviewing old-time serial-movie actor Cliff Anger for a documentary. The documentary is about his old friend Butter Brinkel, and Brinkel’s scandal. The comic introduced Brinkel as a silent movie comedy star. (Also as Butter Brickle, which I’m told is the name of an ice cream flavor. I don’t remember hearing of it before this.) His career and scandal got bumped to the 1940s. This seems to be because Tom Batiuk realized that if this happened in the 1920s then Cliff Anger would have to be eighteen years older than dirt. With the retcon, he’s now plausibly younger than two of the cast of Gasoline Alley.

The scandal was a fictionalized take on the rape and killing of Virginia Rappe. Young actress Virginia Pond was shot and killed by someone at a masquerade ball at Butter Brinkel’s fabulous Hollywood estate. Brinkel’s house had its own carousel, a chimpanzee Zanzibar that Brinkel had taught to smoke and drink alcohol, a bloated gun collection, and a guy nudging you and asking if you saw that because NO SPOILERS BUT it’s going to be important.

Anger remembers something his friend Dashiell Hammett had said. Hammett, while he was with the Pinkertons, was on the team looking for evidence to acquit Brinkel. This makes no sense if the story is set in the 1940s. But it would fit if Brinkel was a silent-movie star, an era when Hammett did work for the Pinkertons. Anyway, the team couldn’t find any exculpatory evidence. This is interesting. The strip established there were at least two people besides Brinkel wearing the same costume at the masquerade. One hesitates to suspect the Pinkertons of wrongdoing but they were missing an obvious lead. It could be they didn’t understand a job that was not about beating in the heads of coal miners who wanted pay. Hammett thought Brinkel was protecting somebody, though, but couldn’t imagine who.

While Brinkel was waiting for trial, Anger took Zanzibar to his home. And we got this strip, which revealed that the actual killer was, in a surprise, the other character in the story:

Cliff Anger, narrating as black-and-white illustrations show his recollection: 'Zanzibar had found one of my prop Starbuck Jones rayguns. I thought he was just playing with it when he suddenly pointed it at me and ... ' Panel of Zanzibar, pointing the ray gun at the reader, saying, 'Where's Father?'
Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers’s Funky Winkerbean for the 19th of July, 2019. Cindy concluded that Zanzibar was jealous of Valerie Pond’s relationship with Butter Brinkel and so that’s why he shot her. Also that I guess Pond had a relationship with Brinkel that Zanzibar would feel jealous of. And this solved an eighty- or hundred-year-old mystery. Starbuck Jones was this in-universe fictional comic book. It turned into a movie serial and a blockbuster modern sci-fi action movie. For a while it threatened for a while to take over the entirety of Funky Winkerbean. The Starbuck Jones saga had many repetitive and often confusing incidents. Tom Batiuk several times apparently changed his mind about the comic book’s place in pop culture and used his new ideas as if the old ones weren’t already published. But the saga did have the advantage that for most of it the comic strip didn’t have any reason to show Les Moore. So Funky Winkerbean snark fans were content with it.

The answer, then is that no, someone was not killed by a talking monkey. Zanzibar was a talking chimpanzee. Cliff Anger established that Zanzibar was a chimpanzee on the 28th of June. Well, all right, on the 16th of July Cliff Anger said he was a monkey. He’s a talking something, anyway, who killed someone in either the 1920s or 1940s. (Or 1950s, when Cliff Anger was making the Starbuck Jones serial.) Anyway, how many of us can say that about ourselves?

Anyway so here’s a little craft project for the one person out there with any free time: how did Cliff Anger answer Zanzibar?

Robert Benchley: How To Sell Goods


In this piece from Love Conquers All, Robert Benchley shares solid, practical advice he got from reading a book. It’s still solid advice nearly a century on. For the record I’m the kind of customer who tries to hide behind the endcaps and will flee to another store if an employee asks if I need any help finding anything, which slows me down those times when I do need help finding something. However, if I’m really determined to buy something, any old thing will do and I can find something most anyplace to buy. iPod case? $100 Grand candy bar? Soccer ball pressure gauge? Differently-colored underwear? They’re all somethings. They’ll do.

HOW TO SELL GOODS

The Retail Merchants’ Association ought to buy up all the copies of Elements of Retail Salesmanship, by Paul Westley Ivey (Macmillan), and not let a single one get into the hands of a customer, for once the buying public reads what is written there the game is up. It tells all about how to sell goods to people, how to appeal to their weaknesses, how to exert subtle influences which will win them over in spite of themselves. Houdini might as well issue a pamphlet giving in detail his methods of escape as for the merchants of this country to let this book remain in circulation.

The art of salesmanship is founded, according to Mr. Ivey, on, first, a thorough knowledge of the goods which are to be sold, and second, a knowledge of the customer. By knowing the customer you know what line of argument will most appeal to him. There are several lines in popular use. First is the appeal to the instinct of self-preservation—i.e., social self-preservation. The customer is made to feel that in order to preserve her social standing she must buy the article in question. “She must be made to feel what a disparaged social self would mean to her mental comfort.”

It is reassuring to know that it is a recognized ruse on the part of the salesman to intimate that unless you buy a particular article you will have to totter through life branded as the arch-piker. I have always taken this attitude of the clerks perfectly seriously. In fact, I have worried quite a bit about it.

In the store where I am allowed to buy my clothes it is quite the thing among the salesmen to see which one of them can degrade me most. They intimate that, while they have no legal means of refusing to sell their goods to me, it really would be much more in keeping with things if I were to take the few pennies that I have at my disposal and run around the corner to some little haberdashery for my shirts and ties. Every time I come out from that store I feel like Ethel Barrymore in Déclassée. Much worse, in fact, for I haven’t any good looks to fall back upon.

Robert Benchley standing meekly before the sales clerk.
They intimate that I had better take my few pennies and run `round the corner to some little haberdashery. Illustration by Gluyas Williams.

But now that I know the clerks are simply acting all that scorn in an attempt to appeal to my instinct for the preservation of my social self, I can face them without flinching. When that pompous old boy with the sandy mustache who has always looked upon me as a member of the degenerate Juke family tries to tell me that if I don’t take the five-dollar cravat he won’t be responsible for the way in which decent people will receive me when I go out on the street, I will reach across the counter and playfully pull his own necktie out from his waistcoat and scream, “I know you, you old rascal! You got that stuff from page 68 of Elements of Retail Salesmanship (Macmillan).”

Other traits which a salesperson may appeal to in the customer are: Vanity, parental pride, greed, imitation, curiosity and selfishness. One really gets in touch with a lot of nice people in this work and can bring out the very best that is in them.

Customers are divided into groups indicative of temperament. There is first the Impulsive or Nervous Customer. She is easily recognized because she walks into the store in “a quick, sometimes jerky manner. Her eyes are keen-looking; her expression is intense, oftentimes appearing strained.” She must be approached promptly, according to the book, and what she desires must be quickly ascertained. Since these are the rules for selling to people who enter the store in this manner, it might be well, no matter how lethargic you may be by nature, to assume the appearance of the Impulsive or Nervous Customer as soon as you enter the store, adopting a quick, even jerky manner and making your eyes as keen-looking as possible, with an intense expression, oftentimes appearing strained. Then the clerk will size you up as type No. 1 and will approach you promptly. After she has quickly filled your order you may drop the impulsive pose and assume your natural, slow manner again, whereupon the clerk will doubtless be highly amused at having been so cleverly fooled into giving quick service.

The opposite type is known as the Deliberate Customer. She walks slowly and in a dignified manner. Her facial expression is calm and poised. “Gestures are uncommon, but if existing tend to be slow and inconspicuous.” She can wait.

Then there is the Vacillating or Indecisive Customer, the Confident or Decisive Customer (this one should be treated with subtle flattery and agreement with all her views), The Talkative or Friendly Customer, and the Silent or Indifferent one. All these have their little weaknesses, and the perfect salesperson will learn to know these and play to them.

There seems to be only one thing left for the customer to do in order to meet this concerted attack upon his personality. That is, to hire some expert like Mr. Ivey to study the different types of sales men and women and formulate methods of meeting their offensive. Thus, if I am of the type designated as the Vacillating or Indecisive Customer, I ought to know what to do when confronted by a salesman of the Aristocratic, Scornful type, so that I may not be bulldozed into buying something I do not want.

If I could only find such a book of instructions I would go tomorrow and order a black cotton engineer’s shirt from that sandy-mustached salesman and bawl him out if he raised his eyebrows. But not having the book, I shall go in and, without a murmur, buy a $3 silk shirt for $18 and slink out feeling that if I had been any kind of sport at all I would also have bought that cork helmet in the showcase.

Robert Benchley: The Tariff Unmasked


One of the hardest things to remember about United States history is that up to about 1939, if you wanted to get into an intractable, incredibly bitter fight, you mentioned the tariff. Since then, nobody’s cared about it. In this piece from his book Love Conquers All Robert Benchley looks over the then-current tariff revisions and mentions some objections.

THE TARIFF UNMASKED

Let us get this tariff thing cleared up, once and for all. An explanation is due the American people, and obviously this is the place to make it.

Viewing the whole thing, schedule by schedule, we find it indefensible. In Schedule A alone the list of necessities on which the tax is to be raised includes Persian berries, extract of nutgalls and isinglass. Take isinglass alone. With prices shooting up in this market, what is to become of our picture post-cards? Where once for a nickel you could get a picture of the Woolworth Building ablaze with lights with the sun setting and the moon rising in the background, under the proposed tariff it will easily set you back fifteen cents. This is all very well for the rich who can get their picture post-cards at wholesale, but how are the poor to get their art?

The only justifiable increase in this schedule is on “blues, in pulp, dried, etc.” If this will serve to reduce the amount of “Those Lonesome-Onesome-Wonesome Blues” and “I’ve Got the Left-All-Alone-in-The-Magazine-Reading-Room-of-the-Public-Library Blues” with which our popular song market has been flooded for the past five years, we could almost bring ourselves to vote for the entire tariff bill as it stands.

Schedule B

Here we find a tremendous increase in the tax on grindstones. Householders and travelers in general do not appreciate what this means. It means that, next year, when you are returning from Europe, you will have to pay a duty on those Dutch grindstones that you always bring back to the cousins, a duty which will make the importation of more than three prohibitive. This will lead to an orgy of grindstone smuggling, making it necessary for hitherto respectable people to become law-breakers by concealing grindstones about their clothing and in the trays of their trunks. Think this over.

Schedule C

Right at the start of this list we find charcoal bars being boosted. Have our children no rights? What is a train-ride with children without Hershey’s charcoal bars? Or gypsum? What more picturesque on a ride through the country-side than a band of gypsum encamped by the road with their bright colors and gay tambourine playing? Are these simple folk to be kept out of this country simply because a Republican tariff insists on raising the tax on gypsum?

Schedule D

A way to evade the injustice of this schedule is in the matter of marble slabs. “Marble slabs, rubbed” are going to cost more to import than “marble slabs, unrubbed.” What we are planning to do in this office is to get in a quantity of unrubbed marble slabs and then rub them ourselves. A coarse, dry towel is very good for rubbing, they say.

Any further discussion of the details of this iniquitous tariff would only enrage us to a point of incoherence. Perhaps a short list of some of the things you will have to do without under the new arrangement will serve to enrage you also:

Senegal gum, buchu leaves, lava tips for burners, magic lantern strips, spiegeleisen nut washers, butchers’ skewers and gun wads.

Now write to your congressman!

On How To Make A (Silent) Comedy


The blog Movies, Silently reprints a Photoplay essay from 1925 in which Al Christie explains his formula for reliable comedy. Christie worked largely — I want to say entirely, but I’m not sure — in short subjects; his imdb.com profile lists 762 titles he produced, 460 he directed, and 173 that he wrote, stretching from 1912 to 1947, so I suppose we just have to hope he liked making short subjects.

I admit not recognizing most of the titles (although he apparently was an uncredited producer for the 1930, non-Jack-Benny, version of Charlie’s Aunt), since they tend to sound like Old Short Subject Titles, eg, Calling All Crooners (1937) or Short Change (1924). Well, Tillie’s Punctured Romance stands out, but this is the W C Fields version from 1928. (The Charlie Chaplin version is on archive.org, but Christie didn’t have anything to do wit it as far as I know.) Unfortunately short subjects are harder to appreciate than full-length movies; even Turner Classic Movies mostly uses them to fill in schedule gaps, and rarely has the time to curate or to put into cultural context any of the ones it does have. A occasional night of Robert Benchley shorts or of George Méliès films is great, and appreciated, but it doesn’t give the audience the chance to appreciate the whole field.

In his article Christie gives six “time-tested situations” that he says are reliable comic starters, and they’re probably still a sound base for plot-driven comedy, particularly visual comedy:

  1. Heaving the pie.
  2. The lover foiled.
  3. The Amateur Expert.
  4. The Crowner Crowned — or The Socker Socked.
  5. Papa and the Baby.
  6. Caught in the Act.

I’d like to think that “Papa and the Baby” has worn out its freshness, although if we take this to mean “father figure acts like a dope”, well, it may still have worn out its freshness but it’s also pretty relied upon, so it’s doing business for somebody. I’ve got a fondness for the Amateur Expert motif, which is good for (one) absurdist explanations to common things and (two) getting people into situations where they’re hopelessly outclassed.

The whole article, though, I think’s worth reading, not just because of its insights into how to make a short silent comedy that people will respond to, but also because these fine points about what people laugh at are written in a slangy mid-20s movie-publicity-magazine style that’s itself charming in its antiquity (“this goes back to the French farces of Moliere, and hence does not germinate with the Genus Americanus of Ribticklus”? Really, Al, you want to commit that to print?).