Like my subject line says. I’ve seen this particular Far Side now and then for thirty-plus years. It was only today, when I saw it bundled with other historical strips under the History Shmistory label, that I realized Gary Larson’s joke. This now takes, by far, the record between me seeing and me getting the joke. It was previously held by another Far Side strip, the famous “I think you misunderstood … I’m Al Tilly, the bum” incident.
In my defense — and this applies to the Al Tilly the bum incident too — part of my slowness was that it wasn’t obvious I was missing a joke. Imagine if the caption read, “Well, Mr Smith, … ” instead. It’s a fine enough non-sequitur joke that someone might be good in sales or market research or buffalo-slaughtering. Larson played fair, of course. If the identity of the person seeking a career didn’t matter, he’d have been named Smith or Jones or even not addressed by name. The beard and ten-gallon hat were also cues, although it’s not like comic strip characters won’t have long beards or quirky fashion choices either.
I suppose it’s all a reminder that you can tell any joke you like, but you can’t control what joke the audience hears.
A bit of fun business ahead of things. Fred Grandinetti was kind enough to let me know about an essay he wrote regarding the King Features Syndicate Popeye cartoons. Grandinetti offers some information about the technical aspects of production, things like budgets and how the cartoons were received. Received by audiences, that is; they always attracted negligible interest from critics. Grandinetti also discusses the six studios which got the work, and reviews their characteristic styles. It’s a much higher-level view than what I’m doing here, but the person out there who is interested in the 60s Popeye cartoons is likely to enjoy that.
Now to the regular stuff. It’s another Famous Studios-animated Popeye cartoon this week. Once again Seymour Kneitel is credited for story and for direction. My expectation was that the cartoon would be professionally made, with everybody on model and the movement reasonably smooth, even if the story was a bit dull. So how foiled were my expectations? Let’s watch.
We start with Popeye in the desert again. He spends a lot of time in the desert for a sailor. But he and Olive Oyl are taking over the Puddleburg Splash, newspaper for the laziest town in the world. The cartoon’s set in the Old West, although the era is only vaguely set. Mostly that Popeye writes with a quill pen. We never find out why he wants to run a newspaper, or why he picks a newspaper in a town he knows nothing about. I’m all right with that, though. I think there’s even a Segar storyline where Popeye takes ove a small western town newspaper for vague reasons. Popeye can just do that.
We get a couple jokes about how lazy the townspeople are. Best is probably Olive Oyl having to point different directions, with the local telling her when she’s pointing in the right direction. It’s also got a slick little bit of animation, when Olive Oyl points at the camera. It’s a rare break from the standard police-lineup pose. Also a nice bit of animation is the sheriff lifting his eyebrow to raise his hat. This is all accompanied by some nice languid music. I suppose it’s something from the Famous Studios music library. It’s nice getting some different stock music.
There’s more social commentary than I expect from these cartoons. The first is Popeye working out that he has to open a school, to teach people to read, so there’s demand for his newspaper. It’s a benign example of marketing into existence demand for the thing you want to supply. The second is the revelation that the people in Puddleburg aren’t unable to read out of laziness. The school Popeye builds is demolished by the Bruiser Boys, local thugs who figure an ignorant population is easier to control through terror. It’s a method of control, yeah. And it diffuses some of the conflation of laziness and stupidity that’s been in the cartoon.
Curiously, the Bruiser Boys are not Brutus. Why have original cast for this? In Dead-Eye Popeye, which I once mentioned without reviewing, Brutus and two identical Brutus-oids terrorize the western town. I’m curious if this resulted from the confusion about whether Bluto was a King Features or a Paramount-owned character.
There is an odd moment where newspaper-editor Popeye hires a cartoonist, B Looney Bologna. His panel is the chicken-crossing-the-road gag, used for generations now as the symbol for tired old humor. (I’m persuaded that it’s an anti-joke, myself.) I suppose it builds the direness of Popeye’s plight, that he can’t even use the funny pages to get an audience. Mostly it takes a spot of time for a joke about a bad joke.
In the climax Popeye decides that the townspeople have to learn the Bruiser Boys aren’t that tough. All right. He decides to show them that even a woman can stand up to them. … Why? I suppose they’re a bit more humiliated if a granny in a wheelchair beats them up than if the newspaper editor does it. But it’s not like they won’t be beaten up anyway. If it is important it be a woman, why not have Olive Oyl take her spinach power-up? It stands out to me that Popeye doesn’t eat any spinach this cartoon. I’m curious if Kneitel had some rationale here that got lost in editing. Or if the cartoon started out as an independent thing, or a story meant for another character, that got imperfectly rewritten for Popeye.
Altogether, it’s a decently-made cartoon. The starting point might be odd, but it follows all well enough from there. It’s still odd that Popeye and Olive Oyl would be printing up rooms full of newspapers when nobody was buying them, though. Maybe he was misled about important things by whoever owned the paper before him.
Popeye never reports a specific piece of news in this short.
So the 20th of October, 1957, The Stan Freberg Show came to its end. Freberg had promised to feature some of the most popular bits of the show and said he was getting card and letter from the listening audience about what to select. The show hadn’t quite given up, though: there are a couple of new bits, including what might have become running gag characters, appearing for the first time here. Still the show is mostly recreations, sometimes in abbreviated form. And of what?
Here’s the show:
Open. It’s no longer an episode of a brand-new radio series, but rather a clonked-out radio series. And they’re bidding a fond farewell to r-a-d-i-o. And a trick of memory. I had remembered the last episode as opening with a more busted-up theme, one with sound effects of a machine conking out, and the music losing tempo and falling out of tune. Not so, but given the show’s use of that sort of sound effect (as in the fifth episode) I’m surprised it didn’t.
Opening remarks. Freberg’s grateful to his audience, and will miss talking to people like — some character who hasn’t appeared before. A jumpy, character complaining the road’s blocked by sheep, and who follows his lines with singing the line again in a high-pitched voice. He’s a brain surgeon.
Mr Tweedly, Censor from Citizen’s Radio. Stan Freberg tries to sing Old Man River, while getting buzzed for not saying thank you and for using needlessly harsh songs and bad grammar and such. This ran in the sixth episode.
Peggy Taylor. She’s crying, not because they’re going off the air, but because Stan Freberg’s on her foot. She gives a gift, not a sleeping bag but a Freberg Cozy, and I like the idea of calling a sleeping bag a personal cozy. She sings “The Birth of the Blues”. This was done in the second show, and I’m surprised they would redo a song. A good song, sure, but it’s not like 1957 was short on radio-ready music.
Bang Gunly, US Marshall Fields. Soundtrack of a “typical” (adult) western, including sponsorship from the Eating Corporation of America. It’s truncated from the original, of course; just some examination of the fence and one commercial. This appeared on the 11th show originally.
Package for Stan Freberg, about ten feet tall. New messenger character. The package is the Abominable Snowman. He’d been introduced the second episode. Abominable asks Freberg if it’s hard on him doing both voices like that; he admits it’s hard on him. It’s a bit of fourth-wall-breaking and plays on Freberg’s ability to shift character fast. Abominable Snowman isn’t wearing orange sneakers today, just purple, a new “ensemble”. Abominable and his wife Gladys are thinking what they could do to help the show. (Gladys was introduced, as his fiancee, in the ninth show.) “I could scare a couple of sponsors for you.” “We’ve already done that, thank you.” Abominable offers to teach Freberg how to be an Abominable Snowman, which gets to be funnier when you remember they just pointed out how he’s doing both voices.
The big flu of 1957 was an outbreak of Influenza A subtype H2N2, a pandemic less severe than that of 1918 (but what wasn’t?). It wsa popularly referred to as the Asian Flu. I know it mostly from a Peanuts strip in 1958 where Charlie Brown suspects he’s coming down with it, and Lucy mocks him for getting the flu six months late. Smiley Burnette was one of those prolific singer-songwriters who’d get to play the sidekick to your Roy Rogers-class performer. So that’s some things you would be expected to know for this episode, which first aired the 22nd of September, 1957.
And here’s the rundown:
Opening Music. Once again no cold opening.
Opening Comments. Stan Freberg is getting over the “Swiss Flu”, so as not to offend anyone.
College Football Report. Report from the BearcatPantherTigers. Stan Freberg is doing a pretty sharp impersonation of Colgate Sports Newsreel reporter Bill Stern. The setup is easy, a long buildup to a question to which the athlete gives one- and two-word answers.
Peggy Taylor gives Stan Freberg the pretext to sing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Monkey Song”. They can’t all be “Stardust”.
How an Agent Operates. Foster Pelt, agent to 64 dogs. He gets them character parts a lot: derelicts, good-natured slobs, friend of the leading child. There’s a constrained structure here, where Pelt negates any joke that Freberg might advance. That’s okay as long as it’s building to something, like the dog that plays jazz trombone. But it does also have a tone like Pelt is trying to negate the sketch.
Question from the Audience. A guy doesn’t believe in the show so far.
Peggy Taylor singing “Famous Last Words”.
Composite Preview of TV Westerns for the Fall. “Bang Gunly, US Marshall Fields” which (as usual) catches the sounds and tones and pacing of its primary source precisely. The actual radio Gunsmoke wasn’t quite so leisurely, but did run that way. It didn’t spend quite this much time establishing plot points either, but it could feel like that. The in-show sketch for “Puffed Grass” riffs on ads for Quaker Puffed Wheat (“the breakfast cereal shot from guns”) commercials. The relentless establishment of the fact the fence was cut evokes the throwaway joke at the start of St George and the Dragonet, about that 45 automatic being checked by the lab and learning that, yes, it was a gun. The close, a quick exchange with Pedro, riffs on the comic sidekick Pancho of the Cisco Kid. He’d close each episode with a corny gag. Gunsmoke was a grown-up western; Cisco Kid a kids’ one. So it is a tonal non sequitur that he should show up here.
Closing Remarks. Freberg encourages people to write for tickets and asks for something for cold, even if it’s just Dr Christian. Dr Christian was a long-running doctor’s-office-based light drama, the small-town doctor helping quarreling lovers reconcile and wayward youths straighten out, that sort of thing.
This episode first aired the 25th of August, 1957. Yes, yes, it’s Rogers and Hart’s song.
And here’s the rundown:
Cold Open. Array of sound effects for the third week running; this time, it’s the outcome of the Floyd Patterson/Pete Rademacher fight. That fight happened the 22nd of August, in Seattle, and Patterson won.
Introduction. Newspaper clipping. Dr Hugo Gunk claims crime could be eliminated if we put as much money into psychology as we do into police. Just the premise is a laugh line, which is a bit depressing to consider. I don’t know whether this was based on something actually in the news; “Hugo Gunk” is a suspiciously silly-but-not-quite-funny name.
The Lone Analyst. Spoof built on the analysts-rather-than-police premise. It’s set in the town of New Roces, New Mexico. This is (of course) a very close spoof of The Lone Ranger‘s sound, and its plot beats. There’s side references to other westerns, notably Have Gun, Will Travel. (The Lone Ranger was unmistakably a kid’s show; Have Gun, Will Travel a grown-up’s.) The Lone Analyst has the saddle in these parts that opens out into a couch. There’s a nice Wile E Coyote style gag about “painting a shortcut on those rocks”. It’s got a man who thinks he’s a chicken and, to extend the joke, a chicken who thinks he’s a horse. And the good solid line, “I am not a Great Dane. I am Grandpa Snider.”
Francois Poulet is back, and playing the nose flute. Comic interview with a Frenchman who speaks Hawaiian. Billy Mays is able to talk with him, converting Hawaiian to groovy-musician. Then an actual song, until his nose is caught in the flute. Very Muppet-ready sketch.
Peggy Taylor. Follow-up joke about nose flautists sneezing. Then she sings “Dancing On the Ceiling”. Strange, very different Lionel Richie cover.
There You Are. Reenactment of the Driving of the Golden Spike. Very different from Robert E Tainter’s Great Moments in History bits. Very precise spoof of CBS/CBS News’s You Are There, which presented how network news might have covered historic events. Cute bit where the story behind the pick of who gets chosen to drive the last spike is frightfully mundane. Last-minute hold-up as they’re two feet short. “We could go back to Chicago and push a little.” The trains meet. President Grant says “it appears to me they should’ve laid two tracks”. As a kid I was always bothered there was just the one track too.