FROM SCATOLOGY TO SOCIAL HISTORY:
During a performance of The Music Man, some younger members of the audience must be baffled by one of Professor Harold Hill’s rhetorical admonitions to the mothers of River City: "Is your son memorizing jokes out of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang?" Pool chalk on the fingers or the odor of Sen-Sen may still be recognizable indications of depravity, but few remember the most popular humor magazine of the 1920s and early ’30s.
Captain Wilford H. Fawcett, after his discharge from the army, began publishing Whiz Bang in October, 1919. According to his own account, he ordered 5,000 copies because the printing cost seemed low when compared to the expense of printing a few hundred. After giving copies to wounded veterans and to his friends in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, he shipped the surplus to hotel newsstands. The response was immediate, and two years later he claimed that circulation was "soaring to the million mark."
Despite its popularity, Whiz Bang apparently has always been considered somewhat disreputable. It has not been dignified by an entry in Union List of Serials, and the Library of Congress card catalog records only one of the winter annuals. The title, Whiz Bang, was borrowed from the nickname for a World War I artillery shell. Fawcett occasionally included a picture of himself in uniform, and early issues carried the statement, "This magazine is edited by a Spanish-American and World War veteran and is dedicated to the Fighting Forces of the United States and Canada." As late as the 1930s, he sometimes printed a war poem or a joke like "AWOL means After Women or Liquor," but military humor was never the major emphasis, and any intention of publishing a magazine solely for veterans was quickly abandoned. In the 1930s circulation dwindled because of the Depression and competition from the more sophisticated Esquire. Two favorite topics for jokes were nullified by the repeal of Prohibition and the lengthening of women’s skirts, described by Captain Billy as "an awful come-down" (May 1930). A price reduction to 15˘, somewhat raunchier jokes, and a brief experiment with mammary nudity enabled the magazine to survive into the late ’30s, but its greatest popularity was in the 1920s.
Finding varied material to fill sixty-four pages each month must have been difficult. Not all of the contents were humorous to begin
with and seem even less humorous now. The format resembles somewhat that adopted by the New Yorker a few years later; each issue opened with a few pages of topical comment and narrative, often attacks on Prohibition or censorship or accounts of the editor’s extensive travels. This department was entitled "Drippings from the Fawcett." Captain Billy’s ebullient prose style and his fondness for comic similes are displayed in a paragraph from the winter annual for 1933:
Fawcett consistently used this euphemism for "backhouse," even under unmistakable drawings of privies and in several reprintings of "The Passing of the Backhouse," a poem sometimes ascribed to James Whitcomb Riley. Language in Whiz Bang was actually quite decorous; profanity was signified by an initial letter and a dash, and a favorite term for liquor was "panther fizz." Thus, the magazine reflects an uncertain mixture of prewar standards and postwar behavior.
Other features included cartoons (some by John Held, Jr.), two pages of jokes reprinted from college humor magazines, collections of comic headlines and journalistic boners like those in Mencken’s "Americana" page in American Mercury, and a parody of question-and-answer columns, containing gems like the following:
Considerable poetry was printed, especially masculine favorites like "Casey at the Bat" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." Original poems included laments by convicts (usually from Death Row), girls gone wrong, silver-haired mothers, hoboes, and gamblers. There are a few parodies and numerous couplets, quatrains, and limericks.
The humor is often based on situations and character types that are now unfamiliar or obsolete. Jokes about the Scopes trial, companionate marriage, or Peggy Hopkins Joyce would require footnotes if reprinted today. Anyone unfamiliar with the dietary preferences of sparrows might be puzzled by the following:
The amorous iceman, a favorite subject, is no longer an automatic laugh, and a husband’s purchase of a refrigerator today does not imply suspicion of his wife: "It’s not always the iceman’s fault when your wife treats you cool" (Oct. 1927). Flivver jokes are common:
Other stock subjects, all more or less male-oriented, include the reckless flapper, the old maid who looks up and prays when a mail plane flies over, the husband who returns home unexpectedly, the compliant secretary, the painter and a nude model, honeymoon fatigue, strip poker, and shotgun weddings. A subject even more popular than the iceman is the virtuous and healthy girl who gets exercise by walking home from automobile rides: "Some girls walk home from an auto ride because they want to, some because they don’t" (April 1930).
The techniques of the humor are even more old-fashioned than the content. Rambling narratives that build up to an often feeble punch line and the question-answer or he-she pattern made obsolete by the New Yorker are common. The style of humor resembles that of 1880 more than that of 1980. The kind of linguistic mayhem committed by Josh Billings, Petroleum V. Nasby, Bill Nye, and other late nineteenth-century humorists is represented by anti-proverbs and mock quotations and especially by puns.
The anti-proverb, a specialty of Josh Billings, subverts a traditional admonitory form with anti-climax or some other form of incongruity.
Like the anti-proverb, the mock quotation is essentially irreverent as it travesties a traditional form, and the more eminent the original source, the more effective the mockery.
The most common type of verbal humor, as shown by many of the examples above, is punning. Despite its detractors, the pun is often a sophisticated form of humor since it derives from verbal agility and witty transformation of meaning. Many Whiz Bang puns, however, justify the derogation of this much-abused form. The first example anticipates Hamilton Jordan by more than fifty years.
Although the comic techniques and much of the subject matter are dated, the humor in Whiz Bang reflects some major social concerns of the 1920s, especially in regard to women, Prohibition, and minorities.
As might be expected in a magazine of male humor, many of the
jokes concern women (usually referred to as flappers or chickens), and by a conservative estimate 90 percent of them would sound chauvinistic to the mildest feminist today. Inadequate as it may seem now, a revolution in women’s dress and behavior occurred after World War I. Women bobbed their hair, elevated skirt lengths from the ankle to the knee or above, and discarded corsets in favor of more exotic undergarments like step-ins or teddies. Whiz Bang printed hundreds of jokes about scanty costumes; for example, "Women used to hold up their skirts to keep them from getting muddy; now they have to hold them down to keep them from slapping off their hats" (Oct. 1924) or "We call her bridge table because she has bare legs and no drawers" (Oct. 1922). The frequency of underwear jokes like the following jingle almost suggests a fetish:
The use of cosmetics, which before the war was mainly restricted to aristocrats, actresses, and prostitutes, became universal. Captain Billy described a flapper setting out on a date:
Less inhibited dances like the Charleston replaced the waltz and the two-step. A verse and two sample jokes commemorate the new dance styles:
Women entered many new professions during World War I, but the only employment jokes concern secretaries (usually called stenographers or typewriters), whose duties include sexual favors for the boss: "The faster a stenographer is, the more likely she is to stay in one place" (1927 Winter Annual).
Prohibition inspired more jokes than any other subject; they deal with toxic bootleg liquor, insipid near beer, and the misuse of
prescriptions: "A drydock is a physician who won’t give you a prescription" (Jan. 1922). The crossword puzzle fad swept the country in 1925, and in October, Captain Billy offered a definition of crossword puzzle hooch: "You drink it vertical and they carry you out horizontal." A quatrain described what he called "the situation in Minnesota":
As this doggerel suggests, Whiz Bang humor is neither subtle nor sensitive. Ethnocentric prejudice was widespread in the 1920s. Race riots in Chicago and other cities, the revival of the Klan, Henry Ford’s sponsorship of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, anti-Catholicism in the presidential campaign of 1928, and tightened immigration quotas all indicate the same spirit that led Captain Billy to describe Rudolph Valentino as "the romantic wop" (Feb. 1923) and to print innumerable Abie and Ikey, Rastus and Mandy, and Pat and Mike jokes. A brief sample of each will suffice:
Most Irish jokes are simple ethnic slurs: "The wheelbarrow was invented to teach the Irish to walk on their hindlegs" (Feb. 1924). But some involve the kind of absurd non-sequitur known as an Irish bull: "When Pat’s horse stumbled on a steep grade, he shouted, ‘Git up or oi’ll drive right over ye" (Sept. 1925). In 1926, the magazine offered a $5.00 prize for "the best colored joke." The justification for the contest seems as offensive as the jokes themselves: "There is no other form of humor in the whole wide world that explodes into laughter as easily as that supplied by the colored folk." A few months later, prizes were offered for "the best Hebrew jokes."
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Whiz Bang is its combination of rural and urban subject matter. Covers of early issues carry the subtitle "Farmyard Fun and Filosophy." Captain Billy refers to himself as "this Robbinsdale manure-spreader" or "this old bovine biologist" and frequently discusses his farm: Rosebud, the cow that went dry when the country did; Pedro, the prize bull; a hired man, Gus, who shares Pedro’s priapic tendencies; and another, Olaf, who is such an inveterate poker player that he shuffles when he walks.
Along with this "barnyard bunk and meadow perfumery" (May 1923), Captain Billy describes his vacations in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Paris and his friendship with celebrities like Sinclair Lewis, Ring Lardner, and Jack Dempsey. There are also pictures of showgirls in every issue and a column of Hollywood gossip. The 1920s completed the transformation of American society from rural to urban, and this change is reflected in Whiz Bang’s mixture of bucolic simplicity and big city sophistication. One impression from skimming through a file of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang is that the passage of time can make humor less laughable but more meaningful. Topical concerns and popular attitudes are reflected by its rather mild content, which apparently was once considered shocking. The scatology of one generation becomes social history for the next.
Proponents of the elitist argument that by a variation of Gresham’s Law "low" art drives out "high" art would be well advised to ignore the history of Whiz Bang. The rather scruffy acorn sprouted in various directions and grew into a sturdy corporate oak. Profits from Whiz Bang subsidized True Confessions, Secrets, Battle Stories, and other magazines. Publication of the Mickey Spillane novels created a firm financial base that was strengthened by the success of John D. MacDonald’s novels and the Peanuts series. The ultimate result was Fawcett Publications, one of the most successful and reputable paperback houses, now a satellite of DBS, publisher of John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and other distinguished authors.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC UNIVERSITY