Rich Kreiner reviews Humbug by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee, Jack Davis and others

Posted by on January 11th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Parody by Will Elder

Volume 2 also contains pages of annotation for many of the features, particularly those that, after over a half-century, benefit from a bit of explication. Aside from these notes being welcomed, informative keys in their own right, they serve, in actual practice, to point out the source of the enduring attraction of Humbug.

Obviously, the fixed monuments of our shared social, cultural or commercial landscape need no special introduction when chosen as targets: Dickens, product packaging, Hamlet, public and private schools, Tchaikovsky, superhighways, cigarettes, etc. But direct references to more period-sensitive materials can profit from a bit of backfill (as perhaps that earlier reference to Ali and Foreman might have). For instance, few of us now will recognize caricatures of Cuba’s Batista, Egypt’s Nasser, or the State Department’s John Foster Dulles, especially when they are portrayed as birds. On the front of issue #4, the patented look of a period Time magazine, its logo and distinctive red border, is mimicked with a faux steel-engraved cover welcoming the Queen of England to the United States. But it is Victoria who is depicted, not Elizabeth. Yet the real mystery is the identity of that male figure popping out so prominently from the background. Why, it’s Jack Bailey, the television host of the once-famous daily celebration of bathos, “Queen for a Day!”

Shady Teamster president Dave Beck, the tawdry Confidential magazine, and the unfortunate Benny “saved-from-having-fallen-down-a-well” Hooper benefit from similar annotational asides. Yet given the context presented solely within the magazine, it’s not difficult to figure out the score, given a burly, glowering union leader, a meretricious scandal rag or an unknown made famous thanks to an urgent — and photogenic! — marshalling of community resources.

No, what’s really required for the enjoyment of these magazines doesn’t extend much beyond a working familiarity with human nature. The television game shows of yesteryear, the high profile movies of the day, specific or specialized publications of the period, former current events and the advertisements for long-gone brands aren’t categorically or thematically all that different from our programs, films, periodicals, news and shilled products today.

As its métier, Humbug took the conventions and accoutrements of an era, manifestations fashioned by said basic human nature, and proceeded to carve them up afresh with finely tuned comedic sensibilities. The biggest variable in that formula is “comedic sensibilities” and Kurtzman and this transitory gang of idiots stand revealed as consistently engaging and reliable pleasers, veritable Old Faithfuls of satire.

So time may cloud yet not diminish: The screen version of C.S. Forester’s The Pride and the Passion (here as “The Cannon and the Passion”) which starred Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, hardly retains the sizzle of its heyday. Yet the Humbug take-off remains risible thanks to fundamentals of jokery: timing (the three progressive panels of Loren’s bathing scene), delivery (“We pooll de cannon”), set-up (the gigantic WMD ominously hoisted, ominously floated and ominously rolling downhill) and repetition (“Ay — that low cut dress!”) as fortified by Elder’s frantic visual frivolity.

We cannot completely return to the precise dimensions of the 1950s, say, to its sputnik mania and dread that the Reds would “own” the sky over America’s head. And any joke that is dependent on an explanation will only be as funny as … well, a joke that has to be explained. But at bottom — and we never seem to be so very far from that at any given moment — Humbug is timelessly laughable largely because human behavior is as timelessly laughable. Here’s the mirth-packed pudding to prove it. I defy anyone to read “Asiatic Flufrightus” and its indictment of the media of its a day without thinking of today’s superficial, parochial, near-hysterical coverage of “swine flu” as thumped by ratings-hungry local stations and by opportunistically mongering, equally desperate 24/7 news channels (the annotations give some perspective on an Eisenhower-era pandemic which killed some 70,000 in the U.S. and as many as 4 million throughout the world).

Yup, folly, fears, excess, celebrity, sexuality and unwarranted hopes remain forever ripe for merry provocateurs. When done this intelligently, the mortal comedy transcends the years. That’s one way legends stay legendary.

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