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Literature / American Cornball

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Why do anvils fall from the sky? And backseat drivers make us cry? What do these old jokes mean?

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny is a 2014 non-fictional book by Christopher Miller, which acts as a handy reference pool for many old comedy tools and tropes.

Miller revisits nearly 200 comic staples, and explains their originals and the context of their humor, and why they were funny then and not so funny now.


  • Absentminded Professor: The very first entry in the book covers this trope. It also contrasts it to its evil twin trope, the Mad Scientist, claiming the difference between the two is that while the Absentminded Professor tends to be so absorbed in his studies and obsessed with gathering knowledge just for its own sake, that he has no real ego or malice about him, while the Mad Scientist tends to be driven by a passion for power, wealth or sexual irresistability.
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  • Anvil on Head: "Anvils" discusses the classic use of falling anvils and safe gags in animated cartoons. However, it points out that the gag was surprisingly rare in them until some point in the late 1940's, and its golden age occured around the 1950's. And as seen above, the cover art for the book depicts the classic "Falling Safe" gag.
  • Banana Peel: "Bananas and Banana Peels" is all about this trope and how the general subject of bananas were one of the ubiquitous comedy tools in Vaudeville.
  • Bankruptcy Barrel: The "Barrels" chapter sites this as the most famous way to use barrels for gags, which were very commonly used in older comic strips, referring to it as both a Pauper's Barrel or the "Taxpayer's Barrel", the latter name being coined by cartoonist Will B. Johnstone.
  • Black Comedy: The book covers some morbid comedic subjects, including a chapter on Rape in comedy, and even a chapter on Infant Mortality.
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  • Death of a Child: "Infant Mortality".
  • Deserted Island: "Desert Islands" talks about this, and how the subject used to lend itself to sexual comedy a lot.
  • Gravity Is a Harsh Mistress: The "Gravity" chapter cites many classic examples of this being used for laughs, especially in cartoons such as the Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner shorts.
  • Idea Bulb: The chapter on "Lightbulbs" discusses the origins of it, pointing out how variations of the idea behind it date all the way back to the middle ages, when the word "Illumination" was often used as a metaphor in inspiration. It claims the idea of using a light bulb as a visual metaphor gag popped up in cartoons at some point around the 1930's (even though lightbulbs had existed as early as the 1840s).
  • Inherently Funny Words: "Ducks and Chickens" discusses this; it cites the tale of how comedian Joe Penner, originally planning to say the line "You wanna buy a hippopotamus?" substituted the word at the last moment with "Duck" to this straight man, and it ended up becoming one of his most beloved catchphrases.
  • Mad Scientist: The entry on "Absentminded Professors" contrasts this trope and goals of its kind of character to that of the absentminded professor.
  • Self-Deprecation: The end of the entry on "Absentminded Professors" claims that the Mad Scientist will always be seen as more popular than the Absentminded Professor, since the ambition of the latter (an obsessive desire to gather knowledge for its own sake) is considered one of the nerdiest things in the world in an anti-intellectual culture. The book immediately snipes at itself and how it follows that exact same ambition;
    By that criterion, the book you're holding is supremely nerdy, since the odds of it earning its author anything much in the way of money, power, love, or godlike exaltation are vanishingly small.
  • Shotgun Wedding: This trope is brought up in "Shotgun Weddings" and how a similar form of it, the "Breach of Promise lawsuit", occasionally popped up.
  • Smelly Skunk: One chapter, "Skunks", is devoted entirely to examples of this.
  • Toilet Humor:
    • The "Flatulence" chapter is centered around Fart Jokes. It points out with irony that, for its time, it was considered such a vulgar, crass form of comedy that it's surprisingly difficult to find examples of it in media of the early to mid 1900s.
    • An entire chapter is dedicated to the subject of Feces in old time humor.
  • Yes-Man: A chapter is centered on this.


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