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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. It also mentions this trope's evil twin, the Mad Scientist. In the author's view, the difference is that the Absentminded Professor tends to be obsessed with knowledge for its own sake, while the Mad Scientist seeks knowledge in pursuit of power, wealth or sexual conquest.
  • 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 occurred around the 1950's. And as seen above, the cover art for the book depicts the classic "Falling Safe" gag.
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  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: "Couches and Courtship" mentions that a man on a couch with a young woman is expected to try something (and becomes a "Nincompoop" if he doesn't); jokes about "Old Maids" imply that these homely old women hope to find an intruder in their bedroom some night.
  • Auto Erotica: "Parking and Petting." Oddly enough, while some jokes involved a deliberate trip to Make-Out Point, others were about a convenient (or not-so-convenient) breakdown, stranding two people in unexpected privacy.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Drives several entries. Marriage means the end of a man's sexual freedom, shackling him to a woman who, no matter how desirable she once was, promptly lets herself go and becomes an overweight nag. While the Old Maid pines for the married life she never had, the Bachelor suffers nothing but mild societal disapproval if he never marries (though he does have to darn his own socks).
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  • 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. The author notes that a banana peel as the setup to The Pratfall seems incongruous (how many banana peels do you see in the wild?) but Rule of Perception means there has to be something obvious for a character to slip on, and an icy sidewalk is harder to draw.
  • 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.
  • Black Comedy Rape: "Rape" has an entry, with the acknowledgement that it was seldom the act itself, just Attempted Rape played for humor. Bluto and Harpo Marx aren't thought of as rapists because they never succeeded in carrying off the women they pursued, but it's hard to miss what their real intentions were.
  • Blackface: Sadly but inevitably, given the time. Most of the examples appear in "Black People."
  • Bowling for Ratings: "Bowling" is one of the sports most humor of the time sends up, being blue-collar and unpretentious.
  • Briffits and Squeans: "Briffits and Dustups" has an entry, following Mort Walker's typology. The author even mentions the Big Ball of Violence by name.
  • Cartoon Cheese: "Limburger Cheese" (which is about the consistency of butter in real life) was depicted as a hunk of Swiss in at least one of the author's examples. He considers it a Necessary Weasel, since a wedge with holes is the only thing that reads 'cheese' at comic-strip resolution.
  • Cat Concerto: Gets a mention under "Alley Cats."
  • Cat Stereotype: "Alley Cats" again. Cats in the period described are always black with white jowls, Inkblot Cartoon Style, sometimes with white paws, and almost Always Male — the most notable exception being Penelope Pussycat, the hapless feline mistaken for a skunk by the amorous Pepé Le Pew.
  • Cheating with the Milkman: Usually the iceman in humor — milk bottles arrive on the doorstep and the coal man only has to come by once a year. Ice blocks, on the other hand, require upper body strength and need to be delivered directly to the kitchen on a weekly basis, making the iceman the stereotypical seducers of housewives.
  • The Comically Serious: "Dowagers" and "Stuffed Shirts" (female and male, respectively) — noted for being pompous, self important, and having No Sense of Humor.
  • Death of a Child: "Infant Mortality" mentions not only The Gashlycrumb Tinies but quotes several verses on the loss of a young person — some intentionally funny, some unintentionally so. invoked
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: As it says in the title, the book is primarily on the formerly funny, so there are a lot of jokes at the expense of women, persons of color, the Irish, etc. which would never fly today.
  • Deserted Island: "Desert Islands" talks about this, and how the subject used to lend itself to sexual comedy a lot.
  • Dirty Coward: "Cowards and Scaredy-Cats", with the caveat that a timid character needs to be a Miles Gloriosus or similar out of danger in order to be a comic figure — someone who is afraid of everything isn't funny... or all that interesting, for that matter.
  • E = MC Hammer: Discussed under "Equations," where the incomprehensibility of a board full of random symbols is part of the humor.
  • Extreme Doormat: "Milquetoasts". The main example is the Trope Namer, Caspar Milquetoast from The Timid Soul, who is too meek to retrieve his hat from a lawn with a posted "Keep off the Grass" sign.
  • Face Fault: "Plops," where a character suddenly falls over in shock (usually backward). The author suggests that it's a way to give the Straight Man a way to participate in the punchline, and notes that Anime and Manga have recycled and modernized it, much as they have with comically-enormous mallets.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: Behaviors that seem innocuous now, like gum-chewing ("Gum") or trying to catch a peep of a woman's lower leg ("Ankles") are treated as major character flaws and sometimes punished accordingly.
  • Gold Digger: "Gold Diggers and Sugar Daddies". A favorite subject for cartoonists of the time is a rich man with his beautiful young girlfriend, with the humor derived from the depiction of one of them as predatory and the other one as clueless.
  • Grand Dame: "Dowagers" — upper-class, middle-aged women depicted as self-important, overweight, and The Comically Serious. Also informs the humor of "Society Ladies," "Opera," and the 'bosoms' half of "Bosoms and Breasts" (said bosoms being magnificent and tending to heave at every possible opportunity).
  • 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.
  • Hates Baths: "Baths and Ablutophobia". According to the author, these derive their humor from a child's dislike of the bath because it means bedtime, plus a dash of Naked People Are Funny.
  • Henpecked Husband: Domestic Abuse Played for Laughs. The author claims in a footnote that he and his editor disagree on whether the "idiot husband" of Advertising — forever lagging behind his hypercompetent wife — is the Spiritual Successor to this gag.
  • 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.
  • Insatiable Newlyweds: One possible joke about "Honeymoons." Others involve a bride or groom disappointed in the other's appearance or performance, a couple who tire of each other way too quickly, or a husband who is such a nebbish that he doesn't even know where to start. "Just Married" also features new couples rushing to get to the main attraction, with one postcard subverting expectations: the couple eagerly undressing were just in a hurry to put their bathing suits on and get down to the water.
  • Mad Scientist: The entry on "Absentminded Professors" contrasts this trope and goals of its kind of character to that of the absentminded professor.
  • Ms. Fanservice: "Blondes," "Pretty Girls," and "Flappers." Not only did they dominate the world of newspaper comics for a time, they benefited from an Art Shift to look more realistic and detailed compared to the males and non-sexy females. However, a pretty girl usually couldn't carry a comic strip: she eventually lost place to someone funnier, as Dagwood took over from Blondie or Nancy displaced her pretty Aunt Fritzi.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Comes up particularly under "Fat Men," "Fat Women," and "Mental Undressing." A cartoon under "Quadripeds" shows a chubby woman (naked except for her shoes) fleeing an ursine pursuer, with the caption "I've got a big bear behind!"
  • Obfuscating Disability: As noted under "Physical Infirmities," actual amputation or blindness wasn't considered funny, but someone faking it was downright hilarious.
  • Officer O'Hara: Mentioned under "The Irish." The author notes in "Cops and Nightsticks" that part of virulence of anti-police humor was the stereotype that police officers were predominately Irish.
  • Old-Timey Ankle Taboo: "Ankles" mentions the yesteryear pastime of clustering near a puddled corner to see women hike their skirts, hoping to catch sight of a shapely ankle or even a bit of calf. The text notes that, even now that ankles aren't considered exciting, the fact that they used to be gives them a residual buzz.
  • Prone to Tears: "Crybabies and Whiners." People who cry are played completely unsympathetically, of course; the chapter also mentions "crying towels" which can be offered to anyone who moans too much about the lousy game they're having in golf, bowling, etc.
  • 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 points out that 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.
  • Sexy Secretary: One variant under "Secretaries, Stenographers, and Typists." Some of these women are cute but dumb, some are Hypercompetent Sidekicks and Beleaguered Assistants, and some are just skating by. Also features under "Ugliness," where a CEO's personal assistant can be competent or hot but not both.
  • 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: "Skunks". Comic skunks, while smelly, are also drawn very rounded and cute, leading the author to speculate that they strike the same notes as an infant.
  • Soap Punishment: One possible gag under "Soap". The entry also mentions novelty soaps which either look like other things (like food or Feces) or have some joke effect on the user (like staining their hands black).
  • Something Else Also Rises: "Hat Takes" (where the hat jumps vertically off the wearer's head from surprise or arousal) as visual shorthand for an erection. The entry on "Penises" is primarily on phallic and/or expanding objects (e.g. the snake-in-a-can gag), not the physical organ.
  • Stock "Yuck!": "Limburger Cheese" (more for the smell than the taste) along with Poverty Food like "Cabbage," "Beans," "Soup," and "Hash." For kids, "Castor Oil" and the ever-detested "Spinach."
  • Symbol Swearing: "Grawlixes," with a surprisingly detailed history of which symbols were the most commonly used.
  • 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 "Feces," with the caveat that it's almost always animal feces or poo-related gag items.
    • Both "Outhouses" and "Chamber Pots" have entries. The author notes that jokes and comics on this topic frequently involve racism (e.g. a black child on the pot and a black person in the outhouse).
  • Unwanted Assistance: "Do-Gooders." The stereotypical Boy Scout Helping Granny Cross the Street gets a mention, but the 'helpers' who really earn the comic ire are the ones who are pushy or intrusive (and often uninformed) in their eagerness, often making things worse.
  • Values Dissonance: Intentionally — the book catalogues humor tropes and other conventions that used to be considered hilarious but not so much any more. invoked
  • Visual Innuendo: A lot of the humor of this time was code for a sexual image the artist couldn't draw. "Feet" and "Shoes" of a certain impressive size indicate a well-endowed man; similar to "Noses" (meaning "Sneezing" is code for orgasm). What this means about the beaky nose of the poor "Old Maid" is ambiguous — is she too masculine or just oversexed from frustration?
  • Weapon of Choice: Batons for police, rolling pins for housewives.
  • Yes-Man: A chapter is centered on this.