© Copyright 2017 Alexandra McAuley-Biasi, Ryerson University
The Canadian Whites Joke Comics issue 21 presents a selection of humour-centric comics that utilize different comedic themes that were popular in the 1940s to create entertainment for their targeted viewers that not only provided a break from the stress of the World War II lifestyle, but also connected them with a nostalgic comedy that many people of the time grew up with. Canadian comedy at the time developed very closely with the changing trends in North American popular culture, adapting the main themes of humour that were popular at the time (Wise). Joke Comics 21 encompasses varying comic story lines with different forms of humour, one particular recurring trend being the theme of stupidity as a main comedic source. This was a very prominent theme in so many different forms of comedy during the 1900s with the development of comedy films, and groups such as The Three Stooges. These varying joke comics take well known themes, such as stupidity, that were prominent in the popular comedy acts of the time and present them in a format that provides a break from the harshness of life during World War II.
Popular Comedy in the 1900s
The popularity of humour derived from stupidity was at a high point while Joke Comics 21 was released, especially with the advancements of comedy films that took place a few years prior. Comedic films had been introduced into society a few decades before the start of World War II, setting a base for comedy that adapted over the years with evolving comedic styles and groups. For example, groups such as The Three Stooges were at a peak in popularity during the war. Some of their most famous works were films created and released during World War II, including the films You Nazty Spy! and I’ll Never Heil Again. The Stooges’ main form of comedy, known as low comedy, was generated through the stupidity and the pain of others (Fink 46). Low comedy mainly focuses on physical humour rather than clever dialogue, utilizing the slapstick form of comedy, while also presenting the lower uneducated class as a comedic source by making the audiences laugh at the characters’ acts of overt stupidity (Fink 45-6). This low comedy, slapstick style violence present in many of The Stooges’ work constantly reflected the evident low intelligence of the characters, demonstrating a correlation between the film humour of the time and the humour presented in Joke Comics 21. For example, in the “Spike N’ Mike” comic in Joke Comics 21, the characters Spike and Mike are presented as extremely dumb and naive characters that accidentally thwart the evil Zootari’s plans to kill them continuously over the course of the comic. Their idiotic actions, fuelled by their evident stupidity, result in overtly physical slapstick style incidences (Saakel). “Spike N’ Mike,” as well as many of the other comics in Joke Comics 21, could be seen as low key adaptations of some of the most popular comedic elements at the time. This is done by taking what had already proven to be popular forms of comedy and presenting them in a format that was accessible for the targeted viewers. This mimicking of famous comedy films and groups like The Three Stooges could have acted as a way to draw in audiences while also providing a sense of comfort through familiar entertainment that was present before World War II began.
Slapstick is a form of comedy that physicalizes the idea of humour through stupidity, reproducing mental idiocy into a ridiculously physical aspect. Its creation opened up the target audience considering its physicality could reach people of any language and age. The origin of slapstick comedy is traced back to the Canadian-born American, Mack Sennett, who created the Keystone film company which grew into a major production company that created some of the most iconic comedy films of the early 1900s. Sennett represents a milestone in the comedy industry, introducing a completely new style of comedy, and exposing audiences to comedy icons such as Charlie Chaplin (Wise). Influencing much of the comedy that was present during World War II, his slapstick style was seen in not only the Joke Comics, but also in traveling comedy groups that were employed by the Canadian Army to visit army camps. The Army Show specifically, being written and produced by the Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster, used a combination of different comedic styles including slapstick to bring entertainment to soldiers fighting for their country (Dougall). Wayne and Shuster’s Army Show started out as a radio show that quickly shifted into a traveling stage show, starting in Canada and eventually traveling through Europe. This transition was made because of the more personal connection live comedy creates between comedian and audience member. Proximity enhances the feeling that each audience member is in on the joke and more engaged with the comedy, also allowing the comedian to use live slapstick styles in a way that connects with the audience more than it would over film (Brodie 153). While Joke Comics 21 reverted back to a more separated connection between comedian and audience, its mix of illustrations and text allowed the slapstick style to be mimicked in a more accessible format.
Superiority Theory is a humour theory that links closely to slapstick comedy, which is a big part of Joke Comics issue 21. Slapstick comedy is extremely prevalent in the comics, as many characters of the comics use overtly physical movements in a manner that make their actions seem ridiculous. Most of the time the purpose of slapstick comedy is to conjure humour from the misfortunes of others, turning violence into something ridiculous and, therefore, entertaining. However, there are many theories, including Superiority Theory, surrounding Slapstick comedy and why it is such a popular form of humour, especially during the early twentieth century. Violence is a big part of the Superiority Theory, suggesting that people feel better when they see that others are in worse situations than they are (Casper 583). This theory could be connected to why many of the comics in Joke Comics 21 represent characters in such a judgemental light. For example, the character of “Private Stuff” is frequently represented throughout the comic as unintelligent and lower class. This is done not only through his speech but also through the way he is illustrated with his tongue always sticking out and his eyes frequently looking off in different directions, as well as through the slapstick elements of his actions (Steef). This presentation of Private Stuff could be meant to make the readers feel superior to the character, allowing readers to derive pleasure from the contrast between Private Stuff and themselves. However, what is interesting about this portrayal of Private Stuff is that he is set up to be seen as a hero by the readers. He is a soldier who succeeds in protecting his military camp from Nazis who are plotting to blow it up. Even if the means by which he does protect it are slapstick and unorthodox, there is no doubt that he is meant to be a hero. This fact challenges the Superiority Theory because most children are meant to look up to the heroes of their comic, not laugh at their stupidity. It is possible that during the time of its publication this comic was meant to produce a hero figure that children do not look up to, but one that they believe they are better than. This comic functions in line with the Superiority Theory to the extent that it makes the reader feel better about themselves, but also conjures the idea that if Private Stuff can be a hero, anyone can. This would have been an important message to spread to children during World War II, acting as a confidence boost for readers by suggesting that they are just as capable of defeating their own enemies.
Relief Theory is a humour theory that explores the idea that laughter releases nervous energy to lessen the viewer’s anxiety, which can be connected to the slapstick humour presented in Joke Comics 21 (Fink 50). The main aspect of slapstick comedy that contributes to its ability to produce laughter from its viewers is the presentation of a disconnect between violence and pain. The viewers find it funny because they know that the characters are not actually in pain. Slapstick characters are presented with an almost immunity to pain, and even if it seems they feel it at first the viewers know there will be no lasting effects (Casper 581). This suggests that it is not pain in general that creates laughter, but the absurdness of the absence of pain from violence. The viewers feel free to laugh at these absurd instances because they have no fear that the characters are actually in harm’s way (585). This disconnect between violence and its lasting effects could be an aspect of why the depiction of ridiculous slapstick violence was so popular during World War II. While there was obviously a large amount of very real violence in the world during the war, the illusion that violence produces laughter rather than pain might have functioned as a source of relief for readers. Relief Theory emphasizes the notion of what has been described as “laughable inauthenticity,” where the limits of human reality are pushed to such a ridiculous stage that the viewers are able to laugh at human kind in general (Casper 596). The relief of seeing a world where certain violent actions do not have consequences was probably very appealing during the time of the war, creating a context for viewers to find humour in not just the characters, but also themselves. The Relief Theory’s suggestion that the level of humour a viewer derives from comedic material has a connection to the viewer’s level of anxiety could also present an understanding why the slapstick humour of these comics was so appealing to stressed viewers at the time. This idea would have given children the context and material to disconnect themselves from the very real horror of life during wartime and let their anxiety out through laughter (Fink 50).
While slapstick comedy is a representation of stupidity in a physical form, uneducated characters are also represented throughout the comics through their speech, actions and the way they are illustrated. One comic in particular in Joke Comics 21 attempts to utilize ethnic humour by representing the Inuit ethnicity in a generalized uneducated manner. Assigning an entire ethnic group a very universal quality, such as stupidity, as a way to judge and ridicule them in what is meant to be a humorous light is an aspect of ethnic humour that is constantly used in different comedic forms (Takovski 128). However, the fact that this trait assigned to the chosen ethic group is so universal and has no connection at all to said group, ends up creating a boundary between those who are making the jokes and those who the jokes are about. Rather than laughing with the targeted group, the viewers are laughing at them which connects to the previously discussed idea of Superiority Theory, used most often to make one culture seem superior to the other by targeting stereotypes associated with the culture (Takovski 132-3). For example, in the comic “Jinx” found in Joke Comics 21, the characters representing the Inuit culture are illustrated in a strangely disproportional way and their speech is written in a jagged fashion that implies their whole culture is uneducated and uncivilized. They are portrayed living in igloos and frequently around polar bears (Thomas). These stereotype based jokes mixed with the assignment of the universal quality of stupidity, which is the most common trait that is applied to different cultures in ethnic humour, creates a group of people that viewers can separate themselves from and look down on (Takovski 135). This could have been used to generate the desired humour, while also working as a confidence boost for the viewers as they feel themselves to be superior to those they are laughing at. Often the trait of stupidity in ethnic humour is assigned to a culture that seems unusual or uncivilized to the central populace, or to nearby ethnic groups who share land or the same cultural background (135). This could suggest that along with utilizing the functions of Superiority Theory, these comics were meant to use ethnic humour as a way of showing the evolution of the country, suggesting that the society of the time was much better and more civilized than those who the jokes are targeting. Although Joke Comics 21 uses ethnic humour in a racist way that demeans an entire culture by presenting it in a negatively untrue light, during the hard times of World War II this could have functioned as a way of providing a humorous and confidently superior feeling to the viewers.
Although the humour that is used in the comics of Joke Comics issue 21 seems rather outdated and unsatisfying to present society, at the time of its publication these comics were designed in a way that provided comfort to its audience. It uses well known comedic forms of the past, such as stupidity, to create a nostalgic comfort that worked to remind its readers of a time before World War II. It also engages with many different humour theories, suggesting that each comedic element of the comics were shaped in different ways to satisfy their targeted audience. While most of the comics present ideas of racism, disappointing jokes and unneeded violence, the readers of the time could have instead derived from the comics a much needed escape from wartime with appropriated feelings of confidence, nostalgia and relief.