The fine distinction between “surreal” and “screwball” has been intriguing me lately. Webster’s says the surreal is “marked by the intense irrationality of a dream,” whereas a screwball is “crazily eccentric or whimsical.” On the other hand, the Major League Baseball Glossary maintains that “A screwball is a breaking ball designed to move in the opposite direction of just about every other breaking pitch. It is one of the rarest pitches thrown in baseball, mostly because of the tax it can put on a pitcher’s arm. The movement on the screwball — which travels toward the pitcher’s arm side — is caused by an extremely unorthodox throwing motion. In throwing the screwball, the pitcher snaps his wrist in a manner that causes his palm to face away from his glove side..”
Salvador Dali paintings, with their dripping clocks and dreamy settings are quintessentially surreal, and “screwball” describes a crazily eccentric 3-panel Sunday Mutts cartoon by Patrick Mc Donnell that appeared in our paper sometime back. First panel: Mooch the cat is driving a toy car with his pal Earl the dog and says “Look, Earl, a hitchhiker.” Second panel: a small fellow (with a big white beard and wearing a large Scottish tam hat is standing in a landscape dotted with bizarre structures and trees) who asks, “Nov Shmoz Ka Pop?” Third panel: Mooch says, “I have no idea where this is going.”
Screwball comic strips were extremely popular in the 1930s and 40s and trace their origin to Rube Goldberg who brought his special brand of wackiness to the funny pages beginning in 1909. Comic strip surrealism was mastered by George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, a favorite of William Randolph Hearst who, despite its strangeness, insisted it be featured in all his newspapers from 1914-1944 when Herriman died. Krazy Kat was lauded by poets, choreographers, and philosophers and was notably surreal with constantly shifting backgrounds, oddly-shaped houses, and bizarre trees, plus a level of poetry and vocabulary far beyond most funny paper readers. In addition, Krazy Kat spoke in an amusing Jewish dialect, a trait that was used by Jewish immigrant characters in Milt Gross’ “Gross Exaggeration” strip. Krazy Kat’s odd backgrounds were adopted by Holman’s Smokey Stover strip that ran from 1935-72, and McDonnell’s Mutts and other modern cartoonists pay regular homage to Krazy Kat by including in their new strips features from Herriman’s that only aficionados will notice.
The Smokey Stover strip was famous for its atrocious puns, usually expressed in the form of “silly pictures on the wall with various items hanging clear out of the frames.” One such picture showed a 100 pound bag of cement, a plus sign, another 100 pound bag of cement, an equal sign, and a 200 pound bag of cement with the label underneath reading “a concrete example.” Another showed a bewhiskered fish sleeping in bed and captioned, “cot fish.” Holman shamelessly utilized truly awful puns that were submitted in the thousands by adoring readers. Holman lovingly called them his “wallnuts,” and, since there were many spin-offs (books, toys, gadgets, syrup bottles, etc.), he stoked audience participation all the way to the bank.
Holman also liked nonsense words, such as “notary sojak,” which appeared regularly on the firehouse wall where Smokey was employed as a fireman, or in Smokey’s terms, a “foo-fighter.” Holman prevaricated when asked what his nonsense phrases meant. According to one of his versions, “notary sojak” was a rough translation of the Gaelic for “Merry Christmas.” “Foo,” as in Smokey’s catch phrase, “where there’s foo, there’s fire,” apparently referred to the French word for fire, “feu.” But Holman also claimed “foo” came from seeing the Chinese word “fu,” meaning “luck,” on the bottom of a vase. Regardless, foo became a fad word throughout the English-speaking world of the 1930’s and 40’s. Towards the end of WWII, the 415th Night Fighter Squadron was flying over Germany when pilot Edward Schlueter saw “eight to ten bright orange lights off the left wing, flying through the air at high speed,” but the lights didn’t register on radar. In his report, Schlueter called them “foo fighters,” and was mimicked by scores of other pilots who experienced and reported similar phenomenon. Due to the Foo’s extreme maneuverability and “because the lights caused no damage, the pilots doubted they came from remote-controlled German secret weapons … Army Air Command sent investigators, but ‘their research was lost after the war’,” according to AirSpaceMag.com. “Foo Fighters” is also the name of a Grammy-winning 1990s rock band.
Gene Ahern’s strip, “The Squirrel Cage,” was even zanier. That “Nov Shmoz Ka Pop?” from Mutts mentioned above was the regular question posed by Ahern’s “The Little Hitchhiker” character. “He had a long white beard, wore an enormous tam on his head, and covered his body with a black smock or overcoat (the beard got in the way of knowing for sure),” according to a University of Pennsylvania article titled, “Comic Language.” In the 1960s the Little Hitchhiker was transformed into Robert Crumb’s “Mr. Natural,” of underground comic fame. “Nov Shmoz Ka Pop?” was never explained, but it became part of the national lingo for a few decades. It’s appearance in Mutts, was merely a nice, screwball tribute from one cartoonist to a bygone one.
Gross had another strip, “Gross Exaggerations,” that featured Jewish immigrant women conversing in thick Yiddish accents through windows of their apartment building, on the top story of which lived an anonymous “nize baby.” They sometimes entertained the “nize baby” with Fairy tales, such as the “nize ferry-tail from Elledin witt de wonderful lemp,” and “Jack witt de binn stuck.” I’ve been ruminating on this subject since reading “The Biases We Hold Against the Way People Speak,” a recent NYTimes.com article by John McWhorter. I know people up here often make certain assumptions about me based upon my Southern accent, and sometimes for the better. McWhorter noted that “Black English is often reviled as an indication of lower intelligence, and yet ever more, advertisers seek out voice-over artists with an identifiably ‘Black sound.’ Why?” For answers he cited a study in Montreal, “in the 1960s at a time when English was considered much more prestigious than French. Anglophone and Francophone Canadians were played a passage in English and a passage in French, unaware that the passage was being read by the same person. Both Anglo and French Canadians tended to think the English speaker was smarter, but that the French speaker seemed warmer and more friendly. This is why Black English can be associated with both dimness and approachability, and thus ideal to represent banks, insurance and medicines.”
A major racial barrier was surmounted by Charles Schulz’ “Peanuts” strip 53 years ago when he drew Charlie Brown losing his ball at the beach. A Black boy named Franklin returned it, and they built a sandcastle together, the first non-stereotypical representation of a Black person in comics. Such a gentle picture of racial harmony can seem surreal these days, what with so many screwballs running loose.
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.