Combing My Hair With a Can-Opener and Other Oddities: Rube Goldberg in His Pre-Machine Days

« — Pickin’ flowers, Lucy? — No, you simple-minded piece of cream cheese – I’m filling the coal scuttle with apple sauce. »

My first exposure to a Rube Goldberg machine was through The Incredible Machine, a DOS game from 1993. I didn’t know at the time who Goldberg was, but I really liked the idea of setting up a chain of events triggering one another in the most convoluted-yet-satisfying of ways.

The machine was of course named after Rube Goldberg (Reuben Garrett Goldberg, 1883-1970), cartoonist, inventor, sculptor, et j’en passe. Given his lasting contribution to culture, it is interesting to consider that in the early days of his career, when he was a struggling cartoonist, Goldberg almost changed his family name to hide his Jewish roots – ultimately deciding that he couldn’t live with himself, had he followed his colleagues’ counsel. ‘Then I realized it was idiotic to even consider such a thing; that I would be ashamed of it all the remainder of my life; and that, if a man’s achievements are no bigger than the sound of his name, it doesn’t much matter what his name may be‘, he later wrote.

While Goldberg had a degree in engineering and worked for a short while for the San Francisco’s Water and Sewers Department (which perhaps honed his sense of the absurd, if anecdotes about a city’s treatment of sewage are anything to go by), his ambitions lay in the direction of cartooning from a very early age. His first comic, after a couple of years of being a sports cartoonist, was The Look-A-Like Boys, published at the beginning of the century (1907-1908) by the World Color Syndicate. In parallel, he was also working for the New York Evening Mail, for which he created the short-lived Reincarnation, a goofy, modern-day take on historical characters. His next attempt at a series is what initially made him famous (after which he went on to even greater fame): he produced around 450 Foolish Questions between 1908 and 1910; the very first one, published on October 23, 1908 was prosaically titled ‘Foolish Question No. 1’. Questions remained as witless as ever, but the answers got kookier and more surreal over the years!

Comic Monthly no. 10 (1922). Other issues of Comic Monthly offered reprints of contemporary strips, like Polly & Her Pals, S’Matter Pop?, Little Jimmy, etc.

FQ continued all the way into 1939 with plenty of enthusiasm from readers (who started sending in their own daft questions). It even inspired a song by Billy Murray. Here are some postcards:

In 1909, Goldberg expanded the FQ world into a Sunday strip, Don’t Some People Ask the Biggest Fool Questions?, which collected previously published strips by grouping them into tiers (and occasionally padding this format out with new artwork). In 1912, he went on to unleash the madcap inventions he’s remembered for today upon the world in the shape of The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, A.K., then shifted to political cartooning (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948) in 1938, and then recycled himself as a sculptor in the 1960s. Truly a life filled to the brim with adventure!

The examples below have been scanned from Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations (Early Comics 1909-1919), published by the wonderful Sunday Press in 2017. I highly recommend it; abounding in bonus materials, it also has two introductions for the price of one, namely one by Goldberg’s granddaughter Jennifer George, and another written by comics historian Paul C. Tumey (author of the equally magnificent tome, SCREWBALL! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny – read a review of it by Eddie Campbell* here). Goldberg’s sense of the absurd is truly a delight, and I dare you to not giggle while perusing these.

~ ds

* Another WOT favourite that we never really got around to talking about. I will, however, refer you to this interesting discussion about comprehending/perusing comics, in which Cambpell conjures an entertaining mental image, relating to his appearance on TV to talk about why ‘some people just can’t read comics’: « My blather would have been mercifully cut because I launched into an insane mimicry of a theoretical middle-aged woman in tears from not being able to interpret the TV guide. »

Behold… the Great Shnozzola!

« That’s the conditions that prevail! » — Jimmy Durante

Today, we salute noted vaudevillian, piano player, comedian, singer, film and radio star, raconteur and unlikely comics legend James Francis “Jimmy” Durante, born on this day, February 10, in 1893 (as it was a Friday, the family presumably fasted or had fish for dinner). He truly was a master of all media, as you’ll witness.

This early bit of biography appeared in Juke Box Comics no. 4 (Sept. 1948, Eastern Color); it was illustrated by Ed Moore. Hear Cantor and Durante reminisce about their early days on this 1947 episode of The Jimmy Durante Show.
A passing mention of old Jimmy, from Nyoka the Jungle Girl no. 24 (Oct. 1948, Fawcett). Writer and artist unknown.
An early cover by Dick Ayers (1924-2014), this is Jimmy Durante Comics no. 1 (Oct. 1948, Magazine Enterprises).
The second and final issue of Jimmy Durante Comics (Winter 1948-49, Magazine Enterprises).
Mr. Durante rates a smashing musical appearance in this Rube Goldberg Device daily strip (Apr. 14, 1951, King Features Syndicate)… by Rube Goldberg, naturally.
And here’s the Shnozzola in the midst of a carnal melée of his fellow Old Hollywood legends (can you name them all, cinephiles?) This is Bill Griffith‘s cover for The Tiajuana Bible Revival Volume Two: Under the Stars in Hollywood (1977, Hooker, California: Paramounds Prod.). This was « An anthology reprinting 1930’s Tijuana Bibles, some of which were obscene parodies of popular newspaper comic strips of the day. Others made use of characters based on popular movie stars and sports stars of the day, such as Mae West and Joe Louis, sometimes with names thinly changed. Before the war, almost all the stories were humorous and frequently were cartoon versions of well-known dirty jokes that had been making the rounds for decades. » [ source ]
Pointillist-satirist Drew Friedman‘s immortal Jimmy Durante Boffs Young Starlets first saw print in National Lampoon vol. 2 no. 78 (Jan. 1985).
Durante briefly pops up (with the Checkered Demon!) in the second half of a truly all-star underground comix jam involving R. Crumb, Steve Clay Wilson (1941-2021… he left us just three days ago, aged 79… RIP), Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Rick Griffin, Robert Williams and Gilbert Shelton. It appeared in Zap Comix no. 12 (1989, Last Gasp). Cartoonists are generally fond of the Schnozzola, but Underground cartoonists are just mad about him.
And finally, on a gentler note… here’s a clearly affectionate caricature (a preliminary sketch) of the esteemed Signor Durante (aw, he’s blushing!) by the amazing Sam Berman (crayon on onionskin paper, 1947). Berman (1907-1995) was, deservedly, quite a big deal in his day; as the erudite Drew Friedman told Print Magazine in his quality of co-curator of the 12 Legendary Caricaturists You’ve (probably) Never Heard Of exhibition at NYC’s Society of Illustrators, Berman « was indeed famous and celebrated in his day. Beginning his career in the late 1930s, he created iconic sculpted caricature covers for Esquire featuring their new mascot “Esky” (created by Berman) for an entire year. He created the sculpted caricatures of the leading actors (Fredric March, Carole Lombard, etc.) for the opening titles of the 1937 classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, did huge amounts of work for all the top magazines and newspapers of the day, including for Mark Hellinger’s popular column, created close to 60 amazing full-color portraits for the 1947 booklet The NBC Parade of Stars, drew children’s books, and arguably his most famous creation, the opening caricature of Jackie Gleason rising over Brooklyn for “The Honeymooners,” although he was never credited on the show for drawing that image, nor in any books. He then inexplicably went into map-making and faded quietly into obscurity. »

To wrap things up, here’s Jimmy D. and Frankie S. duetting in Russian. And why not? Happy birthday, Jimmy, wherever you are (and do say hello to Mrs. Calabash!)

-RG