Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rube Goldberg on Barbers, Radio, and Insurance Salesmen (1930)

Today, screwball master Rube Goldberg is known for his crazy inventions. However, the vast majority of his work is not about inventions, but instead offers funny and enlightening observations of people's weirdness.

By 1930, Rube Goldberg had published at least one cartoon a day for the last 23 years. That's over 8,000 published cartoons. With the exception of his Sunday comic, Boob McNutt, a shaggy-dog comedy-adventure serial, all of Goldberg's cartoons were based on keen observations of human peculiarities. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this remarkable humorist's long and massively successful career is that he managed to to stay awake to humanity's worst sides without buying himself a ticket to the Laughing Academy. There was that one time, though...

In 1928, while on vacation, Rube Goldberg had what felt like a heart attack. After being assured by several doctors that his ticker was healthy, Goldberg reluctantly consulted a psychologist. As his biographer, Peter Marzio, writes in Rube Goldberg: His Life and Work (1973, Harper and Row), "For most of his life Rube regarded psychology as a kind of mental alchemy -- a complete fraud created by simpleminded intellectuals. His cartoon This is only a psychological cartoon, so that lets us out clearly depicted his feelings."

Nonetheless, the psychologist offered Rube some valuable insight. He observed that Rube was a hypersensitive person who let himself become too bothered by what he saw as flaws in others. Probably working from Rube's own unpublished memoirs, Marzio quotes the psychologist: "If there is something wrong with other people, it is their own cause for worry, not yours. Don't let little things bother you. Don't look for weaknesses in other people. Ignore them. If you think you are better than other people, don't try to prove it all the time. They'll find it out."

Easy for the shrink to say!

These shrewd words of wisdom were completely counter to the basis of Rube's career and success, which was built on observing what is "wrong" with people.

After 1928, we can chart a shift in Rube's work. He continues to poke at human foibles, but there is a greater sense of self-awareness in the work, as the cartoonist realized that he was also a member of the human race and subject to the same flaws. The humor cuts deeper as a result. Goldberg did his best work in 1928-32.

After a few years, however, Rube shifted away from his direct observational humor and became an awkward storyteller, as he tried to find new -- less abrasive forms for his creativity -- even creating a popular straight soap opera strip for a while, Doc Wright (1933-34). He never went back to the observational comedy strip.

Goldberg's daily comic of the 1920s and 30s shifted its form nearly every day. In the three examples below (scanned from my collection) from April 1-3, 1930, you can see that, while the format shifted, the essential theme is the same -- the difficulty we humans have sometimes in connecting.

I live two doors away from a 70-year old barber who keeps this tradition alive and well...
Rube Goldberg - April 1, 1930
(from collection of Paul Tumey)

Radio was about 10 years old when Rube cartooned the next strip. The other night , Claire and I went out to dinner. I observed a couple at a nearby table on their evening out, too. They were both absorbed in their cell phones and said almost nothing to each other. A sad, sad story.
Rube Goldberg - April 2, 1930
(from collection of Paul Tumey)

I just hired a guy to help me buy insurance -- I've tried, but just can't figure out when I am getting what I need and when I am getting ripped off. Goldberg had an uncanny sense of finding the timeless aspect in situations where most cartoonists would only write about the topical. We can read these 80 year-old cartoons and still appreciate the humor.
Rube Goldberg - April 3, 1930
(from collection of Paul Tumey)

Well, gosh -- this quickie post turned into a mini-essay on a turning point in Rube Goldberg's life and career. I feel like one of his chatty barbers!

Mixed Nuts Wednesday tomorrow

Yesterday's Milt Gross Monday 
My latest Screwball Sunday essay (Boody Rogers and Bill Holman go meta-screwball)

All My Best,
Screwball Paul

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