I was looking at some classic old humorous books from the 19th and early 20th centuries and found that, although written and illustrated at least 100 years ago, they still are funny and make me laugh. Humor that is based on topical events seems more dated than that which deals with universal themes and one can learn a lot from these inspiring writers and artists. I especially like the nonsense poems and their accompanying illustrations and I thought I would share some of these delightful pieces for those who may be unfamiliar with these works.
One thing that I noticed was there seemed to be an obsession with bizarre noses in a couple of the books. English artist and writer, Edward Lear (1812-1888), who popularized the limerick and nonsense songs and poems that were published in his Books of Nonsense, was especially fond of exaggerated noses. There were a number of limericks devoted to this part of the anatomy and here are a couple of my favorites.
Lear’s ink drawings are pure whimsy. He was a landscape painter and illustrated books of natural history and his free and imaginative ink drawings are in complete contrast. Yet there is something very tangible about those birds sitting on a nose and Lear’s poems and “sight gags” still have great appeal.
The other nose related reference occurs in American writer Max Adler’s (Charles Heber Clark 1841-1915) Out of the Hurley-Burly or Life in an Odd Corner (1874). We have the Australian edition published by E W Cole (188?). The book is a portrait of Clark’s life in Conshohocken, PA, disguised as fiction and is filled with the comic illustrations of A B Frost. There are also some funny poems. The following Tim Keyser’s Nose tells a wonderfully ridiculous story that is still enjoyable today.
From noses we move onto another American writer’s take on mythological creatures. Artist Oliver Herford (1863-1935) wrote witty and humorous poetry. We have a first edition copy of The Mythological Zoo (1912) that came from a relative and I recently had a good look at the book. The poems, although written over 100 years ago are still a lot of fun, together with Herford’s amusing illustrations. I have included a couple of poems that show his clever turn of phrase and a modern view of some ancient beasts.
Every summer someone will still say the annoying words in the last line of The Salamander. Herford had a sharp wit and has been compared with Oscar Wild, as someone who also made very incisive quips.
Cartoons can sometimes become dated when an audience can no longer relate to the subject matter. If it deals with obsolete attitudes or long forgotten events the humor is often lost. Universal themes about basic human nature are less likely to date. These types of cartoons can be found in Melba’s Gift Book (1915), instigated by opera singer Dame Nellie Melba to raise money for The Belgium Relief Fund during WWI and full of works by Australian artists and writers. I’ve singled out a couple of the cartoons that deal with human nature in an amusing way.
With a change of clothing those partygoers could be a modern couple and procrastination is still a problem for creative people. Everyone needs a nagging pet like that cat.
Sticking with the theme of funny pictures we can still laugh at the visual and physical antics of such comedic masters like Charlie Chaplin in old films. Chaplin’s little tramp trapped in a sleeping lion’s cage is a hilarious example. Classic “man out of his comfort zone,” that creates great comedy.
Humorous Music is a bit more difficult. Some old comedy songs just don’t transfer to the present day but there are others that have travelled better. For example Ragtime Cowboy Joe was first recorded in 1912 by Bob Roberts, done again over the years by various performers, including a The Chipmunks version in 1959 and has been given the Muppets treatment. It is still a popular song for the ukulele. I think this a lot to do with the catchy turn of phrase and crazy images it brings to the mind. And it’s a cowboy song.
As well as the feel good value of old humorous works, studying these also provide timeless clues about the crafting of words and visual art for its comic effect. To make others laugh is a wonderful aim. We all need a bit of nonsense in our lives.