Parody Of: Punch. Title: “A Word with Punch.” Date: November 11, 1847.
Parody By: Alfred Bunn. Format: 12-page magazine. Contributors: Albert Smith, Shirley Brooks, George Augustus Sala. Availability: Nowhere online; held by the British Library and a few other collections.
Strange as it seems, the first (known) magazine parody was conceived not by professional humorists but by one of their victims. Punch’s first star writer, Douglas Jerrold, was nicknamed “the Little Wasp” for his stinging humor and slight frame. In 1843, he began skewering a flamboyant theatrical impresario named Alfred Bunn, whom he called “the Poet Bunn” for his supposed literary pretensions. Jerrold never explained why Bunn was chosen, but for four years Punch ridiculed his productions, his management of Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters and, especially, his 1846 breach-of-contract suit against soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale.”
In October, a fed-up Bunn met with editor Albert Smith and writer Shirley Brooks of The Man in the Moon, a year-old humor monthly, who had their own quarrels with Punch. With another Moon man, George Augustus Sala, they created a twelve-page “squib” that turned the tables on Bunn’s chief tormentors at the magazine: Jerrold, editor Mark Lemon and writer Gilbert á Beckett. “A Word with Punch” isn’t an exact replica — there’s no political cartoon and too little art in general — but it’s close enough to make browsers look twice. It’s about the size and heft of Punch, with the same two-column format and the same price, three pence. The cover blares the word “Punch” in the real thing’s distinctive lettering below the much smaller “A Word with.” Below that, Mr. Punch stands glumly in a pillory amid discarded toys resembling his contributors while dog Toby hangs from a gallows.
On the back, a parody of the famous Warren’s Blacking ad shows Lemon reflected as an ass; another ad offers old issues of Punch “in any quantity, and at any price, on the premises.” Inside are several columns of Punch-like anecdotes, puns and poems, but the heart is Bunn’s seven-page takedown of Jerrold, Lemon and á Beckett, called “Wronghead,” “Thickhead” and “Sleekhead” respectively. With relish and in detail, he exhumes their many theatrical flops, reprints their favor-begging correspondence and nit-picks their verse for faulty images, a blood sport back then. He calls Lemon “The Literary Pot-Boy” because he once ran a tavern. After quoting a bankruptcy petition from 1834 listing thirteen(!) failed magazines á Beckett had owned or edited, he tut-tuts:
Editor of thirteen periodicals and lessee of a theatre into the bargain! And all total failures! Poetry, prose, wit, humour, conceit, slander, sarcasm, and every order of ribaldry going for nothing! Where has been the public taste? – the people ought really to be ashamed of themselves for persisting in not buying so much genuine genius!
He grudgingly acknowledges Jerrold’s “infinite ability” before calling him “one of the most ill-conditioned, spiteful, vindictive and venomous writers in existence. … [W]hatever honey was in his composition has long since turned to gall.” After all that, speaking directly to Punch, he warns:
In carrying out the purport of this little squib, I have confined myself … to matters of a literary nature…. Your puppets, who have assailed, ridiculed and caricatured me for years, without any reason whatever, will not … abandon this branch of their trade now that I have given them reason…. In that case, I am prepared to pay back any compliment I receive with the highest rate of interest allowed by law, and shall let you, and perhaps them, into a secret or two worth knowing.
Ever the showman, Bunn had 10,000 handbills printed to promote the parody and arranged for national distribution. It appeared on November 11 and may have sold as many as 6,000 copies.
The response from Punch was … silence, at least in print, though there were reports of staff being dispatched to buy up all the copies of “A Word with Punch” they could locate. The attacks on Bunn ceased immediately and were never renewed, and the “secret or two” he claimed to know stayed secret; one Punch biographer called it “the only defeat of its kind in the magazine’s history.” As a bonus, two months later the courts ruled for Bunn against Jenny Lind, who had to pay him £2,000 damages. — VCR