“A Word with Punch,” 1847

Word with Punch cover

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.”

Bunn in Punch, 1845

“The Poet Bunn” seen by Punch, Oct. 11, 1845.

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.

Fake Warren's Blacking ad from A Word with Punch

A fake ad twists Lemon.

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!

Caricatures of three Punch men

Mr. Punch’s “puppets” in Bunn’s parody.

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.

Real Punch covers from the 1840s

Richard Doyle’s 1846 and 1847 Punch covers; the latter was used until 1956.

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

“The Bilioustine,” 1901

Bilioustine and Philistine covers

“The Bilioustine’s” two issues and the Dec. 1901 Philistine.

Parody Of: The Philistine. Title: “The Bilioustine.” By: Bert Leston Taylor.
Dates: May and October 1901. Published By: William S. Lord of Evanston, Illinois.
Availability: Free online here; print copies findable but pricey.

“The Bilioustine” may have been this country’s first full-length magazine parody, though no one thought to make that claim when it was published back in 1901. It’s still one of the funniest, thanks to the wit of author Bert Leston Taylor and the barn-size targets provided by Elbert Hubbard and his self-published organ, The Philistine.

Elbert Hubbard photo


Elbert — not to be confused with L. Ron — Hubbard is dimly recalled today, but at the dawn of the last century he was one of the most famous writers and lecturers in America. A former soap salesman with a facile pen and an Barnum-like gift for publicity, Hubbard combined a passion for the arts-and-crafts movement of the 1890s with a keen eye for the main chance. After making his name with a collection of moralizing travel sketches called Little Journeys to the Homes of Good Men and Great, he launched The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest in June 1895 as a platform for his thoughts on culture, politics and other matters. Within a few months he was printing it himself on second-hand equipment in an old barn near East Aurora, New York; he dubbed this set-up the Roycroft Press, after a family of 17th-century English printers. Its success drew other artisans to New Aurora, and by the time of Hubbard’s death in 1915 there were more than 500 “Roycrofters” working in 14 buildings.

The Philistine was one of hundreds of self-consciously “little” magazines that sprang up in the mid-’90s, partly in reaction to the emergence of mass-market behemoths like the Ladies’ Home Journal (born 1884) and Saturday Evening Post (1821, but reborn 1897). Unlike those titles, the little magazines offered “a small or odd-shaped page, fine typography and printing, and cleverness and radicalism in criticism,” in the words of historian Frank Luther Mott. They had names like Angel’s Food, the Bauble, the Goose-Quill, Jabs and Stiletto. Most struggled to find readers and had the lifespan of mayflies.

Two pages from the May Bilioustine

Fake ads and deep thoughts in the May “Bilioustine.”

The Philistine was an exception: It ran 20 years and reached a circulation of 200,000 — ten times that of its best-known contemporary, the Chap-book. A typical issue contained 32 pages of editorial matter and at least as many of ads, all printed on brown butcher paper and bound with gold thread. Though its contributors included Stephen Crane and Oz illustrator W.W. Denslow, The Philistine‘s voice was pure Hubbard. He wrote countless signed and unsigned editorials, poems and homilies — including “A Message to Garcia” (1899), a brief sermon on duty in war and workplace that struck a chord with the millions and entered countless anthologies.

As a writer, Hubbard had two voices. The first, cosmic and gaseous, can be heard in his introduction to the Philistine’s first issue. After comparing “the true Philistine” to Don Quixote, he charged his readers to

rescue from the environment of custom and ostentation the beauty and goodness cribbed therein…, go tilting at windmills and other fortresses — often on sorry nags and with shaky lances, and yet on heroic effort bent. And to such merry joust and fielding all lovers of chivalry are bidden: to look on — perhaps to laugh, it may be to grieve, at woeful belittling of lofty enterprise. Come, such of you as have patience with such warriors…

…and so on. His other style was down-to-earth and satirical, with echoes of Ambrose Bierce: “Genius may have its limitations,” he wrote, “but stupidity is not thus handicapped.” He flayed the publishing industry, fellow writers, the professions, organized religion, imperialism, sexual prudery and the tyranny of marriage. (“Never get married in college; it’s hard to get a start if a prospective employer finds you’ve already made one mistake.”) For a while he mocked the idle rich, but scorn turned to flattery as his own fortunes waxed. “The Superior Class is a burden,” he wrote in 1903; “no nation ever survived it long.” Ten years later he was attacking trust-busters for destroying “creators of wealth” and golfing with John D. Rockefeller. Similarly, his sermons against monogamy tapered off after his first wife divorced him and he married his mistress.

Four pages from the Bilioustine

A “Little Journey” to Fra McGinnis in the October issue.

“It would be possible to place a higher value on Hubbard’s writings, essentially vulgar though they were, if one could believe in the man’s sincerity,” Mott wrote, but those writings were manna for a culture-starved audience hungry for something high-minded but not too demanding. Meanwhile, his more sober contemporaries tended to find Hubbard’s prose impossible and his affectations maddening: The flowing locks, the wide-brimmed sombrero, the soulful posturing. He styled himself “Fra Elberto” like some medieval monk and called his followers “the Society of American Immortals.” Much of this was tongue-in-cheek, but still….

B.L. Taylor photo


One of the eye-rollers was Bert Leston Taylor, whose “A-Line-o’-Type-or-Two” debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1901 and has been called the first modern newspaper column; at its peak it appeared in hundreds of papers in North America and Europe. On April 12, 1901, Taylor introduced his readers to one “Fra McGinnis,” spiritual leader of “the Society of Boy Grafters” and purveyor of “gold bricks and other articles calculated to con the community, especially that part of it which is female and literary and adores speaking eyes and conversational long hair.”

Within a month, Taylor-as-McGinnis had written enough material to fill a small magazine, and in May he collaborated with publisher William S. Lord of Evanston, Ill., on the first issue of “The Bilioustine: A Periodical of Knock.” It wasn’t the first burlesque of the little-magazine phenomenon, but it was the first to target a specific title. Taylor was a former typesetter, and he made sure his 24-page, 6″-by-4″ pamphlet resembled The Philistine in layout, page size and paper stock. It was an immediate hit. “As a well aimed shaft of ridicule there is nothing to equal it. As a piece of humor it is a gem,” wrote the Denver Republican. The St. Louis Mirror called it “one of the best parodies issued in the last twenty years.” A second issue with new material followed in October to similar acclaim.

Cover of the Book Booster

1901 Bookman spoof.

Nothing about The Philistine escaped ridicule in “The Bilioustine,” from its sampler-like homilies set in decorative borders (“Art is long — Why not hair?”) to its advertisements for deluxe editions “carefully impressed upon What’ell hand-laundered paper, bound in burlap specially imported from Burlapia, and stenciled by the cunning hand of Saintess Genevieve.” Other ads pushed the Fra’s “Little Journeys to the Scenes of Famous Explosions” and hinted at his dalliances under the heading “Affinities Wanted, Female.” The essays sandwiched between these notices were all either by or about Fra McGinnis, the latter rather more skeptical than the former.

Taylor and Lord issued a third magazine parody in 1901, a takeoff of The Bookman called “The Book Booster” that did to the publishing industry what “The Bilioustine” did to Hubbard. It sold well, too, but Taylor appears not to have tackled the form again. Ten years would pass before the Harvard Lampoon issued its first full-length magazine parody, and twenty before “burlesque numbers” became a regular feature of Life and Judge. Although “The Bilioustine” failed to start a trend, it set a high standard, as can be seen in the pages posted here. – VCR

William Hone’s “A Slap at Slop,” 1821.

Front page of A Slap at Slop.

Parody Of: The New Times (London). Title: “A Slap at Slop.”
Parody By: William Hone. Date: 1821. Pages: 4.
Contributors: William Hone (writer), George Cruikshank (art).
Availability: PDF of pamphlet version online here.

Portrait of William Hone

William Hone, 1780-1842.

William Hone may have been the original pop-culture fanatic. Born in London in 1780, he was drawn to the printing trade and radical politics while still in his teens. In the 1790s he was a disciple of free-thinker William Godwin and briefly belonged the London Corresponding Society, one of the pro-French groups targeted in The Times’s 1794 self-parody, “The New Times.” In 1810, he began writing and publishing attacks on the authorities that were scathing, witty and abundant — 175 separate titles between 1815 and 1821.

Hone collected printed ephemera most of his life, from old-master prints to election handbills, and he was fascinated by parodies. He loved to present his radical satires as if they were children’s stories, advertising circulars and — most notoriously — books of religious instruction. Around 1817, he issued three political satires modeled on three core documents of the Church of England: the Catechism, the Liturgy and the Creed. In one, “The Late John Wilkes’s Catechism,” he even parodied the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Lord who art in the Treasury, whatsoever be thy name, thy power be prolonged, thy will be done throughout the empire, as it is in each session. … Turn us not out of our places; but keep us in the House of Commons, the land of Pensions and Plenty; and deliver us from the People. Amen.”

Seeing an opening, the Tory government charged Hone with three separate counts of blasphemy, claiming it was prosecuting him not for his politics but for mocking religion. The trials were held on consecutive days in December 1817, all before the same judge but with different juries. Acting as his own lawyer, Hone won three acquittals and national fame as a champion of free speech. His most effective tactic was showing jurors dozens of religious parodies similar to his own that had not been prosecuted. Collecting these whetted his interest in the subject, and he spent the next 20 years gathering material for a book. Unfortunately, the book never materialized, and his collection disappeared after his death in 1842.

Hone's Buonaparte-phobia


Hone never copied a specific publication in detail, but a few times he came close. One such was “Buonaparte-phobia, or Cursing made Easy” (1815), a half-sheet poster mocking The Times’s nonstop abuse of Napoleon. Hone made The Times look ridiculous simply by knitting the more spittle-flecked passages of its anti-Boney editorials into one 3,000-word rant. He attributed these attacks to a “Dr. Slop,” after the incompetent obstetrician in Tristram Shandy, but their real author was a quarrelsome and widely disliked reactionary named John Stoddard. Originally a lawyer, Stoddard began contributing to The Times in 1810 and was named editor in 1814. His duties included writing the “leading article” (i.e., lead editorial), but his “style was as violent as it was personal,” the paper’s official history said: “In 1814 The Times was ridiculed as a magazine of curses.” Essayist William Hazlitt, who despised Stoddard’s politics despite (or because of) being his brother-in-law, wrote in 1823 that Stoddard’s Times “might be imagined to be composed as well as printed with a steam engine.”

The Times axed Stoddard at the end of 1816, suspecting him of disloyalty. Two months later, he reappeared as editor of a rival paper, The Day, which he soon renamed The New Times (no kin to the 1794 parody); the real Times sniffily dismissed it as “the New, or Mock, Times.” In 1820, Hone renewed his attacks on Stoddard with a reprint of “Buonoparte-phobia,” followed by a four-page, broadsheet parody of The New Times titled “A Slap at Slop and the Bridge-Street Gang.” (The latter was a pro-government propaganda group whose real name was the Constitutional Association for Opposing the Progress of Disloyal and Seditious Principles.)

Slap at Slop pages 2 through 4

“A Slap at Slop,” first edition, pages 2-4.

Like the 1976 film Network, “A Slap at Slop” anticipated media trends that seemed outlandish but later became standard. Its front page consisted entirely of ads, as was the custom, but Hone gave them the bold headlines and large illustrations previously seen only in posters and handbills. “My first intention was to parody Slop’s paper, ‘The Slop Pail,’ or ‘Muck Times,’ throughout,” Hone wrote. “But … what could I do with thoughts as unquotable, as confused, as ill-conceived, as ill expressed as that puissant Lord’s — without depth or originality — as plentiful and superficial as duckweeds…. Under the stringent necessity of varying my original plan, … I have parodied some of the features common to the Slop Pail, and supplied … a Sketch of HIS LIFE — filling the remainder of the sheet in my own way.” In that sketch, Hone described Stoddard as a man who “mistook passionate heat for the enthusiasm of genius, a habit of loud talking for talent, a ranting way of writing for reasoning, and pertinacity of manner for firmness of character.”

Hone’s “own way” ranged from pure nonsense to blackest humor: One fake ad pictured the Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo and current Tory leader in the House of Lords, as a turbaned “Indian juggler” forcing Britannia to swallow his sword. “Wanted To Go Abroad,” said another ad, “a stout, active, stone-hearted young man, of a serious turn, as an apprentice in the military business, and to assist as a missionary. Apply at the Bishop and Bayonet, Westminster.” Directly below that was a picture of “A Nondescript” — a creature made up of mitres, crowns, boots and other symbols of authority — accompanied by several hundred words of pure gibberish.

Real and fake Warren's Blacking ads

A real Warren’s Blacking ad (left) and the “Slap’s” parody, both drawn by George Cruikshank.

The “Slap” also contains the earliest known parody of a national ad campaign. Robert Warren’s Shoe Blacking had made itself famous with a drawing of a cat startled by its own reflection in a freshly polished boot. In Hone’s version, a rat sees himself wearing a judge’s wig — a hit at politician Charles Warren (no kin to Robert), a former radical who had cynically turned Tory in exchange for a Welsh judgeship worth 1,000 Pounds a year. The fact that one of the Tory leaders had given his name to the Wellington boot must have been an irresistible set-up for Hone and his illustrator, cartoonist George Cruikshank. It didn’t hurt that Cruikshank had also drawn the original ad.

Cruikshank cartoon of Southey and Prince of Wales

Poet Laureate Robert Southey and King George IV, as seen by George Cruikshank.

On inside pages, Hone parodied Robert Southey’s overblown ode to the late King George III, “A Vision of Judgement,” as “A Vision of Want of Judgement.” Southey was a fire-breathing radical who moved right relatively young; by 1813 he had ingratiated himself with enough Top People to be named Poet Laureate, much to his old comrades’ disgust. Cruikshank’s illustration shows the poet serenading his new muse: an overweight, underdressed  George IV strumming a lyre. Hone also mocked Southey’s naked careerism in an ad for “Golden Ointment for the Eyes,” which the poet testifies is “astonishing! I immediately looked two ways at once, and saw my way clear to the Laureateship. I have seen in the dark ever since!”

Topical humor seldom outlives the issues that inspired it, and many of the jokes in “A Slap at Slop” have become the stuff of footnotes. What comes through undiminished is the force of Hone’s personality. He hated unearned privilege, militarism and servility, and he loved working people, old paper, liberty and forceful writing. And he really, really, really didn’t like John Stoddard. — VCR (edited 4/11/18 to correct info on Charles Warren)


The Harvard Lampoon’s very first “Life,” 1896.

The Harvard Lampoon's first Life parody, 1896.

Parody OfLifeTitle: “Life.” Parody In: Harvard Lampoon.
Date: March 26, 1896 (Vol. 31, no. 1), pp. 10-11. Length: 1 page (on 2 Lampoon pages).
Contributors: W. Ames ’95, J.P. Welch ’97. Availability: Lampoons from the 1890s turn up periodically (pun) on the web; good luck finding specific issues.

Life, a national comic weekly founded by Lampoon graduates, was the perfect target for the very first magazine parody, which appeared in a regular issue in 1896. Later that year the Crimson was parodied for the first time and other magazines were assailed in turn by the ‘Lampy’s Contemporaries’ series.'” — Harvard Lampoon Hundredth Anniversary Issue, February 1976, p. 8.

A page from a real 1896 Life.

The real Life in 1896.

Life the humor magazine — sometimes called “the old Life” — was launched on Jan. 1, 1883 by a group of Harvard grads, two of whom, Edward S. Martin and John Tyler Wheelwright, had helped start the Lampoon seven years earlier. The two magazines stayed close: Life began as a kind of national Lampoon, so to speak, and as Life’s circulation grew the Lampoon began to resemble its offspring.

This displeased the Crimson, which wrote sternly in 1887: “The [Lampoon] is a college paper and should retain its character as such and should not aim to be a cheap copy of a paper that has no more originality or excellence than is found in Life.” The Lampoon echoed the “Crime’s” putdown of Life in the parody’s “Editorial,” which took some nerve: Life had started running one-page parodies of Punch, The New York Tribune and others under the heading “Some of Life’s Contemporaries” in 1885. The Lampoon’s only variation 11 years later was to drop “Some of.”

Two items from the Lampoon's Life.

Two items from the Lampoon’s “Life.”

Unlike its rivals Puck and Judge, which ran full-color political cartoons every week, Life stuck to chaste black and white and affected to be above party politics. Editor John Ames Mitchell advocated Good Government by the Better Sort of People, a kind of Gilded-Age version of Limousine Liberalism. He hated vivisection, child labor, and impoverished English Lords who cynically marry beautiful American heiresses for money. The last is an oddly specific issue, but Life was obsessed with it.

Cartoons from the Lampoon's Life, 1896.

The Lampoon pits Life’s Charles Dana Gibson (left) against Punch’s George du Maurier.

Robert Benchley and Gluyas Williams targeted Life’s foibles in 1911 in the Lampoon’s first issue-length magazine parody, then went on write and draw for the real thing in the ’20s. But when they and other members of Algonquin set moved to a new magazine called The New Yorker, the Lampoon’s affections followed. The Depression killed Life’s ad revenues, and it folded in 1936 after selling its name to Time Inc.’s new picture magazine for $92,000. Thirty-two years later, ‘Poonies Henry Beard, Doug Kenney and Rob Hoffman quarterbacked a parody of that “new” Life, which got them thinking of producing a second national Lampoon. It debuted in April 1970, this time with the “N” capitalized. — VCR

“The New Times,” 1794

The Times' self-parody 1974

The Times parodies itself, 1794

Parody Of: The Times (London). Title: “The New Times.”
Parody By: The Times — and the Tories.  Date: Sept. 6, 1794. Pages: 1.
Availability: Reprinted much reduced but still legible in The History of the Times, Volume I: The Thunderer in the Making (London: Times Publishing Co., 1935).

The earliest known parody of a specific publication was a full-page self-parody in The Times of London on Sept. 6, 1794.  Like the Boston Globe’s April 2016 vision of Donald Trump as president, “The New Times” was set in a future dominated by the worst imaginable leadership — in this case, French revolutionaries and their English sympathisers. Reformers across Europe had hailed the French Revolution in 1789, but after five years of guillotines and chaos most Britons considered it a Bad Thing. So did The Times, which was only nine years old in 1794 but had already adopted an omniscient tone and an unswerving conservatism.

“The New Times” filled all of page 3 of the four-page Times, displacing the usual news and commentary. Like The Times‘s real front page, it consisted mostly of government announcements, theatrical notices and ads. Instead of the customary lion and unicorn in the real Timess nameplate, “The New Times” displayed a guillotine surrounded by crossed pikes hoisting the cap of liberty and a blood-dripping severed head. The paper’s date was given as the “First Year of the Republic, one and indivisible, Saturday, June 10, 1800.”

In the 1800 of “The New Times,” pubs serve wine instead of beer, Parliament has been destroyed, and St. Paul’s Cathedral has been converted into a “Temple of Reason.” A brief notice celebrates the discovery of a method for “making bread of decayed bones,” and the shipping news blandly records the arrival of “a French brig, laden with guillotines for use of the fleet.”

An exchange-rate table from "The New Times"

In the 1800 of “The New Times,” zero interest in the pound.

The humor of “The New Times” is pitch-black and savage, and much is still funny in an Onion-like way. The dozen or so English radicals mocked by name in its columns were probably less amused, since many of them were awaiting trial for High Treason. These included the well-known polemicist John Horne Tooke and the left-leaning Unitarian minister Jeremiah Joyce, who was depicted in “The New Times” celebrating the destruction of Parliament. (Fortunately, all were eventually acquitted.)

Real Times front page from 1794.

The real Times in 1794.

The inclusion of Tooke, Joyce and other defendants was no accident, for “The New Times” was created by the same government that prosecuted them. The parody’s author is unknown, but the official History of The Times says it was sponsored by Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, who was Home and War Secretary under William Pitt and head of the Tory Party’s dirty tricks division. According to scholar Marcus Wood, Pitt and Dundas “built up a propaganda machine which attempted to discredit radical thought and to magnify the dangers of radical activity.” It seems to have worked: The Tories came to power in 1783 and held it for the rest of the century.

Much of Dundas’s propaganda was slipped to friendly newspapers, who published it unaltered; in return, the papers received inside scoops, government contracts and other goodies. Times founder and publisher John Walter, for example, was appointed Printer to His Majesty’s Customs and given 300 pounds a year. “The tradition of journalists selling their consciences to politicians was old when Walter established his daily newspaper, and its age had deprived it of infamy,” the anonymous author of the History noted dryly. Infamous or not, one fruit of that tradition was the first high-profile newspaper parody. —VCR