The New Yorker’s “Paunch,” 1934

Punch and Paunch covers

The covers of Punch for August 30, 1933, and The New Yorker’s 1934 parody.

Parody Of: Punch. Title: “Paunch.” In: The New Yorker, January 13, 1934, pp. 17-24. By: Thurber, Benchley, White, Irvin, etc. Availability: Sometimes findable on eBay, Abebooks, etc.; archived online at newyorker.com (subscription required).

January 13, 1934, New Yorker cover

TNY, 1/13/34

“By humorous [art] we do not mean comic stuff, captioned by a wisecrack, no custard-pie slapstick stuff,” Harold Ross wrote potential contributors to the brand new New Yorker in 1925. “We want our things to be humorous from a sophisticated viewpoint. . . . We want to record the situations of everyday life among intelligent and substantial people as do the English magazines, notably Punch, except that our bent is more satirical, sharper.” How much sharper can be seen in the January 13, 1934, issue, which devoted eight pages to “Paunch,” The New Yorker’s longest and most elaborate parody of another publication.

And about the only. E.B. White created a double-page spoof of Manhattan newspaper features for the November 17, 1928, issue that looks like a collage of clippings from the originals. Just weeks before Pearl Harbor, Russell Maloney and Rea Irvin linked two of Time Inc.’s favorite subjects — cheesecake and catastrophe — in a black-humored, three-page “photo” essay called “Life Goes To The Collapse of Western Civilization” (Oct. 25, 1941). Otherwise, The New Yorker’s parodies — even Wolcott Gibbs’s famous Profile of Henry Luce in Time-style (“Time . . . Fortune . . . Life . . . Luce,” Nov. 28, 1936) — look like pages of The New Yorker.

Three other New Yorker parodies

First pages of The New Yorker’s spoofs of newspaper features (1928), Time (1936) and Life (1941).

“Paunch” appeared when the real Punch was at low ebb, a plight most critics blamed on Sir Owen Seaman, its editor from 1906 to 1932. Seaman’s morale-boosting during the First World War burnished Punch’s image, but he was a Victorian by temperament and no fan of the slangy, quick-witted, disrespectful and often absurd humor of the Roaring Twenties. “He did not see Punch as an organism or plan ahead, looking to see the way humor was changing, learning from successes and failures in the past,” R.G.G. Price says in A History of Punch (Collins, 1957). “He saw Punch as a National Institution and about as liable to change as the Nelson column. Its function was to act as a fixed point for a bemused public until a normal condition of stasis was resumed.” In practice, this meant freezing Punch’s cover in 1847, its layout in the 1860s and its prejudices in 1897 (the year Seaman joined the staff). Price, a longtime Punch insider, tries to accentuate the positive in his semi-official history, but his account of Seaman’s last decade is damning:

It is difficult now [1957] to realize the hysteria with which Punch was reviled in this period and beyond. . . . It was not even wholeheartedly on the side of reaction. It was tolerant, avuncular and patronizing. Criticism came from Right and Left, though every attack on class changes, Americanization of English speech, modern art or the modern girl was received with clucks of approval in hunting lodge and rectory and in the sad sitting rooms where daughters of military men gave music lessons. . . .

[Seaman’s] Punch has an air, at times, of providing jokes for those who found joking difficult. . . . The more one thinks about this policy the odder it seems. For a humorous periodical to be aimed at the unhumorous was as absurd as for a musical periodical to be aimed at the tone-deaf, but it is quite clear, by the tone of the correspondence from some of the older readers. . . that Seaman’s Punch did arouse a frenzied and deadly loyalty among bores, the naive and the prematurely old. [A History of Punch, p. 225-9]

Seaman reluctantly handed the editorship over to E.V. Lucas at the end of 1932, but “Evoi,” as he signed his Punch work, was no revolutionary. The Punch mocked in “Paunch” was essentially Seaman’s, and it showed all of its 93 years.

"Two pages from "Paunch"

“Paunch” teased Punch’s obesessions with Hollywood films and gangland Chicago in “Charivaria;” James Thurber’s “Beast” and Franklin P. Adams’s “Caterpillar” mocked its prose and verse.

The New Yorker, on the other hand, was at the top of its game in 1934. Its circulation was around 125,000 and climbing, and in the six months from January through June it ran more ad pages than the Saturday Evening Post, which had led the field for decades. Its original rivals, Judge and the pre-Time Inc. Life, were dying, and Norman Anthony’s lowbrow Ballyhoo wasn’t in the same class. The New Yorker’s masthead featured — or would have featured, if it existed — James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Franklin P. Adams and Ring Lardner in addition to White, Gibbs and Irvin. All contributed to “Paunch,” infusing it with more A-list comic talent per square inch than any other parody in history. (Citation needed.)

Belcher cartoon and parody

Cartoonist George Belcher in Punch (left) and in Rea Irvin’s parody.

The New Yorker didn’t trumpet “Paunch’s” authors at the time, but its online index says Thurber wrote “The Happier Beast,” a sendup of the cozy woolgathering that subbed for wit in too many “light” essays. Benchley downshifted his usual befuddled persona into complete ninnyhood for a featherweight dialogue called “Hyacinths for Pamela.” Gibbs, The New Yorker’s film critic, aped English insularity in “Mr. Paunch’s Cinema Review.” “The Mall,” by White, and “The Intent Caterpillar,” by Adams, nailed two of Punch’s favorite forms of bad verse: the sticky-sentimental and the mechanically clever. Uncredited newsbreaks and fake ads sent up Punch’s long-winded quips, its fixations on Chicago gangsters and Hollywood films, and — most hilariously — its tin-eared attempts at American slang. Though “Paunch” wasn’t promoted on the cover, the issue it ran in became the first in The New Yorker’s nine-year history to sell out on newsstands. (The second sellout contained Gibbs’s Time parody, which suggests a demand for such things.)

Two images from "Paunch"

Thurber’s “Laocoon;” Yanks imitating Brits imitating Yanks in a fake ad.

Irvin did most of the drawings, moving from elaborate crowquill to charcoal in the styles of Bernard Partridge, E.H. Shepard, George Belcher and others. The ringer is Thurber’s “Laocoon,” a spoof of Punch’s fondness for allegorical political cartoons based on classical myths. Nothing like Thurber’s doughy men and garden-hose snake would have appeared in the real Punch of the time, which may be the point: It’s a deliberate wrong note played outside Punch’s narrow range of “good” cartooning.

Punch's 1954 New Yorker parody

Revenge, served cold

“Perhaps because of its nearness to the original, this parody was not received with much merriment in the Punch office,” R.E. Williams understates in A Century of Punch Cartoons (Simon & Schuster, 1954), “but when the magazine wholesalers phoned in to ask if they would be sued for libel if they handled the issue, the answer was a dignified negative.” Revenge came years later in the form of another parody, also eight pages, in the April 7, 1954, issue of Punch, called “The N*w Y*rk*r.” It sold out, too. — VCR

Wisconsin Octopus Parodies, 1920-1959

Six Octopus parodies.

The Magazine

Before The Onion, the most famous humor magazine to come out of Madison was the University of Wisconsin Octopus, b. November 1919, d. 1959, after UW officials found the May issue so offensive they extinguished the title. The editors did ask for it: On one page they reproduced an official warning to quit printing smut like the previous issue; on the others they parodied Playboy. The cover of “Blayboy” — a takeoff on Playboy’s for the same month — showed the mag’s eight-handed mascot joining three startled young ladies in a bubble bath. Bye bye, Octy.

Covers of Playboy and parody

Though they shared a cover date, Playboy’s May issue came out several weeks before Octy’s “Blayboy.” Right: Official displeasure

Sixty years on, Wisconsin seems willing to forgive and remember: There are now 281 Octopus issues in the UW Digital Collection, where they can be read by just anybody. “Blayboy” is represented only by a cover and its smutty predecessor is missing entirely, but most of the rest are on hand. Rather than link to individual issues, here’s the whole set.

First Octopus cover

Vol. 1, no. 1

Octy was UW’s third humor magazine, following the Sphinx (1899-1913) — also online, though I haven’t found any parody issues — and the short-lived Awk (1915-1917). It was started privately by three students who turned it over to the school after two profitable issues. The U. mostly left it alone, though a “risque cartoon” in 1928 “led for a time to a closer review of all material by the faculty majority on the Octy board of directors,” says UW’s official history. Despite vowing in its first editorial to make “no attempt to issue numbers regularly,” Octy appeared eight to ten times a year for 23 years before pausing for World War II. Its return in 1946 was misnumbered Vol. 25, an error never corrected.

1939's one-page Life spoof

Spoofing Life, 1939

Octy flourished in the ’20s. The history tells of “glossy, quarto-sized issues running as many as sixty-four pages, colored covers, clever cartoons and graphics by student artists, and humorous prose and poetry.” At the depth of the Depression issues shrank to sixteen pages and the price fell from a quarter to a dime, but for most of the ’30s Octy was “a handsome, professional-looking magazine, better in design that most of its peers, and nearly as attractive as Vanity Fair or [The] New Yorker, on both of whom it had a noticable crush,” according to uwalumni.com. It ranked high in college humor polls and sometimes addressed serious subjects: A 1938 story by future New York Times reporter Leonard Silk exposed the Fascist leanings of a new Wisconsin-based third party called the National Progressives, and in 1939 the mag ridiculed the DAR for not allowing Marian Anderson to sing at Independence Hall.

The first sign of postwar trouble was a nearly year-long gap after the December 1951 issue. When the mag reappeared in November 1952 it was briefly called The New Octopus, though editor Ken Eichenbaum joked(?) that it looked “so damn much like the old one that six of us have decided to hang it up and transfer to Marquette.” He didn’t even mention the long hiatus. Octy retrenched to six issues a year, briefly tried a “more mature” policy and hit the financial rocks in 1955-56. “Too many students are READING the Octy without BUYING it,” grumbled an ad in the May 1956 issue, which begged for a thousand students to pledge — “NOW!” — to subscribe next fall. They didn’t, and Octy vanished for three semesters, reappearing with three issues in spring 1958 and three more in ’58-59. The last twitch was an undated reprint collection the next year that failed to spark a fourth revival. Three decades would pass before UW produced another nationally known humor rag.

1951 DailyCardinal parody

Cover and three inside pages from Octy’s 1953 “Daily Cardinal” issue

II: The Parodies

Octy's 1920 "Vie Parisienne" cover.

May 1920

Though it modeled a cover on France’s racy La Vie Parisienne its first year, Octy produced few parodies before the 1930s and only about two dozen total. Nearly half were of the student newspaper, always impersonated under its real name: the Daily Cardinal. Most Cardinal parodies appeared as magazine pages on authentic (and cheaper) newsprint, though in 1953 a tabloid was printed separately and folded into the March number. (Such inserts tend to stray; the UWDC has the mag but no paper.) Octy’s “Cardinals” were dryer and funnier than most such efforts and not afraid to razz local heavyweights, including Wisconsin’s junior U.S. Senator from 1947 to 1957, Joe McCarthy.

Covers of Chicago Tribune and Time parodies

The Tribune was Octy’s only off-campus newspaper target, Time the only magazine hit twice.

Octy’s first big parodee was the Police Gazette, traditional reading matter of barber shops and saloons. It was a relic of grandpa’s day even in 1929, but the Bootleg Era saw the 1890s the way later generations saw the ’20s: as the last time people knew how to have fun. This foolery was followed by a jaundiced look at Hearst’s jingoistic Sunday magazine The American Weekly in 1935 and an even sharper mauling of the arch-Republican Chicago Tribune in ’38, cowritten by Leonard Silk. Octy didn’t attempt a cover-to-cover parody until 1949, when it put Republican Gov. Oscar Rennebohm, a very dark horse in the 1952 presidential stakes, inside the red borders of “Timf.” After that, parodies came out almost annually.

Pages from Octy's Life parody

Collegiate whimsey meets Korea and custom cars in Octy’s “Liff,” 1953

The 1949 Badger yearbook called “Timf” the magazine’s “best post-war issue” and claimed it outsold the Daily Cardinal. The 1950 edition called “The Old Yorker” “the editorial and financial high point of the year.” My choice for best mock Oc is 1953’s “Liff.” Too many college parodists were content to focus Life’s wide-ranging lens on their own anthills and play the findings relatively straight; Octy highjacked the format to satirize Hollywood movies, Congressional hearings, cheesecake photos and Life itsef: “We do not believe in slanting words or pictures,” the lead editorial declared. “People look too thin that way.” Even the Korean stalemate was played for laughs in the “war memoirs” of a male-turned-female photographer named after Marguerite Higgins but inspired by Christine (née George) Jorgensen, who in early 1953 was as famous as Mamie Eisenhower.

Real 1950 Flair cover

Flair, Feb. 1950

Octy’s oddest parody was “Flare,” a sendup of Flair. The brainchild of Fleur Cowles, wife of Look publisher Garnder Cowles, Flair was a lavish monthly blend of heavyweight bylines, trendy arts coverage and innovative graphic design, featuring pekaboo covers, half-size and translucent pages, bound-in booklets and accordion foldouts. It appeared for exactly one year starting February 1950 and was four months dead when “Flare” appeared in May 1951. Two years later, a parody of campus mag The Wisconsin Idea coincided with the real thing’s last issue. Thereafter Octy picked sturdier targets: Life, Mademoiselle, Time again (with Athletic Director Ivan B. Williamson on the cover) and, fatally, Playboy.

Octopus Parodies of the Wisconsin Daily Cardinal, 1932-1958:

(Issues are listed by volume and number in the Digital Collection, so I’ve included that.)

  • The Daily Cardinal, Vol. 13, no. 6, Feb. 1932 (16 pages + 1 cover)
  • —–, Vol. 15, no. 6, Feb. 1934  (18, some with real ads)
  • —–, Vol. 18, no. 6, Feb. 1937  (13, inc. 3-page “Collegiate Digest” photo section)
  • —–, Vol. 20, no. 8, April 1939 (4)
  • —–, Vol. 22, no. 3, Nov. 1941 (4)
  • —–, Vol. 25, no.6, Feb. 1947 (4)
  • —–, Vol. 26, no. 6, Feb. 1948 (8 + 1c)
  • —–, Vol. 27, no.7, March 1949 (8 + 1c)
  • —–, Vol. 28, no. 3, Nov. 1949 (8 + 1c)
  • —–, Vol. 29, no. 5, Feb.-March 1951 (8, called “1950 [1951]” online)
  • —–, Vol. 31, no. 4, March 1953 (insert, not online)
  • —–, (“Tri-Weakly Cardinal”), Vol. 32, no. 5, March 1954 (8)
  • —–, Summer 1958 (4, tabloid)

Other Octopus Parodies, 1920-1959:

  • La Vie Parisienne (“La Vie Wisconsienne”), Vol. 1, no. 5, May 1920 (cover only)
  • Police Gazette, Vol. 11, no. 1, September 25, 1929 (16 + 1c)
  • American Weekly (“American Weakly”), Vol. 17, no. 4, Dec. 1935 (10) (called “Vol. 15 [17]” online)
  • Chicago Daily Tribune, Vol. 20. no. 4, December 1938 (4)
  • Life (article: “Life Discloses the Happy Weekend of a Wisconsin Coed”), Vol. 21, no. 3, Nov. 1939 (1)
  • Time (“Timf”), Vol. 27, no. 5, Jan. 18, 1949 (44 + 4c)
  • The New Yorker (“The Old Yorker”), Vol. 28, no. 8, April 1950 (40 + 4c)
  • Flair (“Flare”), Vol. 29, no. 7, May 1951 (36 + 4c)
  • The Wisconsin Idea (“The Wisconsin Idear”), Vol. 31, no. 4, March 1953 (10)
  • Life (“Liff”), Vol. 31, no. 5, April 1953 (40 + 4c)
  • Mademoiselle (“Madmoiselle … and the Arts”), Vol. 33, no. 2, Dec. 1954, (28 + 4c)
  • Time (“Tum”), Vol. 34, no. 4, Feb. 1956 (28 + 4c)
  • Playboy (“Blayboy”), May 1959 (not online)

Sources:

E. David Cronon and John W. Jenkins. The University of Wisconsin: A History: Volume III: Politics, Depression, and War, 1925-1945 (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1994), pp 626-629.

Matt Rogge. “Through the Eyes of the Octopus,” uwalumni.com, posted July 12, 2017.

— VCR

Corey Ford’s “Mis-Fortune,” 1934

Corey Ford's Misfortune

Parody Of: Fortune. Title: “Mis-Fortune.” In: Vanity Fair, March 1934, pp. 22-23, 62.
By: “John Riddell” (Corey Ford).  Availability: Findable; usually pricey.

March 1934 Vanity Fair cover

Dwight Macdonald dismissed Corey Ford’s parodies as “mild” and didn’t include him in his magisterial Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm – And After (Random House, 1960). I’m hesitant to disagree with Macdonald — his book is merely the best thing ever done on the topic of literary parody — but he was strict grader, and Ford was something of a class clown: Like Mad a generation later, he had no qualms about putting authors in their own universes or breaking the fourth wall for the sake of a joke.

Ford went directly from Columbia University, where he edited the Jester and (therefore?) didn’t graduate, to the pages of Life, Judge and, especially, the old Vanity Fair. From the late ’20s until VF’s demise in 1936, he was in nearly every issue with a feature, profile or “Impossible Interview,” the last illustrated by the great Miguel Covarrubias. Meanwhile, his alter ego “John Riddell” wrote a monthly parody — usually of a recent bestseller, but every now and then of a magazine. Before tackling Fortune, he spoofed Time as “Time-and-a-Half” in March 1933 and George Jean Nathan’s American Spectator (no kin to the current title) as “The American Spectre” two months later. There may be others; I haven’t seen every issue. But I doubt any top “mis-Fortune.”

Last page of "mis-Fortune"

“Mis-Fortune,” continued.

Henry Luce planned Fortune to be a big, beautiful celebration of American capitalism, but it had the ill luck to debut in February 1930, just as the Depression was settling in. It was still big, beautiful and resolutely pro-Free Enterprise (and expensive, going for $1.00 a copy when Time was 15 cents and the SatEvePost a nickel), but in the ’30s it spent as much time diagnosing Big Business’s problems as cheering its success. The early Fortune’s specialty was exhaustively researched, multi-part dissections of publicity-shy corporations and complex business arrangements. Many of them were written by bright, young Ivy Leaguers (all male, of course) with a leftish outlook, including Archibald MacLeish, James Agee and future anthologist Macdonald. “There are men who can write poetry, and there are men who can read balance sheets,” Luce once said. “We made the discovery that it was easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers.”

Page from the real Fortune in 1934

The real Fortune, August 1934

Depression-era readers were hungry for facts, and Fortune supplied them, sometimes in a breathless gush out of scale with the info’s importance. “Mis-Fortune’s” opening riff on “an ordinary paper-clip, magnified to one thousand times its natural size,” is absurd but not unjustified. For comparison, here’s a snippet from the real Fortune for August 1934: “The average Greyhound [bus] is a body job thirty-three feet long, and reaches the average legal width of ninety-six inches (the average Buick is seventy-two inches wide). When loaded to its capacity of thirty-three passengers, it weighs – nickelwork, insignia, pretty curtains, and all – eleven tons. If you as a private citizen should be so rash as to offer to buy it, it would cost you $13,500….” And so on for several hundred more words.

Ford is particularly good on Fortune’s bombastic/omniscient house style: For maximum impact, imagine “mis-Fortune” being read by a 1930s newsreel narrator. Like all Ford’s VF parodies, “mis-Fortune” is brief — too brief to duplicate the lushness of Fortune’s art and photo spreads — but it makes the most of its two facing, almost Fortune-size pages. Its three photos of regimented pencil sharpeners, typewriter keys, and workmen not only mock Fortune’s taste for heroic industrial photography, they make a sharper point about the Big-Business Mentality than anything in the text. As a parodist, Ford was too fond of his subject’s foibles to savage them, but he was delighted to point them out. Class clowns usually are. —VCR