Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Book Review: Cheap Laffs

Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item
Mark Newgarden and Picturebox, Inc.
Harry N. Abrams 126 pages $30.00

There is absolutely no good reason for Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item to exist. It serves no pedagogical purpose, tells no vital story, and has nothing to say about the state of the world today. I read it from cover to cover.

Like the completely worthless junk it celebrates, Cheap Laffs is one of those books you buy for yourself when you feel that you already own everything you could ever need – although, at 30 bucks a copy, it’s a bit steep for a trashy impulse purchase.

The creators of this loving homage to fake vomit, sneezing powder and X-Ray Specs might argue that the plastic tricks and rubber gizmos are a form of Pop Art, or, as the introduction puts it, are “product(s) of questionable quality, taste, originality, and necessity …doomed to remorseless disposal … shar(ing) direct kinship with all the truly significant art forms of the twentieth century.”

Not the nicest way to sum up, say, the films of Alfred Hitchcock or David Adams Richards’s novels (and I suspect the above statement is made with a full dribble glass’s worth of play bravado). Apply the claim to the silly stunt art of Jeff Koons or the oeuvre of Anna Nichole Smith, however, and you might have an argument. Contemporary culture has been periodically plagued by one-liners and slapstick creations meant to shock, like a joy buzzer, and then wear off – but that’s been true of culture since at least the Middle Ages. Have you ever actually read a medieval liturgical pageant play? They’re not exactly big on theological finery, but the monsters and floods and fiery wheels in the sky are pretty cool.

Of course, the great thing about gag items and novelties is that they are not Art. You can enjoy them without feeling guilty that you are not giving them enough time, because the jokes they carry are meant to take mere seconds to recognize – and you never have to confess that you don’t get what the creator is trying to say. Nobody expects you to be smart at parties about fake dog poop.

So, I advise skipping most of the introduction to Cheap Laffs, unless you are truly interested in the history of the mass production of toys, mid-20th century North American capitalism and the after-effects of WWII on humour, or the vaudevillian-like lifestyle of the gag makers. Big whoop.

You can come back to all that art history jazz later, after you’ve read up on such choice items as the Beatnik Beard, a self-adhering strip of greasy fun fur designed to make the wearer look “Crazy, Man!”, or the Trick Smoking Monkey - a nicotine-addicted plastic simian, complete with his own miniature cigarettes (made of harmless rolled paper, sadly), that was such a rage in the 1960’s that it spawned a rash of copy-cat smoking pets. I wonder if anyone has attempted to sue the manufacturer for inciting cigarette addiction?

Many of the novelties lovingly chronicled in Cheap Laffs will be familiar to anyone over 30. I will never forget my first Squirt Ring (nor will my brother – he still can’t abide a recipe calling for lemon juice) or the Yakity-Yak Talking Teeth that disappeared mysteriously in the glove compartment of my mother’s car, or my failed attempt in grade three to shoplift a Whoopee Cushion.

However, even the veteran junkaholic is unlikely to be familiar with the 1950’s Worry Bird - a dour, very phallic statuette meant to be, ahem, stroked when one was overwrought by life’s woes. The Bird’s bulbous head was draped in a curly rabbit fur shawl, just to clarify the situation.

Not direct enough, need to go even farther below the belt?

Apparently, no washroom was complete without the Royal Flush, a cloth toilet seat cover showing a hillbilly (a popular subject with the insensitive gag industry, as were fellow targets “belchers”, “rubes”, and “coons”) attempting to end his yokelish life by flushing himself down the toilet. Silly hillbilly – his will to live would easily have been restored by the hilarity of Laff Tissue, a roll of toilet paper generously endowed, panel after panel, with ribald jokes, the kind involving liquor, a fat wife, and a Jayne Mansfield lookalike.

And you thought the fifties were all about repression and starched twin sets. Douglas Sirk lied.