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The Meta Whoopee Cushions of my Youth

Got a phone message from a reporter at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, said he’s doing a story on Johnson Smith Co., a mail order company that since 1914 has sold “novelties”: whoopee cushions, plastic dog turd, fake vomit, exploding cigarettes, garlic gum, etc. Now, I just happen to know something about Johnson Smith, because as a college freshman I took a pop culture course with Bob Jackall, who later introduced me to Erving Goffman and suggested I send my term paper — let’s call it a cultural history of the whoopee cushion — to a journal. (In 1991 the Journal of Popular Culture published it. No, don’t go looking for it. Please don’t feed the juvenilia.

Turns out that Johnson Smith is based in Sarasota, so Billy Cox, the reporter, gets the assignment to write about them as a Halloween-themed feature.

This is how Cox quotes me:

Also among those countless young hordes enamored of JSC’s comic-book ads peddling garlic gum and X-Ray Specs was Michael Erard, who wrote an undergraduate essay precocious enough to rate a spread in the “Journal of Popular Culture” in 1991.

Now a freelance journalist who doubles as an editor at the University of Texas school of nursing in Austin, Erard grew up in rural areas of Colorado and New Hampshire and says JSC provided him with an idealized link to another life.

“Novelties are sort of like prosthetics or crutches that allow you to break the social frame if you’re not gifted in storytelling or joke-telling,” he says. “I never went to those urbane parties in the city, and the adults in my family weren’t into practical jokes. So I have these vague memories of saving my quarters and fantasizing about how great it would be to hang around adults, with that kind of humor, and bust up parties with phony blood and things of that nature.”

A couple of things: I like the novelties-as-humor-technologies thesis, which I developed in my paper, better than I like the crutch thesis — a whoopee cushion is sometimes the better way to get a laugh; and if I use a hammer to nail nails, it’s not because my hands are too soft. The frame notion I didn’t discover until later, reading Goffman and then Gregory Bateson (whose essay, “A theory of play and fantasy,” has been a touchstone).

In Um… there’s a chapter about Kermit Schafer, the blooper empresario, who grew up with Allan Funt in Brooklyn; blooper humor works partly because they break the audience’s expectations. (Not all audiences catch instances where their expectations aren’t met, which is where Schafer stepped in to save the day — in the book I argue that the bloopers are mini lessons in how to scout for such frame breaks.)