Rando Family (NSFW)! Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter (1972)

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Because I am incapable of truly living in the moment, I spend a lot of time Wiki-surfing obscure and semi-obscure cartoons from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Sometimes this aimless meandering is inspired by work, like when I explored the myriad fascinating, shitty and fascinatingly shitty iterations of Scooby-Doo through the years, from “He’s got an annoying kid sidekick!” (Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo) to “Why can’t Scooby-Doo also be Twin Peaks?” (Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated). 

These weird cyber-rambles occasionally lead to discoveries like 1972’s Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter. The hour-long special was part of a ABC Saturday Superstar Movie and The New Saturday Superstar Movie line-up that presented such apogees of televisual excellence as Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig Meet the Groovie Goolies and Yogie’s Ark Land. 

The premise for Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter would have thrilled my comic strips-obsessed younger self, who not only devoured the comics section every morning but aspired to be a comic strip artist despite an almost impressive lack of drawing talent. In a possibly related development, I did not lose my virginity until late in my teens and to this day have difficulty making friends. 

The exhilarating conceit behind Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter is that all of your favorite comic strip characters were going to be united where they most belong: on television, alongside 75 other comic strip characters. 

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Exciting, right? Charlie Brown and Dennis the Menace joking around like some proto- Who Framed Rogger Rabbit wonderland, right? Well, those characters aren’t technically in the special, nor are a lot of your other favorite characters. Hell, even Ziggy is not in this shit. 

No, only King Features Syndicate characters are featured in this bad boy, and while that includes some big names like Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead, Beetle Bailey and The Phantom, there are also a lot of also-rans like that creepy bald fuck Henry, Tiger and Quincy.  

I have to give credit Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter credit: if it had introduced Dagwood Bumstead without constantly referencing his love of oversized sandwiches, I would have violently rejected it. Thankfully, that’s pretty much all there is to his character: his wife is hot as shit, and probably fucking around on him, and the motherfucker loves to put meat and cheese in between slices of bread in epic proportions. 

What could possibly bring these titans of mirth together? The plot revolves around the special’s most inspired character, Professor Morbid Grimsby, an evil genius who’s half Snidely Whiplash and half Donald Trump. Like Trump, he’s hung up on status and awards. He’s won six Meanie Awards, which is a prestigious, dynamic award that Donald Trump could have won many times but he turned it down because they said he would “maybe” win it and he said no way! 

 Bluto, you've done better. 

Bluto, you've done better. 

To ensure a seventh Meanie, Grimsby decides that he will rob the world of laughter by taking away the world's most beloved comic strip characters by luring them to his yacht the S.S Hilarious (incidentally the name of a Louis CK special!) and holding them all hostage so they cannot delight the public with their shenanigans. 

Early in the special, FAKE NEWS propaganda is issued, like the reassuring fiction that “The comics are responsible for a great deal of laughter.” I loved comic strips as a kid. Loved them. I was obsessed. Mild chuckles? Maybe? The occasional amused sigh? Sure. A great deal of laughter? Oh god no. 

The President of the United States, who would have been Nixon at the time, delivers dire news: that the world’s most popular King Features Syndicate characters—yes, even Quincy!—have gone missing. “With these comics gone the public will have nothing to laugh at!” The President insists in a panic, before delivering the zinger of a punchline: “except us politicians!” 

Except that this desperate, sad, strange man does not seem to be kidding. He informs us that, because politicians cannot stand being made fun of in cartoons, indeed they are so frail and delicate that if there were to be, say, an entire crowded field devoted to mocking the foibles of politicians, then the unruly masses would lose respect for democracy completely and anarchy would reign. 

The President insists of retrieving the comic strips icons most distributed by King Features, “The future of the entire American political system depends on it!”

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Nixon, that fucking pig, knows that if the ignorant populace isn’t losing their shit every morning at the morning paper’s The Katzenjammer Kids and Bring Up Father then they’d take up arms in violent revolt against their capitalist oppressors. Nixon knew, like Trump knows, that you have to keep the public distracted with bread and circuses, or new episodes of Young Sheldon and fresh Dilbert comic strips, or the streets will run red with the blood of the ruling class. 

Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter is like an early 1970s version of Cartoon All-Stars To the Rescue with a fraction of the star-power and a mission to spread the gospel of the King Features Syndicate rather than fight the scourge of drugs. 

Like Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, much of the camp appeal here lies in seeing overwhelmed TV schlock merchants try to unite a wildly disparate group of popular characters from TV and the funny pages in one crazily overstuffed extravaganza. Popeye subsequently has three weird tones that clash constantly. 

 No way they're not swapping partners with Hi and Lois at some point. 

No way they're not swapping partners with Hi and Lois at some point. 

First and foremost there’s the gag-driven comic strips-derived world of Beetle Bailey and Bringing Up Father and the rest of these corny characters from undiscriminating comics section. Then there’s the strikingly different animation of the dramatic comic strip characters who are sent to save the comical comic strip characters once they’re abducted. 

I’m talking dashing icons of yesteryear like Mandrake the Magician, Steve Canyon, Prince Valiant and Tim Tyler, whose macho heroics are homoerotic to an almost parodic degree. 

Finally, there’s the relatively clever character design of the Professor and his sidekick Bluto (of Popeye fame), who are animated like characters out of a Jay Ward cartoon. 

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The homoeroticism of the adventure sequences are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Popeye Meets the Man Who Hates Laughter’s kinky sexual undertones. 

A clearly hot to trot Olive Oyl sings an entire insufferable ditty about how hot she looks in her skimpy bikini while Popeye looks on with undisguised lust. Let’s just say that it doesn’t seem like he’ll need any spinach to get the blood pumping, if you know what I mean. 

Popeye shoots Olive Oyl a look like he’s so straight-up DTF that he’s about to whip out his trouser snake and make sweet passionate love to her in front of the entirety of the King Syndicate crew. Olive Oyl doesn’t croon a lascivious ditty so much as she implements nuclear-level public foreplay. 

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Olive Oyl’s lust can’t be contained. When Steve Canyon shows up alongside a bunch of other muscular, iron-jawed caricatures of macho masculinity she’s clearly down to seduce him and make Popeye her cuck. And Popeye would be into that shit! He’d be there, masturbating and crying while this real man had his way sexually with the woman of his dreams and the mother of his child. If you slow it down, when Popeye is yammering, what he's often saying is, "Cuck-cuck-cuck-cuck-cuck."

 It's everyone's favorite, Little Iodine! (her actual name)

It's everyone's favorite, Little Iodine! (her actual name)

I hear the initial title of Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter was Popeye the Cuck and featured Olive Oyl enthusiastically pursuing simultaneous sexual relationships with Mandrake the Magician but also baseball star Willie Mays and character actor Scatman Crothers, all with Popeye’s enthusiastic consent, sexual enjoyment and participation. But the network got cold feet and decided to make a lot of stuff that was initially very explicit more a matter of subtext. 

In many scenes it’s just barely subtext, however. Tom of Finland might as well have single-handedly animated all the “adventure heroes” scenes. They’re all full of impossibly buff, pretty, virile men bursting out of their tight trouser as they do manly things in such tight spaces that they perpetually seem just moments away from a lusty, full-on King Features Syndicate circle jerk. 

Let’s be honest, folks: if the King Features Syndicate circa 1972 were to be on one cruise together it would be no garden variety pleasure cruise, with midnight buffets and cheesy entertainment: it’d be a full on orgy at sea, a floating fuck fest featuring some of the most depraved and insatiable perverts ever to swan their way through a one-panel gag script making the beast with hundreds of sweaty comic strip backs. 

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If Popeye Meets the Man Who Hates Laughter were realistic, it would be be banned in every country and unreleasable in every form. We’re talking Dagwood Bumstead losing himself in an erotic wonderland where his every whim is some sick slave’s demand and Snuffy Smith and Barney Google discovering extreme, transgressive sides of their sexuality that they previously never even imagined existed. 

The phrase "shipping", which is fan fiction slang for a story where two well-known characters have a relationship, generally romantic in nature, is derived from all the fan fiction that was furiously composed after this special's release chronicling all of the fucking King Features Syndicate's characters were doing on their cruise ship/floating orgy. It refers to seminal fan-fiction texts like Hi & Lois & Dagwood & Bumstead where these beloved funny paper fixtures devolved into such a writhing, interchangeable mass of sweaty limbs and bodily fluids that you couldn't tell where Hi ended and Lois began. 

Let's just say that in the dirty, unedited version of Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter, which, to be fair, exists only in my dirty, weird mind, Dagwood would discover an intensely erotic new world where HE's the meat of the sandwich, sexually speaking. 

But no, Popeye is apparently going for a family audience, so instead of focussing on fucking, it follows the comic strip characters’ attempt to break through the professor’s harsh exterior so that it can introduce him to the joy of laughter. 

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And that, friends, is some bullshit because in 1972 and today, comic strips are closer to the enemy of laughter than its faithful handmaiden. I say that as a huge, huge fan. If a man truly hated laughter, the way I imagine Trump does, then newspaper comic strips would be your friend and ally, since there is absolutely zero chance that, say, a Nancy or Ziggy comic strip could make anyone laugh. Then or now. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The comic strips included here aren’t supposed to be funny. Far from it. They’re just supposed to distract you from the unrelenting, inexorable horror of contemporary life while you eat your cereal and drink your coffee. This passable oddity does that as well, and as poorly, as the myriad comic strips that make up its once-in-a-lifetime cast of characters, many of them terrible and already long forgotten. 

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