MICHAEL H. PRICE: Moe Lester – Román Noir, or Roamin’ Nose?
The ungainly fellow pictured alongside is a concoction of my grammar-school days, modeled originally after an authoritarian physical-education teacher who took immense delight in reminding us younger kids that soon we would matriculate to the intermediate grades where he held sway. Talk about your incentives for under-achievement!
Because one must ridicule that which one cannot combat outright, I proceeded to reduce this intimidating presence to a cartoon character – exaggerating his pronounced nose and chin, as well as his intense Texas-redneck dialect – and set about subjecting him to sundry humiliations within the pages of a Big Chief composition tablet. These pages in turn were duly, if guardedly, circulated for the amusement of sympathetic classmates. The confiscation of these prototypical Underground Comics (ca. 1955) was long in coming but inevitable: I was having too much fun in plain view of a cheerless society.
The agent of my character’s simultaneous popular discovery and christening was one Mrs. M.E. Jenkins, third-grade home-room teacher and Tireless Champion of the Status Quo. Inquiring as to the contents of my sketch-pad, Mrs. Jenkins noticed its star player straightaway – and invited me to explain his raison d’etre to the assembled class. I improvised: “Aw, he’s just this goofy ol’ guy who gets in trouble a lot.” Then she asked: “And what is his name, Michael?”
Gulp! Well, now, no way was I going to identify my dreaded life-model – and so I made up an alias on the spot: “His name is Moe Lester, Miz Jenkins.” (Pre-emptive crisis-control tip: Never speak in puns to people who neither Get It nor want to do so.)
“A molester!?!” bellowed Mrs. Jenkins, grabbing me by one ear and leaving the classroom to its own snickering devices as she hupped me down the cavernous hallway to the Principal’s Office.
Not quite nine years of age, and already the author of a Banned Book. Over Mrs. Jenkins’ shrieks of outrage, Principal Howard Amick prevailed with somewhat a saner voice: He found the pages worth a chuckle but, even so, pronounced them a Waste of Talent. Damnation by faint praise, in other words, within a public-school system whose elementary art curriculum consisted of finger-painting and construction-paper cut-outs.
The menacing teacher who had served as an unwitting life-model for Moe Lester found himself transferred before I could reach fourth grade. So whew, already. But others like him have cropped ever since and all along, in the form of schoolyard bullies, college deans, petty bureaucrats, dim-witted newspaper editors, police officers of a maverick bent, and so forth. Abuse of authority is rampant, as if you didn’t know, and those who can’t bring themselves to buy in are well advised to find what humor they can in its ridiculous essence.
A recurrent, if not entirely current, incarnation of Moe Lester dates from 1969-70, when as a college undergraduate I based a revamped version upon such influences as (1) a uniformly lunkheaded and malicious campus-cop department at West Texas Suitcase University, (2) Lyndon “Beans” Johnson, and (3) a big-shot rancher-turned-political agitator named J. Evetts Haley, who at the time was holding forth as the Phantom President of W.T.S.U., my alma mater, such as it was and is – in hopes of marginalizing the on-campus outcroppings (yes, even in the provinces) of such influences as the Panthers and S.D.S. A primary aestheticable influence would involve the likes of Basil Wolverton, Walt Kelly, Gene Ahern, Al Capp, and Boody Rogers – masters of convoluted wordplay and cartoonish exaggeration. Many of the more recent Moe Lester pages, including a 1993 appearance in Heavy Metal and a couple of stories-in-progress with fellow Texas-bred cartoonist Frank Stack, date from times more recent. But the template was struck long beforehand.
Not to suggest that Moe’s misadventures are political cartoons in any sense of social betterment or constructive protest. They are ridicule, at best – and mere silliness, oftener than not – a reductio ad absurdam of the hostility and intolerance that are part and parcel of the Human Condition. A spot of sarcasm helps somehow to keep the irritants at bay.
In a monumental treatise called What’s Funny – and Why (1939), the humorist and educator Milton Wright cited an ancient story about “the time the family played a game to see who could screw their features up to look the funniest.”
“It was Grandma … who was declared unanimously to be the winner,” wrote Wright. “But Grandma wasn’t playing.”
Thus did Prof. Wright nail what might be the funniest brand of humor, and probably the oldest, in a laugh-provoking heritage that is older, even, than humankind. A fellow funnyman, Fred Schwed, Jr., argued to the contrary in a 1951 memoir, The Pleasure Was All Mine (illustrated, incidentally, by Pogo Possum’s Walt Kelly). Schwed maintained that spontaneous witticisms, such as “‘cute’ sayings of small children … are not true humor, of course; they are charming misconceptions of the state of the world.”
But funny is funny, whatever its trigger. In the opinion of Milton Wright, the first guffaw ever guffawed must have belonged to some primeval simian – and the provocation must have been some dead-earnest fellow creature that wasn’t trying at all to amuse.
It became my good fortune to discover that Wright volume during 1956-57 in the library of the West Texas grammar school where, as a third-grader of rebellious leanings, I had begun drawing up the adventures of Moe Lester in parody of that bullying phys-ed teacher. I recognized instinctively that my despotic inspiration was not attempting to be funny – no, he fancied it his mission to intimidate – but his very attitude rendered him laughable, in a scary way. It took Milton Wright’s What’s Funny – and Why to explain.
Fortunately for my immediate age-group, this teacher did not toil at the primary levels and indeed would be reassigned to some other school altogether before my own class could advance to the fourth grade. But the gent also doubled as a recess supervisor – in which capacity he made the playground feel more like a boot-camp obstacle course than any jolly refuge from the drudgery of the classroom.
I grew to welcome his intrusions, in a sense, for often he would wax philosophical – commandingly so, of course – in an attempt to impart to us “childeren” (his terminology) the wisdom born of a career devoted to the molding of pre-adolescent citizens.
“Now, y’all boys, yew’re comin’ up to ’bout th’ age where yew might be temptered t’ try a-smokin’ some of these here cig’rettes,” he would tell us, even as he tapped a Lucky Strike (unfiltered) from its deck and fired it up. “But I mean t’ tell yuh whut: Don’t do it!
“B’cause if yew start a-smokin’ ’fore yew’re old enough, it’ll stump your growth, an’ I ain’t a-jokin’!”
A pure-dee Moe Lester moment if I ever witnessed one.
And with such an abunderance of raw material polluting the very air, I seldom found it necessary to contrive any jokes to go along with my childish stabs at cartooning.
Right around this time, I discovered that book of Milton Wright’s – and through it, the traditions of the Irish Bull, of Prof. Spooner and his tongue-tangled monologues, of Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop, and of such wordplay-laden institutions as Deep Southern minstrelsy, with its reciprocal class-and-color yawps, and vaudeville and burlesque. To say nothing of Mad magazine. None of these grand insights, however, came close matching to the uncalculated comic tension engendered by Moe Lester’s original model, who was at once terrifying (because he wielded authority, along with a spanking-paddle) and hilarious (because he was a self-important nincompoop with a drawl as thick as sorghum molasses).
Moe Lester has found many supplementary inspirations over the long stretch: An aunt who wanted her garden walkway paved with “gobblestones,” and who took up hobbies “to break the monopoly.” A highfalutin’ neighbor-lady who had outfitted her house with “lavalier” (read: louvered) doors; a college professor who lectured authoritatively on the origins of “the Angelican Church.” A local steel-buildings contractor who announced his “speciality” to be the construction of “quonsick huts” and “jeeze-o-delic domes.” And so on and so forth, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, al fresco.
But it is that dedicated P.E. instructor of my careworn schoolboy days who looms largest in the monument to nincompoopery that Moe Lester has built, blunder by blunder. The published accounts should bear a grateful dedication to the life-model, but for my inability to recall the old honyock’s name.
The Forgotten Horrors books of Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price are available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.
Artwork Copyright. © 2007 M.H. Price. World Rights, Wheelwrights and Hard Rights to the Jaw Reserved.