Comedy is hard, and the past was no better. Just look at, say, what 19th-century jerks considered acceptable territory for an April Fools’ Day prank.
Yet some jokes are timeless. Take, for example, this relatable juxtaposition of the dapper self-image of a cartoon man alongside his actual appearance under “flashlight”—a joke that still lands today, give or take a centuries’ worth of developments in fashion and camera technology. Though this comic might seem indistinguishable from one of today’s most recognizable internet meme formats, and it’s indeed been making the rounds on Twitter after being dug up by Tumblr blog Yesterday’s Print, it is actually about 97 years old.
This two-panel comic was first published in Judge, a satirical magazine that ran from 1881 to 1947. Judge was a contemporary competitor to Puck, another rag from which it took much of its staff, but later faltered under the Great Depression. (The modern-day market for written humor is similarly bleak.)
In particular, it ran alongside a series of jokes titled “With the College Wits” in the July 1921 issue. At that time, the flash bulb was not yet in commercial circulation. The “flashlight” in question would have actually referred to flash lamps that burned flash powder or magnesium ribbons to produce an intense light source—a somewhat dangerous technology involving large amounts of noxious fumes and sprays of molten metal. This actually makes the comic way funnier to me because it would suggest some other poorly drawn cartoon guy is risking third-degree burns to take the shitty photo, but your mileage may vary.
In any case, it’s entirely possible that this joke goes back further, given that the humor of the “College Wits” did not appear to be 100 percent original. The flashlight gag has stood up somewhat better than some of the other material on the page, though, such as the following gem:
A Clean Record
Ethel—Did you have the porch seat painted yesterday?
“Well, Harold and I sat on it last night and Harold got paint on his trousers.”
—Indiana Crimson Ball
Or this one:
She—If I kiss you this once, will you promise never to ask me again?
He—Certainly, dear. If you consider it unnecessary.
So yeah, comedy is hard. But sometimes it might also turn out that someone beat you to that joke construction a century ago, and you’re not quite as clever as you think.
[H/T Twitter user wida, Yesterday’s Print, and colleague Matt Novak]
Update, April 18th, 2017: This post has been updated to give credit to Yesterday’s Print, a Tumblr blog dedicated to finding “parallels of past and present” that appears to be the sharp eye behind the original find.