Gene Weingarten: Chewish humor

Gene Weingarten
Columnist November 20, 2012

When I told my editor the identity of the man I was about to telephone, he said, “Wow.” There really is no better introduction to this column. For nearly a quarter of a century — 1967 to 1990 — Jay Lynch was a main gag writer for “Bazooka Joe” comics.

Me: Bernard Malamud was heavily influenced by Henry James; James Joyce, by Thomas Aquinas. As a writer for “Bazooka Joe,” did you have literary influences?

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

Jay: Henry James and Thomas Aquinas.

Me: Mort, the character with a red turtleneck forever pulled up under his nose — he was a boy with voice but no mouth. He always seemed to me to represent a central duality of man: We wish to be heard, but we fear being misunderstood. Have I nailed it? Duality?

Jay: Sure. Why not? There’s a question, though, because in 1980, they pulled his turtleneck down, and showed his entire face, and changed his name to Red. That lasted a year or so, then they pulled it back up, and he became Mort again.


(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

Me: Wow. What was that about?

Jay: No idea.

Me: Why did Bazooka Joe have an eye patch?

Jay: I never asked. I always assumed it was a terrible bubble gum accident.

Me: Hemingway always secretly admitted that he was proudest of “The Sun Also Rises.” Do you have a secret favorite strip you’d like to share?

Jay: In the 1980s, Bazooka Joe had a girlfriend named Zena. So I had her call and order something with a credit card. They ask her name and her expiration date, and she says, “How do I know when I’m gonna die?”

Me: I remember that!

Jay: That was mine. It was actually original. Most weren’t. Most were very old jokes.

Me: I was going to say. I had a theory about that: Bazooka Joe and his friends seemed to live in a generic place, neither city nor country. A place of sharp colors and empty but spongy landscape that allows people to fall backward in astonishment but never get hurt; my conclusion was that they lived in some sort of post-apocalyptic dystopia where not much remained standing, everything glowed, and the inhabitants were left to mine whatever desperate humor they could from their bleak situation. It seemed recycled Depression-era humor.

Jay: Yeah, the jokes were around forever. I’d just change the cultural reference, say, from “ragtime” to “heavy metal,” and the gags were still functional.

Me: Isn’t that kind of lazy?

Jay: Sure. But there were only 50 jokes in a series, so I kind of had the idea if a joke was forgettable enough, when the kid gets to the joke the second time, it would seem new.

Me: Was pride involved in this process?

Jay: Pride?

Me: Yeah.

Jay: We were earning a living.

Me: Do you have another favorite joke of yours?

Jay: Once I had Bazooka Joe travel through time and space, and he was a millionaire, and he goes to an art gallery and buys three Dalis and two Picassos and six Braques, and then says, “Well, so much for my Christmas cards, now to do some serious shopping.” And the Topps editor worked for PR, and she said, “Kids don’t like art, but they like cars, so have him go to an auto dealer and buy two Chevys, and three Fords, and so on.” And I said, well, what about the punch line? And she said, just keep it the same. So I did.

Me: But that makes no sense!

Jay: Right.

Me: This has been one of my favorite interviews of all time.

Jay: Good.

Jay Lynch, 67, wrote the afterword to the book “Bazooka Joe and His Gang,” to be published in April by Abrams ComicArts. He lives in New York.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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