Friday, April 19, 2024


Obscurity of the Day: Papa Knows



The panel cartoon Papa Knows, by writer J. Kenneth Bolles and artist Fred Royal Morgan, is fascinating to me on a number of levels. Some of those points of interest are geeky newspaper comic historian minutiae. But let's start with the most accessible bit of utter weirdness -- the gags, if that's what they actually are. 

The plot of Papa Knows is as simple as can be: Junior asks a question of his papa, usually wanting to know the definition of some term, and papa answers. And sometimes, rarely, those answers make perfect sense as gags. Here's one that I found that is definitely a gag (I had to read about twenty or so to find an example as plainly gaggish as this):

Junior: Pop, what is polo?

Pop: Enables a croquet player to fall off a horse. 

 Okay, so that's a pretty cute gag definition. But the vast majority of the definitions that Papa comes up with are not obviously and apparently gags. You kind of get the feeling that they might be funny as hell, but you're just too dense to get the gag. Let's take an example that seems to veer toward Rube Goldberg Foolish Questions non sequitur territory:

Junior: Pop, what is a mollycoddle?

Pop: Cocktail composed of milk and prunes. 

Now I don't really really feel like I get the gag, but that one gives me a grin nonetheless. 

But then we have the most typical and plentiful Papa Knows gags, of which I have shown four examples above. I hesitate to say it, in the realization that humour dies upon being analyzed, but I can't really say that I get the gag in any of those examples. Some seem to make pretty good sense, and just aren't even vaguely funny, like defining the word 'gambol' by referencing frolicking lambs. Isn't that a pretty good example of a 'gambol'? So what's the gag? And what does "Washington's bust" even mean as a definition for 'composure'. Am I really so dense as to not get these? 

So yeah, Papa Knows leaves me shaking my head. I leave it up to you: are these funny, are they wise, am I just dense? Hey, I'm willing to take my medicine if that's the case. Pile on, give me the razz, I'll wear a dunce cap if I deserve it. 

Okay, let's get on to the more esoteric stuff. First, I can't help but state the obvious; isn't it kinda keen that Morgan came up with panel art in which he only had to redraw one little portion (the kid) for each new installment? And better yet, the kid seldom seemed to be doing something related to the 'gag', so at least in theory Morgan could have done ten or twenty stock poses and reused them over and over. Not that I have caught him doing that, mind you. As best I can tell, he played by the rules of furnishing new art with each installment. As this seems to be Morgan's final syndicated series, he certainly gave himself the gift of an easy day's work to usher in his retirement. 

Syndication of this series is rather unusual, and here's the real esoterica. As you can see on the samples above, copyright was shared between Bell Syndicate and Western Newspaper Union. When I see this sort of thing it generally means that Bell Syndicate originally syndicated the feature, probably as a daily, and then sold the rights to re-use the series to WNU for weekly clients. But in this case the dual syndication channels were active simultaneously. The Bell daily series began on October 12 1931* and lasted until January 13 1940**. The Western Newspaper Union syndication was almost as long as this, running from  sometime in 1932 to 1939. WNU did more of this sort of thing with Bell in the second half of the 40s, but I think this is the only instance in the 1930s. 

By the way, if you see the panel with that cool art deco masthead as above, you're looking at the weekly version. The daily just used the client newspaper's regular font.

* Source: Winston-Salem Twin City Sentinel

** Source: New Rochelle Standard-Star. 


extinction= fallen star
Perhaps Papa is thinking of how a giant meteor supposedly killed off the dinosaurs.
I have no guesses for the top two.
Hello Allan-
I'll venture a gasp that the gags aren't operating on the point of irony or wit, maybe more like mangled interpretations of English words, like a three year old, or a foreigner learning the language.
the " Washington's bust" is a composure if you misuse the word "composite", which refers to dime store statuary and ashtrays and such.
Nonetheless, it and the others are absurdly obtuse, and maybe guessing all day might be entertainment for some readers who think they're so brilliant they will make sense somehow.

Here's the truth-they're non sequiturs, and intended to be. Just like the utterly pointless action of the foreground boy, this panel is the historic first Zen syndicated panel, or the first Dadaist effort. Profundity or scam?
Responding to the first Anon comment -- the paper by the Alvarezes enunciating the asteroid theory of dinosaur die-off dates from 1980, probably too late to have been a factor here.
Allan very kindly suggested that we give the "Comics I Don't Understand" readership a crack at explicating these "Papa Knows" panels published in this post. We have done so, and the CIDU post (which of course refers back here) at

has indeed been gathering some interpretive comments. Some duplicate suggestions already posed here, but some are new.

The general idea of the comments at the CIDU blog is that, while not yielding clear "gag" material meanings, the captions are not randomly wild toss-ups, but plausible near-definitions, given a little metaphorical massaging. But come and see for yourselves!

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