Crisis In Infinite Comics: The Man Who Hated Laughter
In 1985, DC Comics orchestrated one of the most spectacular events in comic book history with a year long, twelve issue series designed to merge all of their existing comic worlds into one linear multiverse. The Crisis on Infinite Earths was heralded as one of the most important and exhaustive projects ever to grace a comic book as it touched almost every single character the company owned, including all of the ones they had acquired from purchasing other publishers over the years. As awe inspiring as this mega event might have been, one important detail was overlooked in the midst of all the fanfare; this was not the first time a crisis like this had occurred. Over a decade prior to the COIE, another comic company, King Features Syndicate, beat DC Comics to the punch. This crisis only lasted a mere sixty minutes on a single Saturday afternoon and was given the inauspicious title of Popeye Meets The Man Who Hated Laughter but it was no less important to comic history!
During the 1972-73 Saturday morning season, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) actually tried something innovative in childrens programming. The Saturday Superstar Movie was designed as a youthful version of an anthology series like General Electric Theater or Playhouse 90. It would feature hour-long potential pilots for series development from a variety of different animation studios. This may well have been the only time in history that Hanna Barbara, Filmation Studios, Warner Brothers, Rankin Bass and many other animation icons worked together under the same banner. Many Saturday morning series such as Yogi’s Ark’, The Brady Kids, and Lassie’s Rescue Rangers found their starts as episodes of the Saturday Superstar Movie. Other entries featured animated versions of popular live action shows like That Girl, Nanny & The Professor, The Munsters, Bewitched and even a surprisingly awful take on Lost in Space. As unique as some of the resulting movies were, like The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park or Daffy Duck and Porky Pig Meet the Groovy Goolies, none was as ambitious or off the wall as the sole entry from King Features Syndicate.
The plot of The Man Who Hated Laughter, as the actual on-screen title reads, originates with evil genius Professor Morbid Grimsby, a six-time winner of the prestigious Meanie award, and his assistant Brutus (yes Popeye’s dim witted arch rival). To ensure he wins the coveted seventh Meanie, the Professor decides to eliminate laughter from the world by getting rid of the Sunday funnies! As his elaborate scheme unfolds, Popeye the Sailor receives a job offer to captain the S.S. Hilarious on an ocean voyage to the Professor’s island. Simultaneously, all of the Sunday Comics characters (or at least all of the ones owned by King Features Syndicate) find out they have won a free ocean cruise to a South Seas island!
The laundry list of famous cartoon characters is considerable. In addition to the Popeye family (Popeye, Olive Oyl, Sweet Pea, and Wimpy), we also get the Bumsteads (Dagwood, Blondie and clan), the Falgston family (of Hi & Lois fame), the Katzenjammer Kids, Henry, the Little King, Little Iodine, Snuffy Smith, Tiger, an obscure African American youth named Quincy, and Beetle Bailey and Sarge. While it seems bizarre that characters from strips clearly rooted in the 1930’s like Blondie could exist on the same plane of reality as those of Hi & Lois who exemplify 1950’s suburbia, in this strange netherworld of comic strip limbo, the Flagstons and the Bumsteads are actually neighbors!
Once the three-hour tour, I mean ocean voyage, is underway, the comic strip characters do what anyone on a cruise vacation would put on a talent show! Snuffy Smith’s horse Sparkplug eats a guitar but fortunately that doesn’t stop him from providing musical accompaniment! Most of the show consists of Olive Oyl performing a disturbingly risqu dance number in her bikini as the younger members of the party leer on. While Olive gives new meaning to the phrase tube top, this sequence must have been designed to answer the age old question of why a one eyed, bald sailor with swollen forearms is in a perpetual battle with a beer bellied, dim witted, ruffian to win a woman so devoid of figure she could fall through the bars in a storm drain grating!
The S.S. Hilarious doesn’t make it too far out to sea before the Professor zaps it with his tractor beam and drags it straight to his island. In the chaos to exit the ship before its impending disintegration, Popeye loses his spinach stash while saving Olive’s wardrobe! Now deprived of signature literal can of whoop ass, Popeye is herded along with the other comics into the Professor’s dungeon to spend the remainder of their existence not making people laugh!
Fortunately for our funnies friends, it seems the President of the United States is a major fan of the Sunday Comics and their disappearance doesn’t go unnoticed for long. Using powers only available to a head of state, the President calls together the world’s greatest heroes (again at least the ones owned by King Features) and in a matter of no time, Steve Canyon (on loan from Field Enterprises, Inc.), The Phantom, Flash Gordon, Tim Tyler, Mandrake the Magician and his assistant Lothar are hot on their trail! Unfortunately, after a series of failed individual attempts and some either incredibly lucky or well thought out plotting, the rescue party is soon in need of their own rescue party and Professor Grimsby has now captured almost every major comic character (say it with me, owned by King Features Syndicate)!
Just when you expect Mary Worthand Rex Morgan, MD to appear on the scene, the comics decide to take matters into their own hands and rescue themselves. An attempt at the old message in a bottle trick fails when Snuffy Smith discovers his shine jug missing and narrowly prevents it from being launched out the window by Little Iodine and Quincy. The cantankerous mountain man decides he would rather stay drunk than be rescued so the comics are forced into plan B wager their freedom that they can make Professor Grimsby laugh and thus prove that everyone needs laughter.
Meanwhile, the heroes have escaped from their cell and are desperately trying to find the comics while avoiding Grimsby’s traps. When Brutus arrives on the scene to finally demonstrate why he gets a paycheck, the audience is promised some much anticipated violence to liven up the program. Does Flash Gordon or The Phantom, who are both clearly packing heat, pop a cap in Brutus’s fat butt? Will Lothar demonstrate how he got to be Prince of the Seven Nations in Africa by killing the leaders of the other tribes? Will Tim Tyler just garrote the big oaf with the rope he’s carrying around? No, this whole set up is merely designed to work another KFS character, Prince Valiant, into the story when Mandrake conjures him up to scare Brutus away!
When the comic characters attempt at making the Professor laugh with another of their famous talent shows falls flatter than Olive’s chest, a few of the younger members of the party get bored and wander off to the pantry. Creating the Dagwood sandwich to end all sandwiches, they accidentally run afoul of the Professor and conveniently get him to laugh at his own reflection while trying to scare them. In true cartoon fashion (see Grinch), Grimsby has an immediate complete change of heart and decides that the world needs laughter and that his prisoners should go free. Unfortunately another great adventure film staple, the up-until-recently-dormant-but-now-critically-active volcano has other plans for them.
The show’s climax switches gears into the territory of the Irwin Allen disaster films that were popular at the time with an ensemble cast of A and B actors replaced by over thirty cartoon characters. They flee the island in the Professor’s yellow submarine (no, not the same one from the Beatles 1968 animated film ALSO produced by King Features, but clearly a nod in that direction) only to get stuck in the rocks while exiting the underwater caverns. Popeye finally gets his chance to prove why his name is above the title when he finds his sunken spinach and frees the sub. In gratitude for his favorite comics safe return, the President throws them a party on the White House lawn (and apparently pardons Grimsby from the felony kidnapping charges he should be facing)!
Popeye Meets The Man Who Hated Laughter is one strange, incongruent ride but never before had so many cartoon characters been gathered together for one story. The show was produced by Abe Goodman, who also served as production coordinator on the theatrical film Yellow Submarine. In a bizarre bit of foreshadowing, Yellow Submarine features a sequence early on in the museum where Ringo and Old Fred pass a group of cut outs that include Flash Gordon, Mandrake, and The Phantom. These same three characters would team up again in 1986 (barely a year after DC’s Crisis) in the brief television series Defenders of the Earth. The majority of the comic characters headed back to their daily and weekly strips after this one unique outing and a rumored sequel, Popeye Meets The Man Who Hated Jews never materialized.