Oh! You Running Gag!

Albert and Harry Von Tilzer were responsible for a lot of pop culture at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.  Albert composed “After the Ball”, considered the first pop song to sell over a million copies (sheet music, since records were at this point going through a format war and sales were harder to come by.)  His songs of moderately deranged women gave us such icons as “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  Harry was responsible for “A Bird in a Gilded Cage”, “Wait ‘til the Sun Shines, Nellie”, “And the Green Grass Grew All Around”, and “Under the Anheuser Busch”. 

(Some people have pointed out that this incredible production of hits MIGHT be attributed to the fact that the Von Tilzers owned the publishing company involved, and could, like other powerful song publishers, simply insist on credit (and royalties) on just about any song they printed.  This is relevant to the cause of justice, but irrelevant in the court of pop culture, which never really cares WHERE a joke came from, so long as it’s useful.)

Pop songs, then as now, the sources of catchphrases, parodies, and gags, which occasionally outlived the song which inspired them.   And harry Von Tilzer probably had no idea he was setting off a joke that would live for generations with a little song called “I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife but Oh! You Kid!”  This was a rip-off…an homage to two previous songs, which had been mild hits and which had taught Americans to use the word kid as a synonym for “pal”.  (Up to that point, the only people you addressed as “Hey, kid” were children or young goats.”

What set Harry’s song apart in 1909 from the previous numbers was that his was the first to include the suggestion that the singer and the woman addressed were indulging in an extramarital relationship, and having fun while they were at it.  It was such a hit that it inspired not only a lot of sequels by other songwriters (“I Love My Wife, but OH! Her Family!”)  Guardians of public decency were outraged, and tried to have the song outlawed, and punish anyone who used the phrase “Oh, you kid!” in public.  Groucho Marx kept the line alive, and it continued to echo in the Seventies musical “I Love My Wife”.

And the world of postcards was nor far behind.  The gentleman at the top of this column was featured in a whole series of postcards, most of which implied he was more interested in food than anything else.

This card, from a generation later, shows someone who is at least his spiritual son.

The gag on an older meaning of kid was probably inevitable.  (Particularly the fairly constant stream of postcards in this era showing tired husbands walking a fussy baby, often while their wives snored nearby.)

In fact, the other meaning of kid was used as well, as in the case of the customer who couldn’t decide what kind of leather to choose for gloves.

Eventually, people got the joke if neither the wife nor the kid was included in the joke, as in parody songs of the time, “I Love My Horse and Buggy, But OH! You Buick!” or “I Love That Roosevelt but Uh! You Taft!”  And this salute, which is filled with tender regrets.

Top that, Burt Bacharach.

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