Cartoons and cartoon physics lend themselves to elegant, thought-provoking discussion. Take for example, “Shmoo”:
Perhaps you remember him as I do, as part of an animated series, a bit player on a few episodes of Scooby-Doo or The New Fred and Barney Show, where Shmoo had some episodes all to himself. Little did I know, however, what a huge place Shmoo has in history. His popularity. His controversy. Licensing phenom. Critique on human nature. Shmoo is more.
“Shmoo” is a fictional cartoon character, created by Al Capp (1909 – 1979). He frst appeared in Al Capp’s famous comic strip Li’l Abner in August 1948. Li’l Abner discovers them when upon following the mysterious siren-like sound of their call (from whence their name is derived), he enters the forbidden “Valley of the Shmoon” (“Shmoon” being the plural form of “Shmoo”). Befriending the creatures, he is warned by the shepherd of the Shmoon, Old Man Mose* that they are the greatest meance to “hoomankind” the world has ever known. “Thass becuz they is so bad, huh?” [That’s because they are so bad, huh?]** asks Li’l Abner. “No, stupid,” answers Mose paradoxically, “it’s because they’s so good!”
Shmoon were endowed with the following characteristics:
- They require no sustenance other than air and reproduce asexually and prolifically.
- Shmoon are delicious to eat and are eager to be eaten. If looked upon hungrily, they will happily immolate themselves, jumping into a frying pan, whence they taste like chicken (of course). If broiled, they taste like beef. If roasted, they taste like pork. Baked, they taste like catfish. If eaten raw, they taste like oysters on the half-shell.
- They have no bones, so they have no waste (a theory recently disproved by artist Michael Paulus, whose dissective Shmoo anatomy sketches follow:
- The frolicking of Shmoon is so entertaining that people lose interest in watching television or going to the movies.
- The Shmoo can produce eggs (neatly packaged by the dozen), milk (grade-A), and butter without churning. Their hide makes perfect bootleather or house timber, depending on how thick you slice it.
- Apparently some of the more tasty varieties of Shmoon are more difficult to catch, creating sport.
Worldwide Boon and Shmooicide
Discovering their value to mankind, Li’l Abner leads them out of the valley: “wif these around, nobody won’t nevah havta work no more!!” [with these around, no one will have to work anymore!!] They quickly become a sensation in Dogpatch (where Li’l Abner is set) and soon the rest of the world. Sales plummeting for virtually every product, a worldwide “Shmoo Crisis” erupts. Captains of industry order the extermination of the Shmoon, which are dispatched by “Shmooicide Squads” wielding a variety of weapons, illustrated in graphic comic style. Global economic meltdown averted, people quickly resume consuming products that Shmoon replaced. Li’l Abner managed to hide one “boy” and one “girl” Shmoo [I thought they reproduced asexually…don’t worry about that] who, in Dogpatch tradition, would be married as consequence to the girl Shmoo catching the boy Shmoo in the annual Sadie Hawkins Day Race [see below*]. The rapidly-expanding Shmoo family return to the Valley of the Shmoo, leaving the door open for future Shmoo “sequels”.
An unprecedented Shmoo craze exploded across the U.S., and in 1949 and 1950, Shmoos were everywhere, including the cover of Time Magazine. It is reported that over 100 Shmoo products for 75 different manufacturers, selling over 5 million units each. In a single year, they accounted for over twenty-five million dollars (over 215 million dollars in 2007 value). Unbelievable. The Shmoo was so popular, it replaced Mickey Mouse as the character embodiment of children’s savings bonds, sold by the U.S. Treasury.
The Shmoo story superficially concerns a cute, cuddly creature, only wanting to be a boon to mankind. It is a parable about human nature, as we destroy any good and perfect thing. Capp was slammed for the Shmoo story by both sides: communists thought he was lampooning socialism and Marxism. The right-wing thought he was criticizing capitalism and the American way. It still invites thoughtful dialogue.
Shmoo Etymology and Trivia
Apparently linguists have debated for years about the origin of the word “Shmoo”. Capp himself never divulged its true source, although it is thought that it comes from the taboo Yiddish term “shmue” referring to the female reproductive organ. Li’l Abner was full of Yiddish word variations. Another appears distinctly Russian in nature, the “Nogoodnik” which Capp created subsequently as an anti-Shmoo. They were Shmoo-shaped, but colored sickly green with yellow teeth, red eyes, and a “dirty look”. They often sported five-o’clock shadow, chomped stogies, and devoured their friendly Shmoo cousins. Winged, flying Shmoon also later appeared, and were christened “Shtoonks”.
Who knew? [Who Shmoo?]
* Old Man Mose was a hermit-like sage, always 100% correct in his Sadie Hawkins Day Race predicitions. He refused to “kick the bucket” which was conveniently placed outside his cave door. Sadie Hawkins, the “homeliest gal’ in the hills” was a spinster at age 35. Afraid she would live with him forever, Sadie’s father created “Sadie Hawkins Day” in which a race was held where the womenfolk of Dogpatch chased the men. If caught, matrimony was the reward (penalty). In the case of the last two Shmoon, the girl Shmoo caught the boy Shmoo and they were married by Marryin’ Sam, a traveling preacher who specialized in $2 weddings. He was “paid” in the Shmoo way with two dozen eggs, two pounds of butter, and six cupcakes with chocolate frosting. I attended a “Sadie Hawkins Dance” annually in high school, where the girls take the intiative in asking out the boys. I always thought Sadie Hawkins was a real person, signifcant in women’s suffrage. Nope.
** I find the verbatim text of Li’l Abner so difficult and annoying to read, I have added translation for those of like mind.