It’s not often a cartoonist achieves notoriety of such a level that his or her name comes to stand for something else. Usually their characters live on, their images morphing into decals on cars’ rear windows or their catchphrases forever bringing certain scenes to mind (“good grief”). But the cartoonists themselves?
There’s only one. In 1931, at the age of 48, Rube Goldberg became an adjective in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. So popular were his drawings of slapstick contraptions that his name became synonymous with them, defined as “accomplishing by overly complex and humorous means what seemingly could be done simply.” Eight decades after that entry, it remains firmly lodged in our cultural consciousness, thanks to YouTube videos, yearly engineering club competitions and the simple pleasure of using those three syllables to describe zany arrangements of ordinary stuff.
If you’re heading to the Contemporary Jewish Museum filled with dreams of interactive Rube Goldbergian contraptions, I must temper your expectations a bit. The Art of Rube Goldberg, a retrospective of the cartoonist’s life and career, is filled with drawings and sketches, photographs, films, letters and memorabilia, but no moving parts sit within its walls (unless you count a clip of the eating machine, inspired by Goldberg's drawings, in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times).
Goldberg grew up in an established Jewish family in San Francisco, and his trajectory towards an illustrious future (pun intended) can be tracked thusly: Lowell High School, engineering degree at UC Berkeley, putting that degree to use on San Francisco’s sewer system (briefly), San Francisco Chronicle sports cartoonist, followed by San Francisco Bulletin staff cartoonist.
But San Francisco was too small to contain Goldberg's ambitions. He moved to New York City in 1907, launching his career shortly thereafter with the appearance of Foolish Questions in the New York Evening Mail, a series of panel cartoons inspired by the truism “Ask a stupid questions, get an even stupider answer.”
These one-liners from the early days of another century, anchored in the inanity of polite small talk, still elicit a chuckle in 2018. “Skating, Percy?” asks a fur coat-clad woman of an obviously ice skating man. “No — I’m playing checkers on the bosom of grandpa’s old blue shirt,” he replies in Foolish Questions No. 1,398. It’s the kind of hyperbolic sarcastic retort teenagers have honed to a deadly weapon throughout history.
For those unfamiliar with Goldberg’s vast oeuvre, introduction to strips like these is perhaps the most edifying element of the CJM exhibition. In 1922, Goldberg signed a syndication contract for national distribution and $200,000 a year. (According to a federal inflation calculator I found online, that’s the equivalent of $2.9 million today.)
He produced a staggering number of comics throughout his 60-year career, from single panels to color Sunday pages to editorial cartoons. Marvel at an incomplete list of his syndicated output: Mike and Ike (They Look Alike), Boob McNutt (ran for 16 years), Life’s Little Jokes, I’m the Guy, The Weekly Meeting of the Tuesday Ladies’ Club (modeled after his wife Irma’s social circle), Father Was Right, Bill, Lala Palooza, Side Show, Boob McNutt’s Ark, Pepsi and Pete: The Pepsi-Cola Pops (an advertising strip), Bobo Baxter and The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts.
And while the exhibition works hard to showcase Goldberg’s social commentary, artistic strategies and sense of humor in these other strips (not to mention his forays into screenwriting, prop-making and animation), the panels of The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts are clearly the stars of the show. Maybe it’s the back-and-forth required to decipher one of Goldberg's cockamamie contraptions. Or the everyday materials, tempting readers to give their own inventions a try. And today, when technology has advanced far beyond visible movable parts, there’s something thrilling about seeing a 'workable' way to turn a sneeze into a stamped envelope in 17 ridiculous — yet completely understandable — steps.
When he did lend his name to actual objects they weren't anything like his drawings. Lest there be any doubts about his status as a household name, Goldberg hawked everything from Old Angus scotch to Lucky Strike cigarettes to Pennzoil motor oil. The prolific cartoonist created and appeared in hundreds of ads. His branded products included books, buttons, puzzles, play money, ceramic bottle stoppers and a Foolish Questions card game.
If, like me, you’re dying to know what daily schedule allowed for Goldberg’s enormous output (did he draw all day, every day for 12 hours straight?), The Art of Rube Goldberg will not provide that answer. What you will get is a well-rounded overview of a 20th-century success story inspired by vaudeville’s slapstick and denizens of the New York subway.
For the satisfaction of watching real-life Rube Goldberg machines in action, may I humbly suggest falling into the K-hole of a charming Japanese children’s show called Pitagora Suichi. You can thank me later.
'The Art of Rube Goldberg' is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through July 8. For more information, click here.