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"Scurrilous and scandalous": subversive humor at the SF Public Library

Poster for this year's Schmulowitz exhibit

Sometimes the things we write can cause controversy, and even end up being deadly. Early this year two gunmen opened fire in the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 employees.

Earlier this month, the Pen American Center recognized Charlie Hebdowith their Freedom of Expression Courage Award. That action, in turn, caused almost 200 writers to SIGN a letter of protest – complaining that the satirical magazine was promoting “cultural intolerance” and belittling “the disenfranchised, generally.”

Charlie Hebdo is one of many publications featured in an exhibit at San Francisco’s Main Library titled Mad World: Subversive Humor Magazines from the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor. That was not the original plan when Andrea Grimes started planning this year’s humor show. She’s responsible for the Schmulowitz Collection in the Library’s Book Arts and Special Collections Center.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this will be simple,’ “ Grimes recalls. Then the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and writers were killed, “And my focus shifted dramatically. So I thought it would be really interesting – more controversial, actually -- if I presented satirical magazines. So that’s how that came about.”

Visitors see posters above 14 display tables, each highlighting an element within that collection. Not all are ripped from today’s headlines. Some date from the 1800s. Satirical humor isn’t just American either. Publications from France, England, and Germany are included. One from the old Soviet Union, called “Krokodil,” was even banned in the U.S. during the Cold War era, when the U.S. Postal Service refused to deliver it to the Library.

Grimes says it was called “scurrilous and scandalous and horrible. It’s one of the worst examples of literature that we’ve ever seen.” But it’s on display now. “Fortunately the Post Office has become a much more democratic institution.”

San Francisco’s own brand of satiric humor is also featured, with a display of “The Nose,” started by Jack Boulware in the late 1980s. He’s better known now as co-founder and executive director of the LitQuake organization. “I don’t ever really tell people about it. I never include it in my bio,” Boulware admits. “Nobody’s going to pay you to do this sort of stuff.”

This exhibit has turned the tables on him. Readers (and potential advertisers) may have been shocked by the articles – one was titled “How to Each Your Own Dog” – but Boulware was shocked to see “The Nose” included in this exhibit. He never thought anyone would take it that seriously.

He credits the Schmulowitz Collection as “a big inspiration.” He remembers going to the Library and “reading examples of published humor, from around the world. It was so crazy to get a bound copy of like two years of National Lampoon and sit in a room by yourself, and laughing out loud. It was such a treasure trove. Because, where would you find this stuff? Where would you find this kind of inspiration?”

And that, says Andrea Grimes, is one reason the Library has this collection: “To broaden people’s horizons, to help them see that humor really should dominate the world, actually,”

she says with a laugh. “And it’s to present a variety of ideas and visuals and literature, so that people will really have an understanding that the San Francisco Public Library is full of many, many different resources.”

The collection now features works in about 37 languages and dialects, spanning over 450 years. And to think it all started with a gift of some old joke books from probate lawyer Nat Schmulowitz, back in 1947. The Library has mounted a humor exhibit every year since the mid-1950s, always opening on April Fool’s Day, in keeping with the Schmulowitz motto: “Without humor we are doomed.”

Mad World: Subversive Humor Magazines from the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor” closes Sunday, May 31. The collection itself is always available in the Special Collections/History Room on the sixth floor.