February 26 is the birthday of cartoonist Rudolph Dirks (1877-1968), papa of The Katzenjammer Kids.
Dirks was a German immigrant who settled with his family in Chicago. By the 1890s he was in New York working as an illustrator. In 1897 his editor at The New York Journal asked him to work up a strip to compete with the New York World‘s popular Yellow Kid. In particular he was requested to cook up something inspired by Wilhelm Busch’s darkly humorous 1865 kid’s book Max Und Moritz.
The result, The Katzenjammer Kids concerned the exploits of two naughty boys, Hans und Fritz, and the pranks they played on their mama, der Captain and der Inspector, a truant officer. “Katzenjammer” translates literally as “cats-yammer, i.e., the yowling of cats”, and in German it is used to mean confusion, uproar, ruckus, or more figuratively, the headache that accompanies a hangover. Accordingly, the climax of every strip was a spanking. And what, I ask you, is more German than a spanking?
I became particularly aware of the characters from an animated Saturday cartoon version produced by Filmation in the late 1970s, believe it or not. As a consequence, I have a tendency to refer to this strip (and its rival, which we’ll get to), as the best known extant example of co-called Dutch comedy, although I could be wrong.
I have frequent occasion to talk about Dutch comedy in the context of vaudeville. Dutch in this case means “German”, not the literal Netherlands. Dutch comedians were the equivalent of other stereotyped dialect specialties on stage and screen, such as blackface, and “Irish” and “Hebrew” routines. The best known and most influential were the team of Weber and Fields. but you’ll find several others (mixed among actual Germans) in this section of Travalanche. I find the topic so endlessly fascinating. German culture figured so prominently in America in the 19th and early 20th century, only to evaporate into the shadows thanks to a couple of pesky World Wars.
At any rate, The Katzenjammer Kids were an immediate and lasting hit. Two live action films were made by the American Mutoscope Company, The Katzenjammer Kids in School (1898) and The Katzenjammer Kids in Love (1900). Later many different animated versions of the strips were produced over the years. It was also adapted into a stage play in 1903. There were books, comic books, etc.
In 1914, Dirks was let go by the Hearst organization, publishers of the Journal, for taking unauthorized time off. The Journal assigned Harold Knerr to take over The Katzenjammer Kids. Not to be outdone, Dirks brought an almost identical strip The Captain and the Kids, to the Pulitzer papers, the original impetus for the creation of the strip in the first place. Rudolph Dirks’ son John Dirks took over The Captain and the Kids in 1955; it ran until 1979; The Katzenjammer Kids is still running, although the last new strips were produced in 2006. It’s the longest running comic strip. Ja, ja, mama, das ist gut, ja?
To learn more about vaudeville, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,