Descent into Dogpatch: On Al Capp and “Li’l Abner”

As a New Englander who loves Jewish comics, satire and good girl art, and whose father was both a conservative hillbilly and a closet cartoonist, there is precisely EVERYTHING to fascinate me about Al Capp (Alfred Gerald Caplin, 1909-1979).

Capp was the creator of the cultural phenomenon known as Li’l Abner, which was a huge part of the American landscape for decades, but has since fallen by the wayside due to a variety of probable factors, including several #MeToo revelations, Capp’s sharp rightward turn during his last decade or so, and the overall unfashionability of rural whites and their humor in today’s mainstream pop culture. But back in the day EVERYBODY (including people on the left) were immoderate in their praise of Capp. He was compared to Rabelais, Swift, Voltaire, and Lawrence Sterne. His fans included John Steinbeck, John Updike, Marshall McLuhan, and John Kenneth Galbraith, as well as pop culture figures like Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, and Al Hirschfeld. Some of the more obvious cultural products influenced by Li’l Abner include Walt Kelly’s Pogo, early Mad Magazine, (duh!) The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee Haw.

And if your school had a Sadie Hawkins Dance, that too came from Li’l Abner. Here I am as “Marryin’ Sam” at my high school Sadie Hawkins Dance in 1982 (my costume looks nothing like the character from the comic strip, but that was my role):

Who knew that years later I would perform actual marriages? (I do, by the way, I am fully accredited with the State of New York to perform marriages. I’ve done three of them — feel free to contact me if you want a very unconventional wedding!)

Born in New Haven (later spending time in Bridgeport and Boston), Al Capp was the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants and raised in poverty. His father was an amateur artist who taught Al and two of his brothers how to draw when they were children (Al’s younger brother Elliott was co-creator of Broom-Hilda). When Al was nine, he was run over by a street car and lost a leg. Throughout his life, he wore a painful prosthetic, and this experience seems to be a key to the dark side of his humor. While he was laid up, he voraciously read works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Smollett, Twain, Shaw, and Booth Tarkington. Along with Krazy Kat‘s George Herriman, Capp was to be one of the few comic strip artists praised as much for his literary brilliance as his visual innovation. He loved wordplay, and his was as accessible as it was witty. But being housebound a lot of the time he also took up drawing seriously, and was influenced of course by the popular comic strips of George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Bud Fisher, Rube Goldberg, Fred Opper, et al.

As a teenager, Capp hitchhiked with a friend through Appalachia; he subsequently filed away his experience of the characters and the landscape he encountered there, which must have been quite alien to him as a Connecticut boy, for future reference. It was the germ of what would become Li’l Abner.

Capp had dropped out of high school, but in late teens and early ’20s, he spent time at several prominent art schools, getting kicked out of several for non-payment of tuition (another experience I can relate to). But he began to get work in New York in the early ’30s, first for the Associated Press, then on a strip called Colonel Gilfeather, and then on Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka, where he worked for several months. It was while Capp was working for Fisher that he came up with the character that became Li’l Abner. Fisher thereafter alleged part ownership of the concept, and the two had quite a nasty (and often hilarious) feud that lasted for decades.

Li’l Abner debuted in 1934. The character’s last name, Yokum, is a demonstration of Capp’s Joycean genius, being a phonetic rendering of the Hebrew name Joachim (meaning “created by God”), while also being a mashing-up of “yokel” and “hokum”. Abner’s parents (whom he still lived with as a young adult) were Mammy and Pappy Yokum. His girlfriend was the gorgeous and scarcely clad Daisy Mae. And there was a very large constellation of other regular characters, in addition to frequent appearances by Capp’s parodies of characters from other comic strips, real-life movie stars, demagogic southern politicians, and the like. They all lived in cabins in the fictional Dogpatch, a rural region in the hills of Kentucky. Abner himself was a big dumb oaf who (much like Voltaire’s Candide) saw the good in everything, no matter how horrible the world is. The Yokums also had a pet pig named Salomey (a play on “Salome”), clearly a precursor to Arnold on Green Acres. 

The strip was very popular, and Capp’s empire began to grow almost right away. In 1937 he launched another strip Abbie and Slats, which he merely wrote (Raeburn Van Buren drew the art). In 1945 he handed over the writing chores to his brother Elliot. It ran until 1971.

In 1938, a Li’l Abner radio show debuted starring John Hodiak as the main character, with Durwood Kirby as announcer. It only ran a few months. (Not to be confused with the much more successful rural radio comedy Lum and Abner)

In 1940 there arrived a wonderfully bizarre live action film version of Li’l Abner. It has been a particular favorite of mine since I picked up a DVD of it up in a bargain bin many years ago. It’s oddest touch is the use of facial prosthetics to make the characters look more like the comic strip — the results in many cases are truly grotesque. The title character was played by Granville Owen (later known as Jeff York). York had earlier starred in a Terry and the Pirates serial, based on the popular comic strip drawn by Capp’s good friend Milton Caniff. Daisy Mae was played by former model and dancer Martha O’Driscoll. Mammy Yokum was played by Mona Ray; Pappy was played by vaudeville vet Johnnie Morris, who had been in act called the Leroy Trio 35 years earlier with Groucho Marx! And the rest of the large cast of characters is a virtual who’s who of classic slapstick comedy: Buster Keaton (in very un-p.c. redface as an Indian named Lonesome Polecat), plus Bud Jamison, Edgar Kennedy, Johnny Arthur, Walter Catlett, Lucien Littlefield, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, Hank Mann, Mickey Daniels, Doodles Weaver, Eddie Gribbon, Eddie Borden, Dick Elliott, and Victor Potel. This movie is like a convention of old time comedians! In fact, it has way more of them in it than Keystone Hotel (1935) which is supposed to be a big reunion movie but only has about a half dozen of them. Even so…this movie was too deeply weird, even in its own time, to be a hit, despite the popularity of the strip it was based on.

A better measure of the reach of the strip was the popularity of its many pin-up worthy country girl characters as nose art on American bombers and fighter planes during World War II and Korea. Daisy Mae was the best known one, but there was also Wolf Gal (raised in the woods by wolves), Stupefyin’ Jones (who had a Medusa-like ability to paralyze menfolk with her beauty), and Moonbeam McSwine (who preferred the company of pigs to men). One of these characters, Long Sam, got her own strip from 1954 through 1962 (Capp wrote it; it was drawn by Bob Lubbers). Capp’s habit of drawing these lasses as impossibly buxom, with lots of cleavage, and in something like hot pants or mini-skirts, was influential on the aesthetics of Sex to Sexty, on the look of Ellie Mae Clampett and the girls on Hee Haw, and on the work of comic figures as diverse as Russ Meyer and Ralph Bakshi. Is it progressive? I don’t know about that, but back then, it was not reactionary.

In 1942 Capo debuted Fearless Fosdick, his parody of Dick Tracy as a strip within a strip. This became so popular that Capp contemplated spinning it off into its own strip, but it always remained a feature of Li’l Abner (quite an elaborate one, with countless characters and story lines). Like many aspects of Li’l Abner, Fearless Fosdick was to become a point of cultural reference all by itself.

In 1944  Columbia pictures produced five animated Li’l Abner cartoons

In 1947, a Li’l Abner comic book premiered; there were to be various iterations of it well into the following decade.

In 1948 Capp premiered a new character who took on a life of its own: the Shmoo. This mythical bloblike thingie became so popular that it too got its own comic book and it outlived not only the strip but Capp himself! I first became aware of the character in Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the late 1970s and early ’80s. The word has entered the American lexicon, along with many another Capp neologism.

Staring in 1948 and well into the 1970s, Capp was a constant presence on television. He hosted five of his own programs: The Al Capp Show (a talk show, 1952), Anyone Can Win (a game show, 1953), Al Capp’s America (a show very similar to the old vaudeville cartoonist acts, Capp would banter while drawing and showing his pictures, 1954), another The Al Capp Show (1968) and Al Capp (1971-72, the latter two being talk shows). He was a co-host on What’s the Story? (1953), a regular on The Author Meets the Critics (1948-54), and The Today Show (1953), and a frequent panelist on Who Said That? (1948-55). On top of that he was a frequent repeat guest on things like The Ed Sullivan ShowSid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, The Red Skelton ShowThe Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Tonight Show under Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson.

Almost from its inception one of the running gangs of Li’l Abner was that the title character was perpetually evading marriage with Daisy Mae, who constantly pursued him, a dynamic not unlike the one at the heart of Krazy Kat. In 1952, Capp married the characters. The event was considered such a major pop culture moment that it made the cover of Life magazine.

In 1956 came a Broadway musical adaptation with a book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Gene de Paul and choreography by Michael Kidd. An unknown named Peter Palmer was the title character, but Edie Adams played Daisy Mae! It also featured Stubby Kaye as Marryin’ Sam, Charlotte Rae as Mammy Yokum, Joe E. Marks as Pappy, and Julie Newmar, later of Batman, as Stupefyin’ Jones. A young Tina Louise was also in the show as Appassionata von Climax! The show ran for nearly two years.

In 1959 the musical was turned into a film with Leslie Parrish replacing Adams, Billie Hayes (a.k.a Witchy-Poo) replacing Rae, Stella Stevens replacing Tina Louise, and some other interesting additions to the cast: Jerry Lewis, Alan Carney, Donna Douglas (clearly acquiring the very skills she would bring to Ellie Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies) and a young Valerie Harper!

In 1967 NBC aired a pilot for a prospective Li’l Abner sitcom, starring Sammy Jackson, a former beefcake model and regular on the TV version of No Time for Sergeants (1964-65), with Judy Canova and Jerry Lester as Mammy and Pappy. Blonde bombshell Jeannine Riley, the original Billie Jo on Petticoat Junction and future Tina Louise stand-in on Dusty’s Trail, played Daisy Mae. Robert Reed guested as a visiting politician, Senator Henry Cabot Cod. It may not shock you to learn that Sherwood Schwartz was involved. The show was not picked up. But at this writing you can see clips of it on Youtube!

And Capp’s empire continue to grow. In 1968 a Li’l Abner amusement park called Dogpatch USA opened in Arkansas.

In 1969, a significant moment in the history of the academic field of American Studies: Arthur Asa Berger wrote Li’l Abner: A Study in American Satire the first scholarly treatise on an American comic strip.

By the 1960s, Capp was a frequent speaker on college campuses, and this led to a shift in his public persona. In earlier years there were elements to Capp’s character that were considered progressive, or at the very least, populist. He relentlessly poked fun at capitalists and corporate America and crooked politicians. He spoke out against McCarthyism in an era when almost no one else would. And he once relinquished his membership in a major cartoonist organization for not admitting women. He was supportive of gay rights and civil rights for African Americans. But towards the end of the 1960s, during the Vietnam era, he changed. He toured Vietnam with the U.S.O. and he began to speak out against hippies and protestors. At his college appearances there were many charged, highly public exchanges.

One of the most painful of these moments  is preserved on film, when he was one of the celebrities who visited John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their hotel during their 1969 Toronto “Bed-In” protest event. Seemingly inebriated, Capp initially comes off as semi-witty in a bilious sort of way, but quickly descends to a dark and racist place. Their publicist Derek Taylor tries to eject him but the Lennons (who were fans of Capp) were pretty gracious about the whole thing. (Lennon was initially happy to see him. Years earlier the Beatles had made an appearance in Li’l Abner as The Beasties). You can see the interchange in the 1988 documentary Imagine.

So at this stage, Capp became something of a darling of the right, in a camp with guys like John Wayne. People like William F. Buckley and Richard Nixon extolled his virtues. Check out this description of his 1970 TV special from TV Guide. Yipes!

It gets worse. There are several documented accounts of Capp committing sexual assaults on women, including the actresses Grace Kelly and Goldie Hawn. In 1968 he exposed himself to four female students at the University of Alabama.  The episode was hushed up, but in 1971 Journalist Jack Anderson learned about it and wrote about it. Later that year, Capp was arrested for propositioning a married woman in a hotel room during his engagement at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.

Capp had always pushed the envelope on sex in Li’l Abner, but now he had lost any claim to “family appeal”, which is kind of crucial to a mainstream comic strip. Damage to his reputation and ill health took their toll on the strip. He retired it, well past its prime in 1977. He died of emphysema in 1979.

Good lord! I don’t dare let you know how many hours I unintentionally spent on this post. It proved to be a rabbit hole, but like I said, it fascinates me. And follow the arc of this story: it mirrors the sad journey of America.

I was pleased in my research this morning to discover that the late Stefan Kanfer wrote a wonderful essay about the cartoonist in City Journal. Read it here.  

To learn more about vaudeville, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic (silent slapstick) comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.