Verging Into Parody
GETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT. OR CAN WE?
Mutt and Jeff Aren’t Gay, Are They?
Now that Bert and Ernie have been outed, it’s high time we turn a gimlet eye on Mutt and Jeff. Theirs is a pretty suspicious team-up, if you ask me. (That isn’t really “me” talking. This essay is just a parody, a mockery of the sort of intrusive usually misbegotten scrutiny that celebrities have been subjected to for decades. It proves nothing except that the homophobes doing the scrutining are obsessive. To subject Bud Fisher’s iconic comic strip characters to the kind of examination committed herewith is intended to demonstrate how easy it is to do a speculation of this kind. Although in the case of Mutt and Jeff, we don’t have to work too hard to achieve the somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy pitfall into which such scrutinizing often lurches. Now, back to our story, in progress.)
I’ve been watching reprints of this venerable comic strip—the first of its breed—for some years at GoComics.com. And I must confess the sexual orientation of the title characters is confusing.
As you may recall (if you read Harv’s Hindsight for November 2007, which is all about Mutt and Jeff and Bud Fisher, the cartoonist who invented the dubious duo), the strip began on November 15, 1907 under the title A. Mutt.
Mutt was short for “muttonhead” (a fool) who was mad for playing the horses. To place a bet, he even stole from his son’s piggy bank.
At the end of March 1908, Mutt meets Jeff, an inmate of the local insane asylum where he imagines he’s James Jeffries, then the retired undefeated heavyweight champion of the boxing world. For several months thereafter, Jeff was only a transient through the strip. But after Mutt ran for president in 1908 on the Nut House ticket, at which endeavor Jeff shared the ticket, Jeff was around more often. Finally, in about 1909 (or 1914, sources differ), the strip was re-titled Mutt and Jeff.
So, after the 1908 election, Mutt and Jeff were buddies, pals. They even served together in the Army during World War I. And they participated together in numerous short-lived employments—each for the everlasting sake of a joke.
Jeff, we knew from the very beginning, is single. And Mutt, we also knew from nearly the beginning, is married: in the fourth A. Mutt strip, we meet his wife—and his child, whose name, it eventually develops, is Cicero. So Mutt is a married man, and his wife makes occasional appearances in the strip, as we can see in our first visual aid, just at the elbow of your eye.
We see that the Mutts sometimes have spats, like all married couples. In the second strip going down the page, we notice that Mutt and his wife share a bed. In the third strip, we see Cicero and his mother.
So far, a happy conventional domestic scene.
Then in the forth strip at the bottom of the page, we see Jeff strolling in his shirtsleeves over to Mutt, seated in an easy chair reading the day’s newspaper. Jeff’s being in his shirtsleeves suggests that he is “at home” in Mutt’s domicile. And the day’s gag, with Jeff surrounding himself with pets, depends somewhat for its humor on our supposing that roomer Jeff has introduced this noisy menagerie into Mutt’s home.
Then on the next exhibit, we see that Jeff does, indeed, share the house with Mutt: “I live here with my pal, Mutt,” he tells the police officer. And in the strip immediately below, Jeff tells his twin brother Julius that the Mutts call him their “star boarder.” Although “boarder” usually means a person who takes his meals where he boards—he doesn’t “room” there, doesn’t live there—here, taken with the preceding strip, it’s clear that Jeff lives with the Mutts in their home: the joke of the last panel is that he’s been kicked out as a roomer.
Not only does Jeff live with Mutt, but, as we see in the next strip, he and Mutt share a bed! This appears to be their usual arrangement. Where’s Mutt’s wife? Does Mutt alternate sleeping partners from one night to the next? What?
In the next strip, it is again apparent that Mutt and Jeff share a bed. (The lookalike Jeff is, again, Jeff’s twin brother, Julius, on a return engagement.) Are they gay? Is Mutt bisexual? Or what?
The confusion I’ve been so minutely inspecting began decades before the strips we’ve been looking at. In the 1920s and into the 1930s, Mutt and Jeff was ghosted by Ed Mack. How Mack got the job is the stuff of myth and legend. (You might want to splice the following Mack paragraphs into the November 2007 Hindsight article on Mutt and Jeff, “Celebrating the Centennial of the Newspaper Comic Strip,” just to complete the story.)
Bud Fisher had stopped producing Mutt and Jeff for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner in early 1915. His contract was about to run out, and Fisher was going to move to a new syndicate run by John Wheeler; while waiting for the contract to expire, Fisher quit doing the strip .
When Hearst found out, he hired another cartoonist to do the strip and was promptly attacked with a lawsuit from Fisher, claiming he, Fisher, owned the strip and Hearst had no right to continue it. Fisher would win the suit, but in the meantime, Mutt and Jeff was being produced by Ed Mack, Hearst’s hire. It was a short-lived gig.
According to legend (told to me by Jim Ivey, who worked in San Francisco as an editorial cartoonist at the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1960s), Fisher, when touring the local drinking emporia, came upon Mack, crying in his beer. Fisher didn’t know him but his curiosity was piqued: he asked Mack why he was so unhappy, and Mack revealed that he had been drawing Mutt and Jeff for Hearst’s paper but had been told that afternoon that he was fired.
Fisher patted him on the back, and said: “Cheer up. You’re now my assistant.” After which, he revealed himself as the creator of Mutt and Jeff. (Hearst, presumably, replaced Mack with another aspiring cartoonist whose subsequent career is lost to history— Billy Liverpool, who did the strip until Fisher won his suit in court, forcing Hearst to cease and desist. There: that clears up the mysterious Bill Liverpool presence alluded to in “Celebrating the Centennial.”)
To return to our dilemma about the sexual proclivities of Mutt and Jeff, as we see in the adjacent visual aids sampling Mack’s work on the strip in 1930, Mutt is married.
And yet he and Jeff also share an apartment. (Perhaps Mutt shares an apartment with Jeff only when he’s quarreling with his wife, a possibility once hinted at in my admittedly limited survey of the strip; and once that tradition was established, the apartment sharing continued without ever again explaining why.)
Even more astounding—Jeff has a history as a female impersonator!
A devastating revelation!
What of it, I say (in my real voice not the homophobic alter ego voice).
I’m not trying to start a fresh scandal here; I’m just fooling around. I intend, at the expense of the homophobic scandal mongers, to demonstrate the kind of hysteria into which they can be driven by making the sorts of assumptions they habitually make based upon slender evidence.
What’s more, I doubt that Bud Fisher was making a statement about LGBT life styles. Nor was Al Smith, who took over the strip in about 1932 and was eventually permitted to sign it. (For Smith’s history, see Harv’s Hindsight for August 2016, just posted a couple of months ago.)
In the years of Mutt and Jeff’s heydays (1920s and 1930s), homosexuality was not very high on the horizon of public awareness. In fact, many people may have thought homosexuality was merely a rumor. Those in the general population who acknowledged it did so with a wink, as if it wasn’t quite established as a fact of human life. So two guys sharing a bed wouldn’t convey any sexual message. It was simply a matter of convenience for two guys who occupy the same (probably small and cheap) apartment.
Despite all this, what if they are gay? Who cares? To each his own, live and let live.
Who can say? Not me. And I’ve been a-studyin’ this thing for some years now.
ENOUGH. I’M JUST HAVING SOME FUN imitating gay-baiters or sex-scandal mongers of that dubious homophobic ilk who look for and find gaiety everywhere—anticipating that promulgating their discoveries will destroy the reputations of those they allege are gay (whether they are or not) or do mischief of some other kindred sort. Dunno whether this sort of thing goes on much anymore (was Rock Hudson really gay?), but I’ve tried, in the spirit of satirical imitation, to take the issue with Mutt and Jeff as far as it can be dragged on.
To respond to the beady-eyed and perhaps to undermine their scandalizing, perhaps it would be enough to remember that Mutt and Jeff weren’t the only funny men who shared beds: Laurel and Hardy did it in the movies. And so did others—particularly certain down-and-outers short of money—like Laurel and Hardy and, sometimes, Mutt and Jeff.
What’s clear from this expedition is not that Mutt and Jeff are gay (although if they are, so what?—it does not diminish the comedy) but that Fisher and Mack (and, after 1932, Smith) would do anything for the day’s gag. If the comedy required Mutt to have a wife and family, then he had a wife and family; if not, not.
Mutt didn’t need a family very often (until after Smith took over, and he explored the possibilities of domestic comedy more than anyone else had). At the heart of the strip’s popularity in the early years is the relationship between Mutt and Jeff—Jeff, the “wise fool,” just a little dim-witted; Mutt, his exasperated victim. Little room for a family in that formula.
And the rest of the formula was simple: anything for a laugh. If the joke required that Mutt be a ditch-digger and Jeff a door-to-door salesman, that’s what they were for the day. The next day, they might be partners running a men’s haberdashery. Anything for a laugh.