Let’s Shop for Some Practical Jokes in a 1979 Johnson Smith ‘Fun Catalog’
I don’t know exactly how much demand there was for whoopee cushions in 1914, when Alfred Johnson Smith was selling those and similar novelty items out of the trunk of his car, but it was enough for him to launch a mail-order catalog that year, through which he started selling these trinkets.
So those gags, along with the other wonderful things hyped and sold in the Johnson Smith catalog — and just the catalog itself as a whole — were well embedded into American pop culture by the time I discovered them as an 8-or-9-year-old in the late 1970s, through my uncle, who was nine years older than me and still basically a kid himself. But he was old enough to have a part-time job and be able to afford 89 cents for a whoopee cushion, or 99 cents for fake vomit.
During the time I was marveling over the hilarious illustrations (and, to a lesser degree, the writeups describing the items, at least beyond the sensationalistic headers) in the Johnson Smith catalog, it had adopted its slogan “Things You Never Knew Existed.”
And I certainly did not know any of these things existed until I first saw them in this wonderful book. Whenever my uncle got a new “fun catalog,” as it was often described on the cover, I would pore over it as intensely as I did any comic book (and Johnson Smith’s ads for products, as well as ads from companies offering similar items, often found their way into comic books during that era, as well).
Enticing headlines for a variety of odd products filled the pages — “Ride an Exciting Unicycle”; “Disco Dance at Once! Complete Guide to Disco Dancing”; “Drive Fish Crazy — Most Fish Cannot Resist Spanish Fly Bait Oil”; “1914 German Field Cannon — Really Shoots!”; “Optical Illusion Glasses That Seem to Give You X-Ray Vision”; and more.
But I was always drawn to the gags and practical jokes, and was fortunate enough to be able to have used a number of them, with even some success in pranking unsuspecting victims.
I recently was able to page through a 1979 edition of the Johnson Smith catalog for the first time in over 40 years, thanks to the Internet Archive.
The illustrations were still as wild as I remember, but this time I was also more struck by the copywriting than I was as a kid; the wonderful descriptions for these gags really grab you with not only their hilarity, but also, in a number of cases, with the almost gleefully cruel tone they take when informing you how you can put these practical jokes to use against “suckers” and “victims.”
That fits in with the brilliant description that humorist Jean Shepherd offered of the catalog when he wrote the introduction to a 1970 reprint of the 1929 catalog: “The Johnson Smith catalog is a magnificent, smudgy thumbprint of a totally lusty, vibrant, alive, crude post-frontier society, a society that was, and in some ways still remains, an exotic mixture of moralistic piety and violent, primitive humor. … It might well be the Rosetta Stone of American culture.”
The Johnson Smith company now, sadly, no longer exists (it closed just recently, in 2019). Perhaps competition from places that sold similar items, like Spencer’s Gifts or American Science & Surplus, took a toll. I hope the reason is not that people are no longer interested in classic practical jokes; I refuse to believe that’s the case.
In any event, let’s take a look back at some of the notable practical jokes — some of them featuring that “violent, primitive humor” in how they are described — that I rediscovered in this 1979 Johnson Smith catalog.
Joy Buzzer (aka Hand Buzzer)
A true classic gag, which is a great concept in theory, but very hard to successfully pull off. I had a joy buzzer as a kid, and I never seemed natural going up to an adult and practically demanding that they shake my hand.
And in the event that you might actually get someone to reach out for a handshake, it was pretty easy for them to tell you had something in your hand. You had to be quick and very sly; getting the hand buzzer gag to work smoothly is a sign that you are an expert prankster.
The description of the product, and its accompanying illustration, in the Johnson Smith catalog, seen above, is as much of a laugh-generator as the joke itself.
“Place on chair and they get a shock in the butt when they sit down!” Boy, I had never thought of using it that way. That probably would have been more successful than going the hand route.
“Many uses.” Well, I don’t know about that. And I’m not even going to touch the “Can also be used as a vibrator” part …
I never was able to truly surprise someone with a joy buzzer. If any real-life successes with this gag exist, I’d love to hear about them.
But so far, I’ve only seen the joy buzzer work in scripted scenarios, like in this scene in Seinfeld, when Kramer’s (Michael Richards) buzzer nearly derails George’s (Jason Alexander) career as a hand model before it even begins …
… and in this scene in 1989’s Batman, when Jack Nicholson’s Joker literally knocks ’em dead with his enhanced hand buzzer, which I think even the most die-hard prankster would agree is carrying the gag a bit too far.
Sure, 21st-century advancements in practical joke technology now allow you to be able to use a remote control to make it sound like an unsuspecting and innocent target is farting from all the way across the room. But I think that is one instance where a modern convenience has made us lazier.
Using a device like that to pull off a prank lacks the skill and extensive plotting that is required when using a classic Whoopee Cushion: Picking your target, guessing where they might sit (or subtly guiding them to sit where you want them to), figuring out how much to inflate the cushion, based on estimating your victim’s weight, the thickness of the seat they may be sitting on, etc.
All that hard work and planning is the sort of thing that adds to the thrill and the payoff when a practical joke works. I do remember getting a few such payoffs with using the Whoopee Cushion back in the day
On another note, I have to say that the below description for the Whoopee Cushion in the Johnson Smith catalog is as finely crafted and dramatic as anything a copywriter for a J. Peterman catalog could come up with.
This writer clearly was given the directive to not use the word “fart,” and the phrasing that resulted sounds almost poetic, or as if a Victorian era person was trying to describe a device that simulates flatulence.
“Gives forth noises better imagined than described”? I am in love with this blurb.
I never personally had or ever used a Dribble Glass, so I can’t speak to how well it works, or if it works at all. But I still always loved the concept, especially as described here, and particularly with the accompanying illustration.
I mean, check out that waiter and his smug grin as he looks back at the poor sucker dribbling all over himself. You know that waiter was at least part of this prank plot, if not the main instigator himself (perhaps the victim was a notoriously bad tipper?).
“Gross-Out” Gags — Fake Vomit & Poop
“Almost turns your stomach to use as a joke, it’s so realistic.”
I can vouch for the accuracy of that Johnson Smith catalog description of the imitation vomit you could buy for 99 cents (about $4.30 in today’s currency). My uncle had this, and it was truly — to use the word the description simply ends with before the writer apparently just trailed off in disgust — “revolting.” I can still get a little queasy remembering how it looked; there were like even pieces of sausage in it, as if someone had just hurled up a pizza.
Fake vomit was another gag I had at least one success with in tricking someone.
I’m sorry (but not sorry) to say that I actually pranked my grandmother with this. Taking the catalog blurb’s advice and placing the vomit near a dog, I also added some water on top of the plastic product to give a more realistic “glisten.” I then ran into my grandmother’s kitchen and worriedly told her that one of her dogs had thrown up. Naturally concerned at first, she was a good sport about it when she realized the gag. Good times!
Speaking of dogs, another classic in the “gross-out” practical joke genre was the fake dog poop gag, as seen in the ad above. Poor dogs; if they aren’t being blamed for human flatulence, they’re being used as unwitting pawns by pranksters with rubber excrement trying to trick an unsuspecting sucker.
My uncle had this one, as well, and given that his parents (my grandparents) had three dogs, it was almost too easy to simply place this realistic-looking item on a carpet and wait for the ensuing gasps. (Of course, since those dogs would sometimes leave real poop in the house, that added to the chaos, and you had to be careful to verify just what it was you were picking up with your bare hands.)
The Johnson Smith catalog also sold fake bird poop, as well as fake poop that you could place on a toilet seat to make it appear as if someone had “missed.”
And then there was this thing:
I’m still unsure what this “disgusting mess” consisted of. By “gruesome twosome: fake dog mess, vomit,” do they mean you can buy them both for one price? Are they somehow mixed together into something that would indeed be “horribly realistic and revolting”?
I don’t know, and man, I really don’t want to know. The expression on that guy’s face says it all.
Surprise Pop-Out Snakes in Cans
Another classic. My uncle had the snake that sprung out of what appeared to be a can of nuts, which I think was the best-known form of this gag. I was unaware until I rediscovered this Johnson Smith ad that you could also get these in candy cans and even shaving cream cans.
“Awful-Tasting” Food Items
I never had or experienced using any of the practical jokes in the “awful-tasting” food/drink genre of gag. Frankly, these sound fairly sketchy. What exactly are the ingredients that make the cola, gum, candy or anything else taste so terrible that “your victim wishes he had never accepted your offer”? Is the target of your prank going to need medical assistance afterward?
Of course, a true die-hard prankster must be conscienceless and remorseless, and have no pity. Isn’t the risk of a little food poisoning worth it when it comes to getting a great laugh?
Gags to Irritate and Infuriate “Suckers”
I never had any of these items, either, so I’m afraid I don’t know what it was like to “make the ladies cry and the strong men swear” over their inability to open a fake sugar packet, or cut into fake butter (a “great laugh-getter at the dinner table”), or get clean with fake soap (“victim can wash for hours without results”).
Assorted Other Gags
There were countless other practical jokes in the Johnson Smith catalog, too, beyond the obvious ones. Some of them are below.
I did used to have the fake parking tickets, and was actually able to fool another uncle of mine by slipping one under his windshield wiper. Watching as he sheepishly grabbed it without looking at it and quickly getting into his car, seeming to hope that no one had seen him get what he thought was a real ticket, was a satisfying payoff.
My uncle had the snapping gum trick seen below. That one was as similarly hard to effectively pull off as the joy buzzer was, but I like the concept.
Variations of “squirting” pranks were also available, like the Squirt Toilet Seat below (which “works perfectly every time”; where else can you get a guarantee like that?).
I never had that one, but in high school I had a realistic-looking mini-camera that actually shot water at your unsuspecting “photography” subject. The squirter on that camera was multidirectional, and in a high point of my pranking career, I managed to squirt the same guy from each direction in quick succession (facing him, then to the side, then surreptitiously turning the squirter inward and letting him use the camera, only to have him end up squirting himself).
Bag of Laughs
So, let’s say your efforts at pulling off a practical joke failed.
Or worse, they were successful, but no one found them funny, and you got no laughs.
Not having anyone laugh at your gag could be chalked up to a number of things. Maybe the victim and witnesses to the prank had other things on their mind. Maybe they were just having a bad day. Perhaps they were too busy getting ready to drive the target of your awful-tasting food joke to the hospital for a stomach-pump. Who knows?
One thing that could guarantee you some laughter in your life was Johnson Smith’s Bag of Laughs.
Sure, it may have been an “outrageous, raunchy” and somewhat creepy laugh (that for some reason also featured “realistic bird calls”), but any sort of laughter is the best medicine.
And the Johnson Smith catalog — through its products, as well as its illustrations and descriptions — always had enough of that medicine to cure what ails you.