April Fools' pranks come and go, but one joke item that's stood the test of time is the whoopee cushion. Today, we trace its history from ancient Rome to now. Where did it come from? Why is it funny? Will it stay popular? And if everyone knows its name, why does no one company get the credit for it?
Produced by Julia Press, with Charlie Herman and Sarah Wyman.
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: Welcome to the New York Toy Fair, where people from around the country pack into a gigantic convention center along the Hudson River to showcase their newest inventions. This stuff is the cutting edge of toy innovation, I mean, this is the Superbowl of toys.
WARREN BERKOWITZ: In the fake doggie doo you know genre as you say we have one that you actually attach to the top of a pencil and we call it a "genuine #2 pencil," so that's one of our better sellers.
CH: This is Warren Berkowitz. He works for a company called Forum Novelties.
WB: My mantra has always been, if you need it, we don't have it. Selling products that people want but don't need. But you know, we take our jokes pretty serious!
CH: At this year's Toy Fair, his booth is decked out with prank and joke items. They've got your classics: fake roaches, eyeglasses topped with fuzzy eyebrows … but there's also something else in the air…
WB: One of the items that we make is fart spray. When we were trying to develop the just right smell we went through a number of different aromas
CH: You can also find an electronic fart machine, farts in a can, and a fart pen hanging alongside that fart spray. They know what sells and this particular category of joke never disappoints.
WB: Strangely enough probably the most popular items are the ones that have been around for close to 100 years. Things like whoopee cushions are still some of the best sellers.
CH: That's right. The whoopee cushion is blowing competitors out of the water. The smell of success is in the air. You could even say it's… cooking with gas.
[Whoopee cushion sound]
From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don't. I'm Charlie Herman.
April Fool's pranks come and go, but one practical joke has stood the test of time: the whoopee cushion.
Today, we trace its history, from ancient Rome to now: where it came from, and why it is so funny.
If everyone knows the whoopee cushion, why does no one get the credit for it? Is it a brand? A name? And what does it tell us about the industry that created it.
Warning. There might be a lot of dad jokes ahead.
Stay with us.
[Whoopee cushion sound]
MARDI TIMM: Oh my gosh, we have a giant pencil which is huge…
CH: Mardi Timm is a novelty collector in Racine, Wisconsin.
MT: A giant rabbit 's foot, and a super colossal jumbo olive…
CH: Her house is packed with boxes, filled to the brim with every novelty item you can imagine.
MT: One of my favorite items in the collection, one of my absolute favorites is, it's a comb and what it does is it puts dandruff in your hair. It's awesome.
CH: For the past 35 years, she and her husband Stan have built up this treasure trove of gadgets…
MT: We have ant farms…
CH: And gizmos…
MT: We have costumes!
CH: And toys…
MT: Everyone has heard of, yackity yack the chattering teeth?
CH: And magic tricks.
MT: The x-ray glasses that supposedly you can put those glasses on and look at your hand and see your bones. It doesn't work. But they're there.
CH: Today, they have about 1,800 items in their collection. And for Mardi, these aren't just old knickknacks. They're artifacts.
MT: It's Americana. It's really a history of the growth and the changes of the people of America. It's popular culture.
CH: She and Stan don't just collect these things, they try to uncover the history behind them. And one of their most prized possessions is, you guessed it:
MT: So this is the original whoopee cushion. And the original whoopee cushion is a lovely little thing.
CH: It's from 1932. When Mardi and Stan spotted this cushion on eBay, they were willing to wager $94 on it. But, much to their surprise, there were no other bidders.
MT: And we got that whoopee cushion for $5.
CH: And when you got it and it arrived at your home, I mean…
MT: We did a happy dance. It was, it was the coolest thing ever. We just couldn't believe it. Now, you couldn't use it, because it was too old, but it's original. It's just beautiful.
CH: I have to say, beauty is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of a whoopee cushion. But to hear Mardi talk about it, you would think she's describing a Picasso.
MT: It's interesting, the green is like army green. And it has um a scalloped edge like if you used pinking shears…
CH: And like any good work of art, to truly understand the whoopee cushion, you have to look back at the many historical and cultural influences that led to its creation. It took hundreds of years of history to get that whoopee cushion onto the chairs of unsuspecting teachers and old maid aunts across the United States. And it starts, of course…
[Whoopee cushion sound]
…with the noise itself.
JIM DAWSON: An archaeologist actually found the earliest joke from the Babylonian period and it was a fart joke.
CH: That's Jim Dawson. He considers himself a "fartologist" because of three books he's written.
JD: The first one was Who Cut the Cheese?: A Cultural History of the Fart. The second one was Blame It on the Dog: A Modern History of the Fart. And then Did Somebody Step on a Duck?: A Natural History of the Fart.
CH: Dawson told me that flatulence has a rich and storied history. People have been talking about farts for ages—I'm talking everyone from first century authors:
JD: Josephus who was a Roman Jewish writer…
CH: To prized playwrights:
CH: To the father of English literature:
JD: Chaucer's the Canterbury Tales
CH: Mark Twain wrote a satirical play called "1601" based on an elaborate fart joke. And Joseph Pujol, Paris' top entertainer in the 1890s, brought flatulence to the masses…
JD: He was able to control his stomach in a way that he could suck air in through his anus and then blow it back out again. And he had such control. And he would do imitations. And, apparently it, people would be row would be rolling, uh, in laughter at the Moulin Rouge where he performed.
CH: The whoopee cushion itself dates back centuries as well. Legend has it that an ancient Roman emperor, Elagabalus, was a big fan of using proto-whoopee cushions at dinner parties. By the Middle Ages, it was looking closer to a whoopee cushion you'd recognize.
JD: The old jokers, the court jesters, would come up with the lowest forms of humor to make the king and the queen and their court laugh and one would be like the pig bladder full of air and then you can control the air coming out of it and make all these funny sounds. And that's really where the idea came from.
CH: But it wasn't until the 1920s that the commercial whoopee cushion you know today hit the shelves. For that, you can thank the Canadian rubber company, "JEM". Again, novelty collector Mardi Timm:
MT: The claim to fame that they had, the JEM Rubber Company was this valve that they created that allowed the whole mechanism to work. So you blow it up and the valve stops the air from coming back out again. So then it expands and then when you sit on it, it makes that wonderful noise.
CH: The Canadian rubber company approached a couple of American novelty companies about selling the cushion in the US. And the one that smelled a hit, was Johnson Smith. Now, Johnson Smith made some of its own products, but it was most famous for its enormous catalogue — it was like the Sears catalogue of novelty toys. Seriously, it's been called "the Rosetta Stone of American culture."
These catalogues were actually what got Mardi and her husband into novelty collecting in the first place. They have an almost complete collection of catalogues from 1914 through the 1950s, and that includes one of the company's biggest ever: the one from 1932 that broadcast the whoopee cushion's US debut.
MT: Here's what it says: "The whoopee cushion is made of rubber…"
CH: Except for the color, which went from military green to that bubblegum pink you know today, the whoopee cushion really hasn't changed much over the years.
MT: "When the victim unsuspectingly sits upon the cushion, it gives forth the most indescribable noises…"
CH: The whoopee cushion was sold under a handful of nonsensical names at first — everything from the poo poo pillow to the boop-boop a doop (a fan favorite here at Brought to you by…). But one name stuck. Again, fartologist, Jim Dawson:
JD: The big word in this country was "whoopee." And there was a big play on Broadway called whoopee. And, uh Eddie Cantor had a huge hit, "Makin' Whoopee"
EDDIE CANTOR: …Another reason, for makin' whoopee…
JD: Whoopee. It meant a lot of things. It meant having a party. It meant sex, you know, uh, having fun, you know, also money.
CH: "Whoopee" epitomized the 1920s, and papers across the continent wrote about the rise of this new hot slang.
JD: You know, whoopee!
CH: As the Roaring Twenties crashed into the Great Depression, people wanted to hold onto the spirit of whoopee. So when Johnson Smith started selling a "whoopee cushion," this silly prank product took off.
MT: What they offered people was humor, and the whoopee cushion and a lot of the novelties and pranks and jokes that they had offered people some levity and a way to get away from the seriousness of what was going on around them.
CH: Johnson Smith had a captive audience that was hungry for its products. But there's a reason you know the name "whoopee cushion," and not the name of the companies that sold it.
That's after the break.
CH: Welcome back, please, take a seat, don't worry.
[Whoopee cushion sound]
Before we go any further, I want to take a second and talk about why whoopee cushions are funny in the first place. I mean, they are funny, it's a scientific fact, at least, that's according to this guy:
TREVOR COX: I'm Trevor Cox, I'm professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in England.
CH: In 2009, Cox embarked on a unique course of research as part of a fundraising campaign for the organization Comic Relief. That work was to systematically test what makes the funniest whoopee cushion sound.
TC: First of all we needed a range of whoopee cushion sounds to test so I sent off a very experienced researcher with a recording system and said 'see how many sounds you could make out of this whoopee cushion.' And he came back with this huge cornucopia of recordings, you couldn't quite believe the range of sounds you could make but if you give it to a really good acoustician, they can make some really strange sounds.
[Whoopee cushion sounds]
CH: (laughs) By the way, these are the actual sounds from his study. (How could you actually take notes while they're laughing?!)
[Whoopee cushion sounds]
CH: Ok, Charlie. Compose yourself. So Cox and his team reviewed this library of noise they'd created. They ran statistical tests to determine which noises were the most different. Then they uploaded them onto a website and asked people to rate them on a scale of 1 to 6, or no smile to a big, open mouthed grin.
TC: And we got a really large number of people, I think we ended up with hundreds of thousands of ratings, and about 70,000 people did this experiment so it was big data.
CH: When they crunched the numbers, they found a few takeaways. If you're like most people, then this:
[Short whoopee cushion sound]
Just does not have the same comic effect as:
[Long whoopee cushion sound]
TC: I have this graph which shows you how funny it is versus time and clearly as the whoopee cushion sounds get longer and longer they get funnier, so maybe if you're sitting down on the whoopee cushion, you should do it quite slowly.
CH: Just like any good joke, the whoopee cushion abides by the rules of comedy.
TC: In comedy, the unexpected is often funny and so actually the longest whoopee cushion sound we made, it goes on and you think 'oh it's going to stop soon' and it goes on, and on and on and on and it goes on to ridiculous lengths and that makes it very very funny.
CH: Some sounds were funnier than others — the whinier the better. Some people were more amused than others — the younger you were, the funnier you found the sounds. And the more sounds you listened to, the funnier you thought they were:
TC: If it's a good joke, it gets funnier and funnier doesn't it?
CH: Cox actually didn't mind having to listen through fart sound after fart sound to design his research.
TC: Actually in acoustics you spend a lot of time researching noise and how it has a detrimental effect, you know traffic noise, plane noise, all those sorts of things, and so it's quite nice to turn it around and think of things, sounds which create joy and whether you find whoopee cushions funny or not, you know that sound creates a lot of joy in a lot of people, for better or for worse.
CH: And back in the 1930s, it did not take long for companies to catch on to this. Soon after the whoopee cushion's debut, it was selling like crazy! And one company in particular realized it had made a big mistake. It had the opportunity to be the first to sell the whoopee cushion in the US, but it said, 'No. We'll sit this one out.' That company was S. S. Adams, the guys who pioneered the American novelty industry.
KIRK DEMARAIS: Supposedly, it was rejected because the whole concept was said to be in poor taste.
CH: Isn't that kind of the point? Kirk Demarais has designed packaging for S. S. Adams and he wrote a book about the company's first 100 years. He says it was Samuel Adams, the founder, who passed on the whoopee cushion.
KD: It's kind of funny that he would, you know, turn his nose up at this thing because he'd already put out like, you know, fake doggy do and things like that.
CH: Classy. After Samuel blew off the whoopee cushion, the Canadian rubber company struck a deal with Johnson Smith, the ones with the catalogue. However, once the whoopee cushion started selling, Samuel realized his mistake. He supposedly said this bad decision cost him $50,000 in profits the first year alone, or nearly a million dollars in today's money.
KD: Once uh, Samuel noticed the success, he produced what's called the "razzberry cushion," which is just, uh, the exact same thing really.
CH: He was not the only one to make a copy of the whoopee cushion.
KD: Knockoffs are extremely common in the novelty industry. And this is probably one of the first times, where Adams did the knocking off.
CH: Here's the thing about novelty makers: they're jokesters. They're not sitting around talking about how to protect their assets, they're thinking about how they are gonna get their next laugh.
KD: Samuel said, 'by the time one of our products has been ripped off, it's already passe, and it's not really worth, you know, pouring money and time into, you know, any legal entanglements.'
DAVID WAHL: The legal part of the novelty industry is probably the least interesting part of the novelty industry.
CH: This is David Wahl, the "Director of Awesome," a pretty awesome job title if you ask me, for a company called Archie McPhee. It's like a modern day S. S. Adams.
DW: It's much more interesting to talk about unicorns than it is to talk about lawyers.
CH: If Wahl wanted to talk about patents and trademarks and copyrights all day, he would have become a lawyer. It's not why he got into the novelty joke business. For many in this always innovating, always evolving industry, all that paperwork is a real buzzkill.
DW: We put out, you know, 150 new products a year. So what we would become is a law firm if we decided we were just all of a sudden going to try and protect every idea that we had from every glimmer of a copy that could possibly come from it. And that's just not our focus.
CH: But sometimes you have to talk about lawyers. Because this is an industry in trouble.
The mindset that drives novelty makers, you see it right there in the name: novel, it's all about the next best idea. So you have companies that spend decades investing time and money into making new products — nailing the spring in the "snake in a can" or getting the recoil just right on that "dollar bill snatcher." But many of those companies do not spend the same resources protecting their rights to those products — through, say, patents and trademarks.
What that means is many of these companies do not have name recognition, but their great products do. That's why you know the "whoopee cushion," but probably can't name a single company that makes one.
And it could be why so many novelty companies and stores have been closing.
More on that, when we come back. Hang on to your seat.
CH: We're back.
Today, if you Google "whoopee cushion," there isn't just one item that pops up. There are tons and tons of the exact same product, sold under the exact same name, sold by a ton of different businesses. No single company has the patent to exclusively sell whoopee cushions.
MICHAEL COHEN: You know, it's really odd. So we did a search and we couldn't find anything that came up.
CH: This is attorney Michael Cohen. No, not the one you're thinking of, this Michael Cohen specializes in intellectual property: things like patents and copyrights.
MC: As far as we know, no one put the effort to put a fight up in regards to the ownership of the name and it just became a generic term.
CH: What he means is, "whoopee cushion" describes a category of goods, not one product in particular. It's not a brand name. It's like the words "automobile" or "cell phone."
MC: Anyone can utilize that term because it simply describes what it is. It's a whoopee cushion
CH: But it did not have to be this way.
MC: So in a perfect world, if there was a hypothetical, what should they have done? Patents for sure. And trademarks for sure. And possibly even copyrights to some extent.
CH: Cohen says the first person to make the whoopee cushion might have been able to protect its shape, appearance and function using patents, and its name, using trademarks. It might have even been able to prevent others from making knockoffs of the product by arguing its shape is what people associate with the brand.
MC: It kinda has that iconic shape to at least when it's an inflated, and so maybe there could've been, there's an argument that there could have been a trade dress protection for that.
CH: But that's not what happened, because, again, in the novelty industry, the focus has been more on inventing new things instead of investing in legal protections for old ones. That means, sometimes people imitate or plain rip off ideas other people created. It's the nature of this business, though, it's not always a bad thing.
When it comes to novelty toys and products, there are a few different types of imitation. The first type, the one the industry is built to support, let's call it "iteration." It's like when someone comes along and says 'How about I design a whoopee cushion that inflates on its own?' Novelty makers are all for that. David Wahl, the Director of Awesome, says it's kind of like writing jazz music.
DW: You have traditional tunes and what happens is you put your own spin in that tune and you record it. And I think that having a novelty product that's an echo of another novelty product is good. Making this beautiful new music out of a reflection of what someone else has done is, you know, that's what creativity is.
CH: Using better rubber or developing a new valve that releases the air to make a new, symphonic whoopee cushion melody, that's all fair game. But problems come up when you get to the second type of imitation. That's when other companies start straight up ripping off your song.
DW: There are companies that exist only as a shadow of other companies. They just copy what other companies do as soon as they see what's popular.
CH: And when another company comes along and starts selling your exact same product, if you haven't legally protected it, there's not much you can do. And that matters when a product, like the whoopee cushion, becomes a household name, but the company that created it, is not.
DW: It obviously affects our sales. And, um, there is customer confusion, which is the worst part about it.
CH: There's one more kind of imitation and it is bad news for the entire novelty industry. That's when other companies don't just steal your idea and your customers and then make money. It's when their product is a cheap knockoff and even ruins the joke. Wahl has seen this happen with the razor blade through the thumb trick: a classic.
DW: I saw one, not too long ago that wouldn't even fit on my pinky, um, in the shape of a thumb cause it was so small. And it, and it had no blood on it and it was just, you know, a gray razor sticking in the side of the little tiny thumb finger. So, it takes away what the original object was until it just becomes this, uh, you know, it's like a Xerox copy of a Xerox copy of a Xerox copy.
KD: It renders the product useless.
CH: This again is Kirk Demarais. He's studied how novelty items are sold, and he says this phenomenon, what's called "quality fade," has actually hurt novelty companies across the country.
KD: I think over time they became associated with cheap junk. I mean, if you go back to the dawn of the prank novelty industry, a lot of that stuff, you know, was made of metal and made of, higher quality materials.
CH: As low quality imitations began to flood the market, it got harder and harder for consumers to tell the difference between the well-made, say, whoopee cushion.
[Good whoopee cushion sound]
And some cheapo "whoopee cushion."
[Deflating whoopee cushion sound]
People don't really know which brands of novelty products are better than others, or which ones they prefer, like their favorite shampoo or peanut butter. If you want to buy a "whoopee cushion," you don't care if it's made by JEM Rubber Company or Johnson Smith or S. S. Adams. Novelty companies know this, and it's reflected in how they advertise.
KD: I think they were selling an experience and they are selling this moment of astonishment when it comes to magic tricks or this moment of humiliation when it comes to pranks. The way that so many prank and novelty items were sold took the brand name out of the equation.
CH: So when someone buys a dinky, unconvincing razor blade through the thumb from one company or a cheaply made whoopee cushion from another, it hurts every other company selling the same prank. This reality, along with the focus on innovations instead of legal protections, means that in the end, the novelty toy business is struggling.
KD: After the '80s, even the shops, you know, standalone novelty shops and joke shops, uh, they started closing down and now they're almost nonexistent.
CH: S. S. Adams, the company that spearheaded the American novelty industry, was sold to an online store in 2009. And at the end of 2019, Johnson Smith, the company that put the whoopee cushion on the map in the US, it shuttered its doors after 105 years.
MT: Which I have to tell you, makes me incredibly sad.
CH: Again, novelty collector, Mardi Timm.
MT: Because they've been a part of my life for 35 years and I feel like I've just lost an old friend.
CH: After all those years of collecting, Mardi and her husband are selling their collection. She hopes they'll find a new home for it in one piece, so it doesn't just become a hodgepodge of stuff. Because she believes there's something to be learned from all those toys and pranks and jokes.
MT: People have a natural funny bone and they need a release of some sort to just not look at life so seriously.
CH: To be honest, before we started working on this story, I hadn't really thought about the whoopee cushion in a while. But I could immediately picture one. Round, pink, scalloped edges…and I thought, who would be the perfect person I could use that on today? Because I'd like to think, no matter how old you are or how sophisticated you think you are, there are some practical jokes that, if done right, are always funny. But to confirm this, I decided to check with some experts.
OSCAR: My name is Oscar, I'm in fifth grade and I'm 11.
CHRIS: My name is Chris.
CAMI: My name is Cami.
NATE: My name is Nate, I'm in fifth grade and I'm 10 years old.
LUKE: A fart is funny because of the sound.
OSCAR: [sounds] They're funny and stinky and sometimes loud.
CHRIS: And they're kind of inappropriate.
CAMI: they come from a silly part of your body.
LUKE: I've actually thought of them more as human nature as I've gotten older but I still think that they're funny.
JOSH: In movies, like comedic movies when there are like tense moments it just relieves the tensity.
CAMI: It's probably the most funniest at the most unexpecting moment.
NATE: When I was in class, this one kid he sneezed and farted at the same time interrupting my Spanish teacher (laughing) and the whole class started laughing
LUKE: Just a little [sound] is considered comedy these days I guess.
MOM: Did you ever have a whoopee cushion?
LUKE: I did. I had several.
DAD: Who did you use the whoopee cushion on the most?
CHRIS: My sister. I would always like put it under her seat at the dinner table.
NATE: I don't like whoopee cushions because like…they're not real.
OSCAR: I never got a good laugh out of it because I never put it in the right place.
STEVEN: You can prank people by thinking they farted and other people saying 'ew' but they're like 'I didn't fart.'
CAMI: When people laugh at farts, they're not actually laughing at you, you shouldn't be embarrassed because it's kind of a funny thing.
OSCAR: Farts. You can't not like em.
CH: Let's hope this generation knows a good practical joke not just for the novelty industry, but for all of us. Because, say what you will about fart jokes, they have a way of deflating egos. They let the air out of our pretensions and show us we're all human. And sometimes, we all need that breath of fresh air.
CH: By the way, if you're interested in buying Mardi's novelty collection, reach out to us and we can connect you. It truly contains multitudes.
And in the meantime, what's made you laugh this week? Share your stories with us in our Facebook group—just search Brought to you by podcast. We want to know where the best cat videos are on YouTube. Which tweets we should send to our friends. How you've been pranking your loved ones this April Fool's Day. There's a lot going on. Give us a call and leave a message at (646) 768-4777. We'll be sharing some of our favorites with all of you in the weeks ahead.
This episode was produced by Julia Press. With Sarah Wyman and me, Charlie Herman.
Special thanks to Claire Banderas and Michael Nowak from Rhode Island Novelties. Thanks also to Josh and Steven's dad, Nate's dad, Cami's mom, Luke's mom and dad, Chris's dad, and Oscar's mom.
Bill Moss is our sound engineer. Music from Audio Network. John DeLore and Casey Holford composed our theme. The editor is Micaela Blei. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
Brought to you by… is a production of Insider Audio.
[CHARLIE BLOOPER REEL]
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