I was surprised and dismayed to check in at The Comics Reporter and see that Stuart Hample passed away Sunday at the age of 84. Surprised, because I wouldn't have guessed that he was 84—he was way too lively, although I suppose anyone who had hung out with Fred Allen and Al Capp couldn't be that young—and dismayed because that means I won't get to talk to him again.
I interviewed Stu last November, for an article in PWCW about Dread and Superficiality, a collection of his Inside Woody Allen comic strips. We talked for about two hours, and I took nine single-spaced pages of notes. He had some great stories about working with Woody Allen and other comedians of the time, most of which are in the book or the article, but the off-topic stuff was just as interesting.
"Everything I’ve done has no depth, but I had a wide array of careers," Hample told me. "I'm a multimedia failure." That's not entirely true. In addition to collaborating with Woody Allen on the strip, he had several other newspaper comics, Children's Letters to God and Rich and Famous. He was a writer for the TV show Kate and Allie, and as an adman, he got Al Capp to do ads for Wildroot Cream-Oil hair tonic. He even did a brief stint on Captain Kangaroo, in the show's early days, as Mr. Artist. Sometimes Hample reached a bit too far, as when he tried to get James Thurber to draw an ad for General Electric and when he pitched a comic strip based on comedian Dick Gregory. Neither enterprise was a success, but they certainly were interesting failures.
I'm going to let Stu do the talking after the jump; read on for some of the stories he told in the interview, edited slightly for readability but not fact-checked at all.
On radio comedian Fred Allen and Senator Claghorn
I handed him some jokes when he was at NBC. He said "Son, bringing a joke to me is like bringing a fender to Henry Ford."
There was a character on Allen’s Alley, Senator Claghorn [the inspiration for the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn]. This is probably 1944 or 1945, and Senator Claghorn came on, and within weeks he had captured the nation’s fancy. It was like the Beatles. He was on the cover of Life Magazine. This is Kenny Delmar as Senator Claghorn, he was an announcer and also an actor. I was a 19 year old sailor at the submarine base at New London, Connecticut, seeking fame even then, and I drew some sketches, cartoons of the senator, hitchhiked down to NY, I looked in the phone book for the name Kenny Delmar and there it was. I called him up, told him I have an idea for the character Senator Claghorn, and he said "I don't own Senator Claghorn. Come to NBC studio 8H. So I met Fred. He said "Bring me some comic strips." I couldn't have written the strip then, so I said to Fred, fraudulently, I would need to come here and watch the program a lot to be able to get material for the senator. So I came down every Sunday and watched the show. Kenny was hilarious. I got to go to Hollywood to be a stand in for his movie It’s a Joke Son, which—isn't.
On Li'l Abner cartoonist Al Capp
I worked for the ad agency BBDO. I worked on Wildroot hair oil. I had heard Al Capp make a speech—he was then a liberal and then turned into a right-wing ideologue, but he was a liberal when I saw this speech and I fell in love with him. I conceived an idea from nowhere: He had a parody of Dick Tracy, Fearless Fosdick. I thought maybe I could use that character for Wild Root Cream-Oil ads. I talked to Capp, and he said "Well, it’s a very good idea, but I don't do a gag-a-day strip, I do a story strip." So I wrote one and he loved it, with Fosdick. I invented Anyface. The strip is four panels. The first panel has a gorgeous girl, then Fosdick pointing a gun at a character who looks just like him— Anyface, the world’s trickiest criminal. [In the ads, Anyface is given away by his greasy hair—click here for some samples.]
We did a whole year, made a deal to run in Life, made a deal that it would run in the paper first, then in Life. He fell in love with that. He made $100,000 that year, 1954, so he hired me. We were going to do ads, and I moved to Boston. My fiancé was at Wellesley, so I lived up near the campus, and I worked with Capp doing this kind of stuff. I did not do the strip, but I have such anecdotes. He was some wild, larger than life character. He would give the strip to Andy Amato, Andy would rough out the characters, draw them all, then Al would redo the faces of Daisy and Abner and Mammy and Pappy. Another guy inked the bodies, and then another guy lettered it.
On James Thurber
When I was with BBDO, I had an idea for a General Electric ad. Dr. Seuss had done "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" so I said what if Thurber did it? I asked, he said yes he would, and he gave a price per ad. I said "General Electric thinks you're a little high," and he said "Tell General Electric I think he's a little high."
[Hemple wound up sitting with Thurber at Larry Adler's 50th birthday party.] We chatted for a while. I said "What's it like being blind?" He said, "It was difficult. For a while there, I kept seeing Herbert Hoover." Larry Adler was playing the piano and then people would interrupt and say things about Larry. A guy named Harry Kurnitz, a playwright in New York, a big Jewish guy who was from the outer boroughs who was funny, he said "Wait a minute Larry, I got a few words to say." He said "I wrote a lot of songs myself. My 3 favorite songs I ever wrote, "There’s a Little Bit of Meanness in Every Nun I Know" and "That’s Why Santa Hates the Jews," but my biggest hit of all time was called "When it’s Fourth of July in Yugoslavia, Nobody Gives a Shit." Thurber heard the laughter for someone else, and the air around him changed. He stood up and he said "Stop the music." His wife said "Sit down," he had this glass of scotch, he found his way to piano, and he said "I love music, I always wanted to be a musician"—he slapped the piano—"Jesus, I love music, and what am I? Nothing but a goddamned humorist." Think of the beauty and irony and sadness in that line. Somebody said comedy writers are like children at the table. That’s certainly the thought he was expressing.
On his Mr. Artist gig
I was Mr. Artist on Captain Kangaroo. This was before the network. I had a 15-minute show sponsored by Wildroot, Cartoon Capers, where I did chalk talks, and a kids' show, Junior Jamboree. I had a gig with Rich’s Dairy, they had a cow called Bossie the Rich Ice Cream Cow. I devised a commercial live on television in Buffalo, I sang their jingle and while I sang it, I drew their logo cow in rhythm. So I got a call one day, a southern voice, Ralph Black, assistant manager of the [Buffalo] Philharmonic Orchestra, [and he asked] "Can you do that for a children’s concert? If you can, I will introduce you to William Steinberg, the conductor of the orchestra." I took the Nutcracker Suite and I listened to it a gazilian and 31 times until I knew it, and then on a yellow pad I devised sketches I could draw in rhythm to the parts. so he said come to Kleinhans Music Hall and I’ll introduce you to the maestro. I went in and the maestro was in the music room. He said "What do you do?" and here I am with my yellow pad and pencil. I said "I will draw in rhythm to the music each part to illustrate the narrative, I went on tour with the orchestra, I was seen by Bob Keeshan, so I went on Captain Kangaroo.