Obscurity of the Day: ‘Scuse Me, Mr. Johnson

In the more than capable comedic hands of Fred Opper, even racial stereotyping can offer some sheepish grins. Though the strips are embarrassing, the gags and characters are, I have to admit, undeniably funny. So if the visual depictions are too much for you, just pretend the characters are dumb white crackers with deep tans.

In the short-lived series ‘Scuse Me Mr. Johnson we meet a community of gentlemen who fight incessantly, steal each other blind, have mile-wide egos,  and lovingly mangle the English language. In short, a delightful bunch who reliably offer up funny situations and the lively patter to go along with it. Why Opper put this series to rest so quickly (it ran January 3 – April 18 1909 in Hearst funnies sections) I don’t understand — I very much doubt that it was because he had second thoughts about his depictions of African-Americans.

Regarding the title, I have always been under the impression that the phrase “Excuse me Mr. Johnson” is the gag line to a popular joke of the day. Something like this — a white guy is sitting in a bar making bold statements about the inferiority of the black man, and claiming that they are weak in mind and body, etc etc. When confronted by a listener about the great boxer Jack Johnson, the guy redoubles his derision, saying that Johnson is way over-rated, that he could never hope to beat a white man, he’s really a sissy, etc. So it turns out that the boxer is actually sitting at the next table in the bar. Overhearing the white guy, he turns around and says, “Excuse me, sir. I’m Jack Johnson.” The white guy turns around, sees who it is, and says, dripping with sweetness and deference, “Oh no, excuse ME Mr. Johnson!” Rimshot.

So that’s where I think the phrase started. But I’ll be darned if I can find any independent confirmation of that on the web. Anyone?

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