Foolish Questions and Other Odd Observations

The Rube Goldberg panels from the Sunday Chicago Tribune

Before his incredible inventions captivated the world, Rube Goldberg was one of the most popular comic strip artists in America. Here is the full Sunday-page run of his first hit comic, Foolish Questions, as expanded and colorized for the pages of the Sunday Chicago Tribune, 1909–1910. This comic strip spawned several reprint books and inspired games, postcards, copycat comic strips, and got readers to start ridiculing the "foolish questions" in their own lives. Also included is a brain-scrambling assortment of the other panels from his daily comics series that originated the wise-cracking Foolish Questions classic. Most are printed for the first time in over 100 years.

So here's your chance to enjoy the wild, inventive, and politically incorrect humor of the inimitable Rube Goldberg.

From the forward, FOOLISH QUESTION #3,769,432
by Jennifer George

“When did you find out that you were Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter?” 

I was asked this question by an eager 3rd grader recently.   I get questions from school kids all the time about my grandfather, some familiar and others that challenge me, but this one?   I paused, laughing to myself.   A Fortune Teller read my palm?   A talking giraffe whispered it in my ear?  Hundreds of silly retorts buzzed through my head, but this sweet third grade boy wanted a real answer.  When did I find out?  I had just discovered a small photo the week before in an old box that I had not remembered.  It was of Rube, his giant hands pressed into my swaddling clothes, holding me as an infant.  Is that when I knew?  I don’t think I knew much at that moment.  

Foolish Questions.  Millions are asked each day -- which no doubt inspired my grandfather’s wildly popular cartoon strip by the same name. .. What this body of work reveals is less a harbinger of things to come – the gizmos, gadgets and contraptions that would soon captivate Rube’s creativity and the public’s imagination – but rather a window on the humor and social norms of the early 1900’s when Vaudeville and other variety entertainment was in its heyday. 

From Is This an Introduction? by Paul Tumey

Almost from the start, Goldberg aspired to become a cartoonist. Born July 4, 1883, to German immigrants in San Francisco, Goldberg began drawing at age four, inspired by the cartoons of Frederick Opper. In his early years, he developed what he later called “a fanatical worship for the pen-and-ink genius of Tad (Thomas A. Dorgan), Zim—Eugene Zimmerman—Charles Dana Gibson and Walter Appleton Clark.”

Goldberg’s father, a formidable figure who was at one time the sheriff of San Francisco, sent him to acquire a mining and engineering degree at UCLA Berkeley. Having dutifully acquired said degree, the cartoon-obsessed Goldberg lasted just four weeks clerking in the City Engineer’s office until he quit in August 1904 to work as a novice sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. In July 1905, when San Francisco Bulletin star cartoonist Tad Dorgan left for New York City, Goldberg campaigned for and won his job.

On October 23, 1908, Goldberg published a side panel cartoon of a man who has fallen out of the window of a tall building. A woman asks if he is hurt, and the man sarcastically replies, “No, I am taking my beauty sleep.” Goldberg labeled the cartoon “Foolish Question No. 1." After this, everything changed for Goldberg.

Letters poured in. Rube had a hit, and between 1908 and 1910 he created around 450 Foolish Questions cartoons. The drawings and situations became more grotesque, the titular enumeration comically went into the millions, and the sardonic answers became so dreamlike—“No, I put that hole in there so I could look out and see the cod fish flying in the subway”—they stand as a prime example of early surrealism in popular culture.

Rube Goldberg’s influence continues to be felt today. His grotesque, surreal and witty comics influenced generations of screwball cartoonists, including Gene Ahern (Our Boarding House, The Squirrel Cage), Milt Gross (Nize Baby, Count Screwloose) and Harvey Kurtzman (Mad). While Al Jaffee cites Boob McNutt (Goldberg’s 1919 to 1934 Hearst Sunday comic) as a major inspiration, his beloved Mad series, Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, is often observed to be on the same wavelength as Foolish Questions.

From Something On the Side by Carl Linich

Following the tremendous success of Foolish Questions, Rube Goldberg created many more on-the-side cartoons to accompany his larger daily features. Although none of them ever surpassed the success of Foolish Questions, several of them achieved nationwide popularity. I'm The Guy and Silly Sonnets became popular enough to merit having their own original songs composed for commercially marketed sheet music with lyrics and cartoons by Goldberg.

As Rube Goldberg's comics gained popularity, their commercial potential blossomed. He drew advertising cartoons featuring some of his on-the-side characters for Tuxedo and Prince Albert tobacco. Hassan, Tokio, and Perfection cigarette packages, among many others, included over 500 different pinback buttons with tiny cartoon images and phrases, many from Goldberg's wide array of gag themes. Dozens of different I'm The Guy buttons, especially, were highly prized by young children.

Rube Goldberg's itch to spin his humor from constantly evolving angles led to some fantastic scratching. Through a myriad of strips, he pursued variety and novelty throughout his career, always inventing new and different vehicles for his comic observations on the human condition. Between 1908 and 1919, Rube Goldberg created at least seventeen different on-the-side features, all of which are represented in this section. In 1919, the large, seven- and six-column space allotment shrank, causing Rube to temporarily abandon his side features. He revived them in the early 1920s and kept them going for years, inventing many more, eventually integrating several into his Side Show Sunday comic feature (1938-1941).