Upsetting Day: How Sick Can You Get? 🌭

As frequent hotdoggers know, Phil Hirsch was a prolific joke curator with the comedic sensibilities of a fartless cadaver. His books were weird collections of terrible jokes he didn’t write about tits, prostitutes, and, of course, hamburgers. But in 1974, he had his best idea yet: what if he took a stack of MAD Magazine knockoffs and photocopied the worst parts of them into a tiny paperback book?

Sick Magazine started as a flagrant MAD Magazine ripoff in 1960 and became at least twice that three years later when they changed their mascot to MAD Magazine’s mascot.

The point is, we’ve never needed AI to help us steal shit and make it worse. And this is a story about a man who did that twice to the same shit.

If we’re being generous, Sick Magazine was the “naughty” version of MAD Magazine. It was still rated very PG, but everything was more desperate and from the perspective of assholes. It’s tough to explain. It was going for edgy in an era where you could still find segregated drinking fountains. Maybe imagine a Daily Wire movie with no fracking investors and less coherent politics? Let me find an example. Oh, look, here’s one: the first article reprinted in the book.

The article is about Superman and his mission to “stop crime,” and the gag is that many of the things Superman does would be considered crimes like changing clothes in a phone booth, violating air space, vigilante violence… it’s sort of a reasonable premise. But look where the writer went with it. Four men see Superman looking all gay and beat the shit out of him for it. What the fuck? Why write that, and how would it work? The man famously known for being super loses a fist fight to park Nazis with no kryptonite? What the shit is going on?

So, here’s what I think happened. I think Superman was trapped by the logic of “stopping crime” which doesn’t include this since the author doesn’t see hate crimes as “crime.” They’re the outrageous jokes MAD Magazine is afraid to publish. And I’m worried now we all understand Sick Magazine. As for why Phil Hirsch published a paperback collection of aggressively random articles from it, we may never know. For instance, what the goddamn fuck is this?

This is from an article called “EULOGIES FOR MOVIE MONSTERS,” and maybe in magazine form that cop had hilarious things to say at Frankenstein’s funeral, but after Phil adapted it for book, it became an unreadably microscopic block of sideways text. If the Invisible Man’s eulogy didn’t look identical, I’d think that was the joke– that Frankenstein is made out of so many people his eulogy went on and on and on. That’d be fine! If you wrote a zany goodbye to the ones we lost in Frankenstein’s head, torso, penis, and legs, I wouldn’t call you a hero, but we wouldn’t be here calling Phil Hirsch the maternity center fire of comedy again. How do you look at that shit and think it’s okay? You can’t just copy unpleasant trash and paste it into a format that makes it worse. That’d be like publishing a book of unedited Denis Leary tweets…

Oh, Jesus. I thought I made that up.

Let’s see what Phil selected next. Oh, fun: sports! This one is about sports and suici– oh my fucking god, Phil.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but in “How to Be a POOR SPORT,” the entire premise was what if athletes killed themselves? And it seems like even the 1974 edgelord realized this wasn’t quite a joke, so they tried to rescue the bit by adding, “ha ha because we have too many people, right?” This is something you’d pitch if you were a nervous serial killer wearing a comedy writer’s face. Let’s see how it turned out!

Oh. Wordless suicides, sort of themed around sports. M-maybe it builds to something?

Oh. Maybe not. In fact, I think these are somehow getting further from comedy. At least with the 12-foot basketball player, we were looking at an ironic dilemma: his goal was to score, but if he dunked it would kill him. That’s… something. This is random, senseless death. We have a baseball catcher not catching a cannon, possibly volley, ball with a pane of glass, and a boxing match where a full electric chair has been set up in the corner. I’m not sure any punchline could save these, but at the very least we need some context. Even if it just said, “Sick Magazine pays me $8 per page and my nights are so lonely” that would help. As it is, we have some hockey player trying to shave with his skate? What? Is this from an unrelated non-suicide sports cartoon, or is this guy about to kill himself on accident? Because neither of those are the premise. This needs to be something like a runner shooting himself in the head with a starter pistol or a football player charging into a giant bear trap.

Right, like that. Thank you.

In a lot of ways, I understand what happened here. I spent several years at which was born from a MAD Magazine knockoff, and before that I was impishly naughty in a way few people would call “timeless.” And what can happen when you’re stretching a concept too thin is it becomes less about comedy and more about solving the problem you’ve given yourself. You need seven entries in your dumb list of sport suicides, and you haven’t done football, so the task before you is no longer the best joke, but figuring out how a running back would kill himself. So yeah, after your brain bounces off that impossible problem, it eventually says, “Fuck it, giant bear trap.” There’s no better answer because the only answer was abandoning this at the concept stage. This is fucked. This book is a prop thrown out by the Se7en production designer for being “not funny enough.”

Let’s look at the original, though:

Before Phil took scissors to it and mashed it into a book, this is how the article appeared in issue 97 of Sick Magazine. It’s still the dark act of a psychopath, but if we’re being generous, it almost works. When you see all the suicides together, there’s a tone approaching silly. You’d have to be so bad at comedy to think, “Let’s take that picture of a track runner with a gun to his own head and make it a full page. Let the reader really sit with it.” This is like taking an All in the Family bit and cutting out everything except the racist Archie Bunker lines…

Oh, Jesus. I thought I made that up.

Over several pages of gray text on gray background, this book reprints the time Carroll O’Connor’s character on All in the Family won Sick Magazine’s “COMEDIAN OF THE MONTH.” I honestly didn’t know Archie Bunker talked like this. I figured he hated affirmative action and mouthy wives, but this is… I mean, he claims Eleanor Roosevelt disobeyed her husband to discover black people like they were a lost tribe guarding a treasure map. We don’t need to get into it, but that might be everything except a joke. Maybe it’s meta comedy? Because if someone asked what the worst possible 1974 book could be, a funny answer might be “humorless Archie Bunker quotes next to cigarette ads,” and that is precisely what this is.

These quotes are so out of context, you can barely tell what he was talking about. “Shut up about Wyoming, wife. You’re like these fucking goddamn insurance companies and non-whites. And to answer your questions, pizza and maybe.”

By the way, that image isn’t a bit– like the cheapest paperbacks of the time, this book contains full color ads for cigarettes. Which means Phil Hirsch had the idea of selling 25% of someone else’s magazine as a book and then got less ethical.

This can’t be right. This one seems to be an ad for women who want to get sexually ambushed as housekeepers? It says they’ll train young and pretty women… okay, troubling, but certainly there’s some kind of turn coming. Certainly there will be a punchli– oh. Oh no. This gag is all premise and the premise is “you will be groped.” I don’t… maybe we should switch to that book of Denis Leary tweets? Let’s check the back of it.

Oh my god. Absolutely fuck that. Fuck Denis Leary’s publicist and the world that would allow them. We’re sticking with How Sick Can You Get?

I’m not sure this is anything other than a puzzle for historians. This is a haircut review of a fictional haircut, and the comedic reveal is “this was a drawing of a man the whole time.” I get this was an era where gender roles were more strictly defined, but I worry they’re giving the reader’s homophobia too much credit. This is like saying, “picture a drag queen for me,” and then ending your life with a hockey skate, buy cigarettes.

This kind of joke, a sudden and unpleasant reveal, seems to be a staple of Sick Magazine. Here’s the tiny-texted and sideways story of a girl whose mother told her to stay away from Herbie Klotz. For a number of vague reasons! Where are they going with t– oh, he’s her brother. Well, that certainly makes all the things she said strange.

We can argue all day about whether incest, suddenly and with no other context, is funny, but I want to talk about the other reason this sucks. This is a kind of comedy you don’t see anymore because it requires an intellectual dishonesty we strangled to death decades ago. You have to willfully pretend you don’t know the things you know for this type of bit to work. To explain what I mean, if ’90s Jerry Seinfeld appeared before us today and asked what the deal was with women putting perfume on their wrists or breakfast cereals having too many ingredients, we would know what the deal was. Or his phone would have told him before he asked. As a species we are simply too smart for bits like this. And like Jerry Seinfeld reading lines for Bee Movie, this Herbie Klotz story requires you to not ask the obvious question, “Why didn’t you tell me about the incest stuff at the beginning?”

This one is even worse. Look at the trauma 1974 comedy fans had to wade through to find out the man sexually beating you to death was actually playing checkers. I mean, what’s the deal with language? In one context you’re playing checkers, and the other you’re killing a hitchhiker? How are we supposed to know what kind of jumper you are? I’ll tell you one thing I won’t be jumping: to any more conclusions about the type of story I’m reading in this book!

This one is amazing because for it to work the reader has to start with maximum misogyny. Like, they can’t be a “women’s sports aren’t as good” type of misogynist. They have to be shrieking at their untouched boners and living under the fear of a The Great She-placement Theory before it became known as Ghostbusters (2016). And then -on top of that- they have to not know what an astronaut does. I don’t think it would be pedantic to tell this dumb fuck that astronauts are pilots and engineers who travel to the stars in between parades. And did the illustrator invent a pressure suit dick hole just to confuse the untrained lady astronaut? Even if you’re on board with the premise of women being useless boob transports, that seems unfair.

These are unsettling and confusing and I refuse to speak of them. You had thousands of pages to pick from, Phil Hirsch, and you chose these. Great work.

Finally, a bit that works! Sick magazine presents “SICK BEATS THE HIGH COST OF MEAT” and it’s just a picture of a butcher selling meat for very high prices. Fucking hilarious– completely makes up for the dick hole in the space suit and the haunting incredible living band-aid. I’m back on board.

Sick Magazine seemed to be operating under the editorial mandate of “be the biggest piece of shit possible,” which was probably very silly and apolitical in 1974. Today, though; it sounds like an ordinary Fox News segment today. Like this article about pollution where they argue on the side of pollution. I don’t really have a point, I’m just troubled by how modern right wing talking points were a bitter asshole’s best guess at comedy fifty years ago.

“I like pollution because it kills fish and I have to clean fewer of my husband’s fish who still goes fishing twice a week, and this is a coherent punchline and argument,” says this woman. “Noise pollution sure beats the sound of rock and roll music,” says another. “I am writing comedy jokes good enough to get published a second time,” says their author. “If only I were also racist,” he adds. “Oh, god damn it,” I foreshadow.

It’s a bit of a walk, but this is a fake article awkwardly clipped from a magazine and squeezed into a book about a farmer who likes D.D.T. because he picked up a bottle of it right as a man tried to shoot him. The assassin was an indigenous man mostly blind from nuclear radiation, but believe it or not, none of that has anything to do with anything. If I made this up as a bedtime story, my daughter would tell me, “Sir, I am here on behalf of the state to represent you in a very serious string of racially motivated killings and I am not your daughter.”

I’m now going to say five of the worst words you can hear on Upsetting Day: Speaking of Native American racism…

“A Sick LOOK AT THE AMERICAN INDIAN” is not what you’d expect. You’re probably picturing it as a racist take on something, but it’s so much less than that. This is a formless mass of racist jokes without the jokes, obviously, but sometimes without the racism. For instance, what the hell is this?

It’s hard to imagine the lack of imagination it took to get here. The author went through all the things he knew about Native Americans. One of them used to be on a nickel, and oh fuck, end of list. So now he had to come up with a bit around just the nickel thing, and I’d argue he didn’t. This is dick-biting madness written by a bathroom intruder who thinks peeing women disappear when he covers his eyes. The joke is that he’s waiting for a 6 cent coin because he once posed for a nickel? Fucking fuck you. That’s like watching a hockey player kill himself and saying, “Hockey players love to have one less head in the bathroom, it’s why their sport is played in the bathroom, headlessly, now and forever.”

Wait, nevermind, there’s more than just nickel stuff. The author looked them up and learned about their nomadic lifestyle and skin tone. Here he is doing a fun little riff on those things. “Is this a joke?” asks the dumb racist as he has Christopher Columbus comment on the color of a woman he hasn’t seen. “I’m worried it’s not,” he says to a spoonful of lead paint. “Add a CIA periscope,” suggests all the nearby asbestos.

“Indians are strange because they wear beads and makeup constantly” is such a toothless double hate crime. It’s practically apologizing for its intolerance as it’s doing it. And you’ll never find a more perfect example of the intellectual dishonesty I was talking about earlier. This little bitch references war paint and he’s all, “Hur hurr like fancy ladies wear.” What? How generous is an audience supposed to be with their stupidity to make your joke work? If ’90s Seinfeld was here, even he’d say “What’s the deal with gay warpaint jokes? You paint your face before you scalp your enemies with a tomahawk, and the novelization of a MAD Magazine knockoff calls you gay? If that’s gay what does that make the rest of us? We’ve all got zero enemy foreheads! I’d ask my girlfriend but she won’t get to American history until fourth grade!”

I think we can all agree we’ve had enough of Phil Hirsch’s favorite selections of directionless racial intolerance, but I wanted to include this one to help us calibrate Sick’s politics. Because I don’t think this was a right wing hate magazine. Maybe. At least sometimes. But look at the self-awareness coming through here. Richard Nixon asks “Chief” if his people will treat the White Man as well as we treated them, and he replies with a rare coherent joke: “What you think Indians are– savages?” It’s still a bit ignorant and the different font implies there was some kind of last minute change, but you don’t print this joke if you’re an actual white supremacist publication. A Gutfeld! writer doesn’t pitch this joke. No, if you were an actual racist you’d write the joke closer to how they did a single page later:

Buy cigarettes, everyone!

This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dot Supreme: Jared MountainMan, who posed for the new buffalo nickel. That’s not an Indian thing, he’s just buff.