Laughing Through the Cold War

Following World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a “balance of powers” exercise that was termed the Cold War. The rules were simple: each country had to accumulate more nuclear weapons to keep the other in check. Consequently, there was a massive arms build-up on both sides as the public at large was gripped with the fear of total annihilation. As “Eve of Destruction,” that great Cold War ditty from the sixties so succinctly put it, “When the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.” It seemed hardly the time for laughing it up. Throughout history, though, we’ve had a habit of cutting our opponents down to size with humor. If you could laugh at them, then perhaps it could lessen some of the fear.

Our parents had done so in World War II. It is said that each generation develops their own sense of what is funny, and surely they had the likes of radio broadcasts and Spike Jones laughing “right in der Füehrer’s face.” When you think about it, they surely didn’t have much to laugh about. Yet they grew up through more than a decade of the Great Depression, which was followed by a World War. Once the war was over, they still couldn’t relax as they were always on guard for potential enemies… and they found one in Communism. Perhaps this set up our generation to be uniquely poised for a comedy explosion?

The first set of baby boomers were only five years old when the U.S. Department of Civil Defense produced that classic comedy of the Cold War era, “Duck and Cover,” in 1951. Not that they intended it to be a comedy, mind you. There is the very real likelihood that in the preceding years before Mister Boomer’s class was shown the film, it was taken all too seriously. Yet Mister B recalls that film, like so many others that were projected onto the portable tripod screen in the basement below the church. Lessons on school safety and proper bike riding would surely help us to be better citizens, so why not inject some civil defense knowledge, for our own protection? In Mister B’s class, however, the reaction was probably not what was expected. The lights went out and the familiar sound of the clicking projector could be heard, cutting the silence. Then it began, in glorious black and white, with that likeable turtle cartoon and memorable jingle. OK — so far, so good. Once the live action began, though, snickers started rolling through the assembled pre-pubescent crowd. Muffled at first, it could be contained no more when the scene of The Typical American Family enjoying a picnic saw “the flash” and grabbed the picnic blanket to duck and cover. A raucous laughter erupted that left the teachers aghast. The film clicked on as we children laughed and laughed at the silly scene of plates and food flying, the screen children’s heads ducking under the cover of their picnic “shelter.” We couldn’t possibly understand the ramifications of a nuclear attack. We just knew funny when we saw it. They finally quieted us down and we watched the remainder of the film in mandated silence.

Ike was our President and Commander in Chief at the time. He successfully saw the country through D-Day, and now he was protecting us from the evils of Communism, especially as represented by the Soviet Union. The visible Soviet leader during boomer time was Nikita Khruschev. In the spirit of détente, Eisnehower had invited him to visit the U.S. in 1959 following Richard Nixon’s participation in the Kitchen Debate. Khruschev came with his wife and children, and although it didn’t further Ike’s agenda the way he had hoped, it did provide fodder for satirists and comedians. Of the many spots the Soviet Premier visited on his 13-day trip, he was impressed with the agricultural education from the University of Iowa, and the self-serve cafeteria at IBM headquarters. Comedy gold! Like the reaction of Mister B’s class, all sorts of jokes about Ike, Khruschev, their unlikely meetings at Camp David and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) became fodder for the laugh machine. By 1960, the jokes were flying on TV and in the nightclubs. One such seminal star that weighed in on the subject was Bob Newhart. The young upstart would release “The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart” that year, based on his stand-up routines. In an interview years later, he recalled that they needed an extra track for the album, so he tossed in “Kruschev (sic) Landing Rehearsal,” a re-imagined scene of the Soviet Premier being greeted at the airport. Bob envisioned it as the concept for a new TV show (can anyone say, “Green Acres”?), which never materialized.

Most boomers, however, are going to recall the unbelievably great Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (1959-61). The Cold War characters Boris Badenov and his sidekick, Natasha Fatale, and their Fearless Leader, were an integral part of the show. As Boris himself would put it, “It’s good to be bad.” In print media, Mad Magazine also got into the act with its long-running “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon series.

A few years later, we were still making fun of our stalemate situation. After years of depicting bumbling Russian spies, we now turned to creating bumbling idiots on our own side. On TV, “Get Smart” (1965-70), saw the likes of Maxwell Smart as Secret Agent 86. Clueing us in on the joke, the writers gave him the “86” moniker. The term “eighty-sixed” in common parlance means to throw or kick out. Somehow, Max always saved the day, with the help of his ultra-sexy partner, Barbara Feldon, as Agent 99 (one would presume out of a hundred).

The top of the heap of Cold War comedies for Mister Boomer is “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” In 2009, the 45th anniversary of this Stanley Kubrick movie was celebrated. The movie starred Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and the phenomenal Peter Sellars playing three distinct roles. It described a “what if” situation where a U.S. military general started the process that triggered full nuclear response from both sides, and the possible planning for the rebuilding of civilization the remaining leaders would need to accomplish with the survivors. If you haven’t seen it in a while, run to your nearest online movie ordering site and buy it or put it on your list immediately! Viewing it as an adult, in our post-Cold War era, has made the dark humor all the more poignant. Go forth and laugh it up, boomers!

What made you laugh at the Cold War?

The Sweet Taste of Success

Remember when we were young, and sugar was a good thing? Companies, in fact, thought so much of sugar that they could openly advertise their products as made with the real deal. No one advertised with more gusto than the cereal companies, and of course, we all remember those classic commercials for Sugar Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Smacks.

That’s right, boys and girls, the Sugar Pops jingle said:

Oh, the pops are sweeter
and the taste is new
They’re shot with sugar,
through and through.

Mister B loved the Sugar Pops, while Mister B’s sister was a Frosted Flakes and Smacks fan. Suffice it to say, our house was a real sugar shack at the breakfast table. Even Mister B’s family dog got into the act. When Mister B had consumed his portion of the golden nuggets, the remaining milk in the bowl was an eerie pool of sweet, unnatural yellow. The dog, a good-sized German Shorthair, would climb one of the vinyl-seated chairs within reach and lick the milk right out of the bowl until we shooed him away.

About the same time we were being marketed to with catchy jingles and cartoon characters on the sugar cereal front, the debate grew on water fluoridation. Though it had existed in some areas since 1951, now it was coming to our neck of the woods. By 1960, it was in wide use. The American Dental Association and a host of others backed the fluoridation as a way of improving overall dental health. Others saw it as an unnatural addition and a danger to the water supply. Certainly, post World War II was a time for dental health awareness, as annual cleanings in schools became the norm. Was it a way to combat the cavities that would result from the widespread consumption of sugar-coated cereals? Compared to the diets of many of today’s youngsters, ours would have been considered outright healthy, yet we did get our share of cavities. Who knows? It may have been a symbiotic relationship that helped both industries to grow right along with us.

In the end, water fluoridation won out in many areas — including Mister B’s — and the practice continues in about 65 percent of the country today. Toothpaste commercials cropped up to remind us we would “wonder where the yellow went.” Crest, Colgate and Pepsodent were the big brands in our area. They say people tend to take their toothpaste choices right on into adulthood. Mister B can’t say the sugar cereals fared as well. Somehow Corn Pops, Frosted Flakes and Honey Smacks haven’t grabbed our children’s attention with the same heft that it did to our generation.

Today it looks like the sugar battle is poised to return with sugar as the good guy, or at least the better guy, as high-fructose corn syrup has surpassed the volume of sugar in cereals and kept on going to permeate practically every form of processed food we boomers and our families eat. But now, PepsiCo has released Pepsi and Mountain Dew Throwback for a limited run. These soda pops will be made with sugar rather than corn syrup. How about it boomers, will the taste be sweeter and everything old is new again? And how about it, American Dental Association? Will Pepsi Throwback earn the ADA seal of approval?