For decades, humorous greeting cards have made us laugh. But what was funny in the past is often very different from what is funny now or will be in the future.
It’s your birthday. You receive a birthday card, open it, read the front and smile, or maybe even chuckle a bit... then you open it, read the message inside and laugh out loud! The humor strikes your funny bone. It’s offbeat, and maybe it’s a little risqué, or perhaps even a lot risqué. You might be a little shocked at the audacity of it, but you really laughed!
If you had received the same card 10 years ago, would you have had the same reaction? How about 10 years from now? Maybe, maybe not. Some things that we find humorous endure over time, while some do not. Why? Times change; we change. Our culture evolves — or devolves, perhaps. What was acceptable and humorous yesterday might not be viewed as acceptable and funny tomorrow.
At NobleWorks Cards, we have earned a reputation for offering some of the most crude cards on the market. From current events to adult humor, we use profanity, political incorrectness and dirty jokes to make some of the funniest greeting cards you’ve ever read.
These days, humorous greeting cards run the gamut of humor from silly cartoons to adult-themed jokes and imagery. But this was not always the case. Among the earliest cards featuring humor were the “cutes” introduced by Norcross Greeting Cards back in the late 1930s. However, it probably was the novelty cards published by Meryle Publishing’s Michael Cohen and Jules Pollock in the late 1940s that led the way to the rise of the humorous “studio” card lines in the 1950s and the explosion of “alternative” card lines in the 1980s — NobleWorks Cards being one of the top publishers of the latter.
Considered pretty tame by today’s standards, Meryle’s popular card line — featuring a miniature panty along with a humorous punchline — walked a fine line of propriety for the day. Once such card read:
“This birthday wish is very brief, in fact it's rather scanty,...
(inside) “May all your troubles be so small, they'll fit inside this panty.”
From Studio to Alternative
Post World War II, New York’s Greenwich Village was a hive of creativity and new ideas, and it was out of the art studios of the Village that the first “studio” humor cards originated. One of the first publishers was a small company called Panda Prints, who were soon followed by other small publishers seeing an opportunity, including Box Cards and Barker Greeting Card Company.
Panda Prints, c. 1950, cover and inside.
Studio cards were characterized by more sarcastic or cutting humor, influenced in part by the popularity of Lenny Bruce and Mad Magazine. Their clever cartoon character illustrations and offbeat, somewhat edgier humor that pushed the envelope of what was considered “acceptable” appealed primarily to a younger card buyer, or as Panda Prints’ Rosalind Welcher is quoted as observing: “[Suited] the needs of an audience too literate and sophisticated ever to buy ordinary commercial cards.” By today’s standards, many of these cards may still be funny, but not as edgy as they were at the time.
With the rise of the sexual revolution along with the counterculture and women’s movements in the 1960s and ‘70s, studio card lines pushed the envelope of “acceptable” humor. More risqué humor was implied, but not obscene. An example of this is Plum Line’s “It May Rain” card, reading on the inside: "So Wear Your Rubbers and Come Over." It’s a card that today would still draw a chuckle and be regarded as cute rather than risqué.
Plum Line, c. 1960.
As the popularity of studio cards grew, major card companies such as Hallmark Cards launched their own studio lines, and their humor became more broadly acceptable. This, in turn, propelled the rise of “alternative” greeting cards in the 1980s.
The Rise of ‘Alternative’ Cards
At the beginning of the 1980s, new publishers emerged to take up the banner originally raised by the studios of the ‘50s. These publishers —Rockshots, TNT and NobleWorks Cards among them — strove to push card humor to new levels. Ron Kanfi, president of NobleWorks Cards, reflected: “Back in the ‘80s, outrageous was the main ingredient in our humor, as it was with so many other companies.”
That outrageousness included taking greeting card humor to shocking levels bordering on crude or obscene and somewhat offensive. This included a growing use of four-letter words and imagery that was erotic. Rockshots, a line that included erotic imagery, even had its cards banned in some towns. But this was not necessarily a new type of humor — it was already commonplace in cartoons and images in magazines such as Mad Magazine, Penthouse and others, as well as in verbal jokes — it was just new to greeting cards.
Rockshots, c. 1982.
What these alternative publishers were doing (and continue to do) was daring to test the limits of acceptable humor and to shock in the name of laughter. Nothing was sacred. Beyond the shock value of erotic or sexual imagery, they tackled other subjects: politics, religion, drinking and drugs among them. Their goal: to allow the card-buyer to share something outrageous and to shock the recipient into a hardy laugh.
As the ‘80s moved into the ‘90s, the rise of email, the Internet and an increasingly accepting and permissive society provided more challenges for alternative greetings publishers. What once was shocking became more of a norm as provocative imagery was shared via email, and four-letter words were increasingly an acceptable part of everyday language. “Getting a rise out of folks became progressively difficult,” Kanfi said. “A simple F-bomb was a non-starter and so were other four-letter words and sexual innuendos.”
Looking back at these cards, while the humor is not as shocking anymore, it remains quite funny. Witness a card from 1991 that is still in the NobleWorks Cards line. The “I Wear Brown” card features a retro image of four women, each in a different color dress, and each describing how the color suits her personality. The last woman says, “My color’s brown because I don’t give a shit!” Nearly 30 years ago, that punchline was a bit more outrageous than it is today, but it still elicits a laugh.
NobleWorks Cards, c. 1991.
During this time, and continuing into the present day, politics was a saving grace of outrageous humor. The Clinton and Bush presidencies provided a lot of fodder for irreverence and humor in cards. More recently, lampooning the Obamas was more challenging, but still was done. And the current resident of the White House has brought fresh opportunity for outrageously funny humor.
Of course, this type of humor usually endures only as long as the politician's tenure in office, although the longevity of some politically themed cards can continue as long as the person remains a public figure in the news.
NobleWorks Cards, c. 2016.
Nevertheless, navigating the rocky road of changing societal acceptance is a challenge. While NobleWorks Cards continues to thrive and find ways to shock people into laughter, other companies like Rockshots are no longer in business. In today’s climate of growing “political correctness,” it is increasingly difficult to find subject matter that is shocking yet funny for fear of offending. With the rise of #MeToo, gay rights, racism, religious intolerance and political divisiveness, many feel the need to tread more carefully in order not to offend someone or some group.
Even so, what Jules Pollock said about humorous greeting cards in an interview in the 1970s still holds true: “In humorous cards, the trick is to say something funny, but it must encompass a me-to-you philosophy.”
That’s what makes NobleWorks Cards perfect for your friends and family. They know you and you know them, so you know exactly what you can get away with. Because of your personal knowledge and thought, a dirty greeting card can become a cherished keepsake.