What's with the lampshade on the head?
February 2, 2008 3:43 PM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the lampshade on the head gag? Is there any reason beyond absurdity that it's supposed to be funny?
posted by ozomatli to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think it goes back to the day when men typically wore hats as a matter of custom. A guy is leaving a party after a few too many, grabs a lampshade instead of his fedora and BOOM: Comedy Gold!
posted by Doohickie at 3:57 PM on February 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

Origin? Probably spontaneous generation, lubricated with alcohol.
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:00 PM on February 2, 2008

I never thought it was supposed to be funny; I always figured it was shorthand for "an unfunny drunk who doesn't know how unfunny he is."
posted by ROTFL at 4:10 PM on February 2, 2008

I seem to recall it being used in old bedroom farces - the cuckolded husband returns home; the surprised lover has to find a way to hide quick, so sticks a shade on their head, stands still and makes like a standard lamp. The actor playing the husband pretends this works and remains blissfully unaware of their love rival despite standing right next to them. Hilarity ensues.
posted by Abiezer at 4:25 PM on February 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yeah I've always interpreted this as the "straights" idea of what happens when people drink. You know, a cautionary meme that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
posted by jeremias at 4:26 PM on February 2, 2008

The first thing that came to mind is Peter Sellers in The Party, but I don't know if he ends up with a lamp shade on his head, my memory of the movie is vague.
posted by so_ at 4:51 PM on February 2, 2008

Seconding Doohickie. A floor lamp can look an awful lot like a hat rack if you've drunk enough.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:52 PM on February 2, 2008

Didn't Charlie Chaplin use this gag in one of his movies? It would be interesting to know if the gag predates that.
posted by orange swan at 5:13 PM on February 2, 2008

I'm psyched that you posted this because the other day I wondered this very thing. Following organe swan, the answer I came up with in my head was that it was done in an old movie or television show and then just became the standard go-to joke about drunk people. I sort of picture Jackie Gleason or Art Carney doing it once in the Honeymooners or something and then it becoming the comedy gold Doohickie refers to. Of course it could go back as far as Chaplin, too.
posted by sneakin at 6:47 PM on February 2, 2008

Having witnessed someone legitimately putting on a lampshade with comedic intent and seeing how truly funny it can be, my vote is for someone having done it once a long time ago and the gag just took on a well-deserved life of it's own.
posted by TheManChild2000 at 7:46 PM on February 2, 2008

Doohickie has it. And then people making fun of a legitimate, embarassing mistake gave it the legs.
posted by Miko at 8:25 PM on February 2, 2008

Best answer: I associate the lampshade-on-head bit with single-panel comics of the 1940s, but don't have a reference for that. It's a great question.

Chaplin did use a lampshade as a disguise. It wouldn't surprise me if this were a trope that occurred earlier, on the stage, too.
From Chaplin and Imitation by David Trotter (link is a PDF):
Chaplin's last and most popular film for Mutual, The Adventurer (1917), has two parts. The first part, in effect a reversion to Keystone methods, has convict Charlie chased up and down the Santa Monica hills by a posse of trigger-happy warders. In the second part, Charlie masquerades as a wealthy yachtsman at a party given in his honour by the heroine, whose mother he has saved from drowning. Suspicions are soon aroused, and the warders arrive. Placing a lampshade on his head, Charlie stands stock still as the hot pursuit swirls around him, and away, at the motionless centre of motion. He removes the lampshade, in order to assault the villain, but then replaces it on his own head, as though he now cannot do without it, and walks out onto the veranda. He would like above all to extend the enchanted interval. But other perils await, and he cannot expect the trick to work again, in another place at another time. He tosses the lampshade aside.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:35 PM on February 2, 2008

Best answer: Also -- I don't think it's a guy leaving the party who mistakenly grabs a lampshade. I think it's someone trying to be a clown, who puts on the lampshade to show that we're really having a good time now -- it's deliberately goofy.

Here's a suggestion that the lampshade on head gag was already a standard one at parties in the 1930s. (regarded as a bit bourgeois, is the implication?)

From Time magazine, Dec 15, 1958:
The Man in the Lampshade
The voice is pure club-car American, rumbling through bourbon and cigar smoke, shaking with hoarse laughter. It sounds like a man imitating what he once feared he might become: a fat-ribbed salesman for his papa's turbine plant. Rumbles James Gilmore Backus: "I left Cleveland to get away from His and Her towels, people who call cocktail parties 'pours' and the guy who always breaks it up by wearing a lampshade on his head."...

[After high school,] Backus hurtled off to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan, emerged in Depression-ridden 1933 when there were only six plays on Broadway. He ate one daily meal at an actors' soup kitchen, posed for sinister pictures in True Story Magazine. After several lean years, he got steady work in radio soap operas. He soon played in three shows a day at $30 apiece, often did 25 a week.

For 14 years the work was profitable but depressingly anonymous. What finally got Backus better known was turning the lampshade boor into a radio character. Name: Hubert Updyke III, a hilarious snob who insisted that his ancestors landed at Cadillac Rock. Hubert bought cars by the gross, drove around with Guy Lombardo's Royal "Canoodians" instead of a radio, had a little man on the hood to work as a windshield wiper.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:55 PM on February 2, 2008

There's little doubt for me that this goes back to vaudeville. (Of course, the original lamps would have to have been gas-lit.) Also, Victorian lampshades were often of heavily doodad-festooned cloth rather than modern spare-looking paper cones. It was more like a hat or an article of women's clothing. There was a time when a lady wouldn't venture out without a hat, not all that long ago.

I know a lot of the references to it that I know are more collegiate than anything else. (And college boys have many decades of cross-dressing for parties under their, uh, hats.)

Still, there's a particular New Yorker cartoon that probably invented the X-X-for-eyes on a drunk concept.
posted by dhartung at 2:38 AM on February 3, 2008

I agree that it probably has its origins in vaudeville - these kinds of gags often do.

. I think it's someone trying to be a clown, who puts on the lampshade to show that we're really having a good time now -- it's deliberately goofy.

...but I believe the reason that people would see that as a funny gag is that he's pretending to be so drunk that he can't tell his hat from a lampshade.

I really lean toward that progression of thought into the joke, because otherwise, it's a pretty dada thing to do.
posted by Miko at 6:36 AM on February 3, 2008

We have at least the beginnings of a lampshade-head timeline:

1945: A custom toymaker performing as 'the Bananaman' creates gadgets like this one: "A lampshade which he puts on his had suddenly unfolds and bewcomes a colored man sitting on a barrel and playing a banjo"1951: On I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball, angling to be in Ricky's show, "parades around the apartment with a lampshade on her head, humming "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" and imitating a Ziegfeld girl."

It comes up on TVTropes:
"...possibly derived from a old stage comedy convention where a character hides from another character on the same stage, while remaining visible to the audience, by hanging a lampshade on his head and, presumably, disguising himself as a lamp. Apparently people do not notice large human-shaped lamp stands appearing from nowhere. This itself was referenced in some early Looney Tunes that had the hiding characters say "click" or light up like a bulb when someone tried to turn the light on."
That sounds familiar but I'm unable to find a cite and year.

The timing of the drunkenness part of the joke is right for a vaudeville (stage comedy) origin. The social-party-drunk-in-a-house part suggests a speakeasy-era or post-prohibition introduction, and the lampshade part requires widespread home electrification.

Clearly we're not the first to wonder about this. A search of "lampshade head" in YouTube demonstrates that the meme has transitioned to internet space; you'll find several videos of Sims with lampshades on head, providing comfort to us all that this bizarre and unfunny gag will continue to entertain for generations to come.

This is my favorite kind of question. Thanks.
posted by Miko at 7:22 AM on February 3, 2008

Here's your answer. It's not a pretty story, unfortunately.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:52 AM on February 3, 2008

I believe the reason that people would see that as a funny gag is that he's pretending to be so drunk that he can't tell his hat from a lampshade.

That's one option. The other option seems like the funny-costume option. I'm thinking of Shriners with their fezzes and that sort of thing. Not so much "I mistakenly think this is my regular hat" but "Isn't this an awesome and exotic funny hat? Now we're having fun. Everyone get your best improvised oriental finery and we'll be like the courts of the rajas." (thinking of an ornate lampshade with beaded fringe and the like).
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:34 AM on February 3, 2008

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