The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod


Harry Hershfield, Cartoonist and Captivating Humourous Speaker

February 28, 2014


An essential element of cartooning is a firm grip on the funny. Harry Hershfield had it in spades... and more. Creator of comic strips with a Jewish flavour, Hershfield's sense of humour took him off the page and put him front and centre on stage as toastmaster at banquets and events. And even to panelist on a fun-filled radio show, "Can You Top This?" in the 1940s and '50s.


The son of Jewish Russian immigrants, Harry Hershfield was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 13, 1885. The boy was a natural at humour and as he grew, he channelled his efforts into a prosperous future in cartooning. Sharpening his skills, Hershfield studied first at the Frank Holmes School of Illustration and then at Chicago Art Institute. When only 14 years of age in 1899, an opportunity opened for Hershfield. How exciting it must have been for the teenager whenhe was hired by the Chicago Daily News to be a sports cartoonist for a big-city newspaper.


Taking advantage of his newfound connection to print, Hershfield started his first comic strip, Homeless Hector. In 1907, the cartoonist transferred to the San Francisco Chronicle, and two years later, moved cross-country on request of publisher William Randolph Hearst to work at the New York Journal.

Hershfield debuted a new comic in 1910 called Desperate Desmond. The strip poked fun at the over-the-top drama stories of the day, saving the day at the last minute. "In addition to the villainous, top-hatted Desmond, the strip featured the stalwart Claude Eclair and the put-upon blond heroine Rosamond," said Ron Goulart in "The Encyclopedia of American Comics: From 1897 to the Present."

"In 1912, Hershfield switched heroes, introducing a new strip called Dauntless Durham of the U.S.A." The main character "was the soul of honor" said Goulart, "a handsome, pipe-smoking combination of Sherlock Holmes, NIck Carter, and Frank Merriwell." (Not the singer Nick Carter! This Nick Carter was a popular private detective in a pulp fiction series beginning in the mid-1880s, and was also featured in comic books, radio and films in the mid-1900s.)

Cartooning Great, Harry Hershfield

Cartoonist Harry Hershfield, circa 1928

The cartooning art of Hershfield is distinctive and, at the same time, classic for the era. "Hershfield drew in a vigorous, primitive cartoon style, and was enormously fond of shading, crosshataching, and other basic inking techniques," described Goulart. "He occasionally even went in for collages and the kidding of other artists' styles."

Hershfield's Abie the Agent

Dropping the strip two years later, Hershfield developed a new feature, Abie the Agent. The Jewish Abie Kabibble was the lead, respected as the first nationally-syndicated Jewish star of an American comic strip.

But Abie wasn't a talent agent, he was an automobile agent... a car salesman with a Yiddish accent. In 1917, Abie was made into an animated short film entitled "Abie Kabibble Outwitted a Rival." Abie the Agent found a large following and ran in syndication until 1940.

While mired in a legal battle with the Hearst syndicate, Hershfield did not sit twiddling his pen. He created another feature from 1933 to 1935 for the New York Herald-Tribune. His half-page Sunday work was titled "According to Hoyle."

While creating Abie the Agent, the cartoonist was developing other careers, as a writer for the New York Daily Mirror and a guest speaker. (Hershfield said he made his first banquet dinner speech in 1902.) The man virtually oozed humour. In the book, "Cartoon Success Secrets: A Tribute to 30 years of Cartoonist Profiles" (Andrews McMeel 2004), Hershfield's friend and fellow cartoonrist, Jud Hurd, wrote, "no matter what subject was being talked about at any given moment, Harry could instantly dredge up a funny story concerning that particular topic."

Hershfield's "Abie the Agent"

So talented and in demand was Hershfield in his toastmaster role that Robert Ripley "once noted in Ripley's Believe It or Not that Hershfield had attended 260 affairs in a period of six months and had given one of his humorous talks at every one of them," wrote Hurd. It was also rumoured that Hershfield attended so many functions that he hadn't had to pay for his own meals for years. That's pretty popular!

As if a career as cartoonist and speaker weren't enough, Hershfield found another outlet for his humour: radio.

The NBC radio network picked up "Can You Top This?" show in 1942. (The program debuted in 1940 on WOR in New York.) Listeners mailed in their jokes and a panel of three told them, trying to top each other on the laugh meter. A listener earned $5 if his joke was told, more if the line topped the panelists' own jokes on the meter.

The radio program was a perfect fit for Hershfield's style of humour and he was a regular panelist on the show for years.

"Can You Top This?" ran for 12 years on NBC, ending in 1954. The network gave television a try in the early 1950s but the version did not catch on. The program was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989.

Hershfield Poster
Radio Show Ad featuring Harry Hershfield

Making New York City his home, Hershfield lived with his wife Sarah Jane Isdell in an apartment on 57th Street. Well-heeled from his work, "'Hershfield's considerable income,' says Time, the newsmagazine, 'enables him to live in a rich apartment overlooking Manhattan's Central Park, amid a collection of antiques, painting and books valued at $1,000,000,'" said newspaper column "The Dictionary: The Who, What and Where of Today's News" in The Lewiston Daily Sun, March 11, 1932. (Sarah Jane had had a career as a Ziegfeld Follies girl.)

At age 89, Harry Hershfield passed away on December 15, 1974. He was a widower, Sarah Jane having passed away several years before. The Hershfields had no children. A long-time member of the National Cartoonists Society, Hershfield also wrote a number of humour books.

Still recounting jokes into his senior years, Hershfield left behind a legacy of good-natured humour and wonderful cartooning that still tickles the funny bones of fans and readers even today.

© Susanna McLeod 2001 - 2014