See you in the funny papers

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase “See you in the funny pages (papers)”? My girlfriend says her father used to tell her that whenever he left the house. I remember hearing it when I was younger, too. I’m guessing the speaker is saying you’re a joke, but where did it come from? — Andrea.

It’s a long story. Once upon a time there were things called “newspapers,” which were printed on stuff called “paper.” Imagine if you could somehow take just the image on the screen of your computer (iPad, whatever) and fold it up and carry it around and read it anytime you wanted, without needing any batteries or wi-fi. Paper was like that, and “newspapers” were printed every day to tell folks what was going on in the world. But since most people found all that news pretty depressing, the newspapers also had a section, usually near the back, where they printed cartoons and comic strips to cheer folks up so they would buy the paper again the next day. On Sundays, many newspapers even had a whole special section devoted to just comic strips, often printed in color. Both this section and the daily comics pages were known as “the funny pages,” “the funny papers” or “the funny sheet.” A few grumpy, snooty newspapers (e.g., The New York Times) never published funny pages, and to this day they have to pay people to read their newspaper on the internet.

“See you in the funny papers” is a jocular farewell that dates, as far as anyone has been able to determine, to the early years of the 20th century. A question about the phrase was raised back in 2002 on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, and ADS member Douglas Wilson did a bit of research and deduction to come up with what seems like a reasonable explanation of the origin of the phrase, which I will do my best to summarize here.

As Wilson notes, “see you” is a common component in colloquial farewells (e.g., “See you around,” “See you later,” or simply “See you”), used even between people who have no expectation of seeing each other again (as, for example, between a customer and a store clerk). “See you” was a common casual farewell in the US at least by the late 1890s, although it may be somewhat older. Wilson also notes that such “See you” farewells have long been the occasion of humorous elaborations such as “See you in church” (between non-churchgoers) and, as a joking response to “See you later,” “Not if I see you first.”

“See you in the funny papers” almost certainly dates back to the early 1920s because the term “funny papers/pages/sheet” itself apparently didn’t appear in print until roughly that time. A glossary of humor published in 1926 included “See you in the funny sheet,” and William Faulkner also used the phrase in his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury (“Ta-ta see you in the funnypaper”), so it must have been widespread by that time. One reason that “See you in the funny papers” sounds so dated to us today is because “funny papers/pages/sheets” was eventually largely replaced by the term “comics” for that part of the newspaper, a process that probably began in the 1940s and was complete by the 1960s.

The interesting thing about “See you in the funny papers” is that originally it may not have been a very friendly thing to say. Saying “See you in the newspaper” or “See you in jail” when parting, for example, carried the sardonic implication that the person being addressed would next be heard of for committing a crime or attaining some other newsworthy notoriety. Similarly, the original intent of “See you in the funny papers” was probably to imply that the speaker considered the person either so ridiculous or so odd in appearance as to belong in a comic strip (thus making the saying roughly equivalent to “Say hi to the Katzenjammer Kids for me”). By the 1940s, however, “See you in the funny papers” had become so common that it lost whatever hostile edge it had and became a good-natured humorous farewell. If “See you in the funny pages” had any deeper implication after that time, it was that life in general was as silly as the Sunday comics section.

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