In a speech to Irish leaders on St. Patrick’s Day, Barack Obama jokingly urged the audience to go easy on the spirits. “Stay as long as you want, try to avoid putting any lampshades on your head, because there are a lot of photographers here,” he said. When did putting a lampshade on your head become a universal symbol of drunkenness?
Probably in the 1910s or 1920s. While it’s impossible to pinpoint the first instance of a man donning a lampshade at a party, the image most likely came out of vaudeville and was popularized in early silent films. In The Adventurer(1917), Charlie Chaplin plays a rich yachtsman who, pursued by the police, puts a lampshade over his head and stands still as the cops pass by. While that example is more about disguise than inebriation, the lampshade on the head had become a drunk gag by 1928, when the Baltimore Evening Sun ran a satirical piece called “The Life of the Party”: “It is usually customary for the life of the party about the middle of the evening to put a lampshade on his head and give an impersonation of [Scottish soprano] Mary Garden, after which he tells a joke that is not meant for mixed company.”
Since then, the lampshade on the head has come to symbolize the obnoxious drunk trying to be funny—and failing. In 1938, a columnist described alcoholic actor John Barrymore as “at any moment … likely to drag down a lace curtain, clap a lampshade on his head, and play a scene from Shakespeare.” In the 1940s, comedian Jim Backus played a radio character named Hubert Updyke III, a wealthy East Coast boor who called cocktail parties “pours” and regularly donned lampshades. (Backus would later play Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island.)
The victims of lampshade-wearing tend to be wives and girlfriends. In a 1966 letter to Ann Landers, a reader pleaded: “Please tell me what you think of a husband who entertains the crowd at a party by singing World War II songs which were never intended for ladies, puts a lampshade on his head and does a belly dance, borrows a blonde wig from a guest who is also smashed, and then insists that he’s going to drive home?”
Variations on the lampshade joke abound. At one point in this Three Stooges short from 1950, Larry hides under a lampshade a la Chaplin and holds a lightbulb that lights up when someone pulls his tie. At a performance for soldiers in Vietnam in 1970, Bob Hope joked about drug use: “I saw a sergeant standing in a corner with a lampshade on his head waiting to be turned on.”
Why is a lampshade on a head funny? French philosopher Henri Bergson theorized that laughter is a response to the mechanistic aspects of human movement and behavior. Because a standing lamp is similar in form to a person, putting the shade in the place of one’s head produces an incongruity that provokes laughter. Cross-dressing may also play a role, as lampshade wearers are almost exclusively male and the practice often involves singing and dancing. It also puns on the idea of a drunk person being “lit.”
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