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Prop comics were the 20th century's greatest artists, and this vintage video proves it

Though academia has yet to state, with certainty, that prop comedy is the highest form of art, eventually that day will come. And when it does, professor Russell E. Oakes, from Waukesha, Wisconsin, will be recognized as its deepest thinker.

This 1947 reel shows a few hilarious and impractical inventions created a full 18 years before Scott Thompson (a.k.a. Carrot Top) emerged from amniotic fluid and took his first breath of air. Oakes created hilarious inventions like a thirdhand fly swatter, a trap for salesman, a fan powered by gum-chewing stenographers, and other prop comedy breakthroughs. We can guess he would have killed on the Jay Leno–era Tonight Show.

What this video shows, really, is that prop comedy has a timeless appeal and has always cuttingly satirized so-called "functional" inventions.

Oakes wasn't really a professor — he was an ad man turned comic — yet he still managed to tour the country with his incredible inventions. Carrot Top has modern science and tools at his disposal, and while he's unquestionably a legend of prop comedy, he had advantages that Oakes never could have imagined.

Was Oakes the greatest comic mind of the 20th century, easily surpassing performers like Andy Kaufman, Eddie Murphy, and Larry the Cable Guy? Really, it might be too limiting to say the professor's only mastery was over other comics. After all, film auteurs like Stanley Kubrick never even thought to make a dripless doughnut dunker, let alone actually manufacture one. And while the hyperkinetic, imaginative prose of Thomas Pynchon electrified literature in the past half-century, did Pynchon actually manage to build a hydraulic cigar lighter, or did he just peck away at some boring, completely practical typewriter?

All signs point to professor Oakes building the most storied career, in any art form, of the past hundred years.

He should pat himself on the back for that — using, of course, the actual machine he built to do just that.

Prop comedy by Russell Oakes

Prop comedy by Russell Oakes.

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