The Desert Island Reaper

Today’s Rhymes With Orange, combining two familiar cartoon memes:


(#1) A compound, Desert Island + Grim Reaper

Also incorporating a joke formula, the Good News Bad News routine. The good news is verbalized in the cartoon, the bad news is implicit in the figure of the Grim Reaper.

As an extra, the boat that the Grim Reaper is steering towards the little island looks a lot like a gondola, so evoking Death in Venice and Charon the boatman of death, and possibly more indirectly, a Viking funeral boat with an animal-head prow.

Compound cartoon memes. Doubly memic cartoons are more common than you might imagine, possibly because cartoonists view them as an interesting challenge. The Psychiatrist meme seems to have a particular affinity for compounding; I’ve posted three on this blog already:


(#2) From my 5/1/16 posting “Between the desert and the crouch”, a Bizarro with Psychiatrist + Desert Crawl (plus self-referentiality)


(#3) From my 4/13/17 posting “Three more reapings”, #1 there, a Bizarro with Psychiatrist + Grim Reaper


(#4) From my 6/11/18 posting “In case of cartoons, see therapist”, #4 there, a Strange Brew cartoon by John Deering, with Psychiatrist + Desert Island

But Hilary Price is not the first to cross Desert Island with Grim Reaper. Harry Bliss, who’s done dozens of Grim Reapers, has been there, with an especially poignant strip:


(#5) The Reaper has scythed his only companion and is now truly alone in death (from the New Yorker‘s 2/5/07 issue)

The boatman of death and his vessel. From my 12/20/18 posting “Ask not for whom the reaper scythes”, a Bizarro in #1 there:


(#6) The Grim Reaper as a gondolier, on a canal in Venice

The death merchant of Venice steering a gondola (much as in Price’s cartoon above), evoking Death in Venice, and the image of Charon the boatman of death (discussion of all of this in my 2018 posting).

Two images of Charon at work, from 19th-century art, for comparison:


(#7) Charon, illustration by Gustave Doré for an 1861 edition of Dante’s Inferno (The Divine Comedy)


(#8) Charon Carrying Souls Across the River Styx (1861) by the Ukrainian-born Russian painter Alexander Litovchenko

And then a more spectacular vessel of death, the fiery Viking death boat as imagined by modern builders:


(#9) Members of the Viking Jarl Squad surround a burning viking galley ship during the annual Up Helly Aa Festival, Lerwick, Shetland Islands, in 2010 (note the animal figurehead)

Good News Bad News. A joke routine that presumably developed from expressions conceding, in various ways, that the good is mixed with the bad. But it has become a routine, a formula built around “The good news is … the bad news is …” (where, typically, the bad news totally undoes the effect of the good news), with a number of variants, as in #1 above.

There are many websites devoted to collecting these jokes, and a huge number have been turned into cartoons. Many are distressing, a fair number dark or nasty. Here’s a learnèd Benjamin Schwartz example from my 3/26/15 posting “The cat at the vets”:


(#10) “The vet in the cartoon uses the “good news – bad news” formula to explain things to Schrödinger: the good news is that the cat is alive; the bad news is that the cat is dead.”

On the darker and sometimes nastier side, the Cyanide and Happiness strip has done dozens of Good News Bad News jokes. In this case, with the bad news first:


(#11) The 8/1/15 strip

I’ve spent some time trying to track down an account of the history of the joke routine (searching on-line and consulting dictionaries of quotations and websites on phrase origins), without success. I will now seek help from the lexicographic hounds of the American Dialect Society.

6 Responses to “The Desert Island Reaper”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    I have two favourite good news/bad news jokes. Both are religious themed, and begin with the Pope convening the College of Cardinals and telling them “I have good news and bad news; which do you want to hear first?”

    The first joke: The Dean of the College says, “The good news, Your Holiness.” The Pope says, “Jesus has returned to earth. The Second Coming has happened!” The Cardinals are overjoyed, and throw their red hats in the air. The Dean stops and remembers, and then asks, “Your Holiness, what’s the bad news?” The Pope sighs and says, “He called from Salt Lake City.”

    The second joke: “The Dean of the College says, “The good news, Your Holiness.” The Pope says, “The Church has gotten a $500 million donation from an American named Frank Purdue, on the condition that we change the Lord’s Prayer from ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ to ‘Give us this day our daily chicken.” The Cardinals are overjoyed and throw their hats in the air. The Dean then asks, “So, Your Holiness, what’s the bad news?” The Pope sighs and says, “We’ve lost the Wonder Bread account.” This second one came in handy when we had the recent news that the Pope approved a change in the wording of the Italian version of the Lord’s Prayer.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Report from my posting to ADS-L. Some people found much more recent occurrences on the net (only back to ca. 1980, when the joke routine had clearly been long established), or antecedents to Good News Bad News in various expressions of the idea that the news is mixed, there’s a good side and a bad side to much of it, etc., which I was aware of and was specifically not asking about. But, using newspaper archives, Peter Reitan got things back to 1942. Peter wrote:

    From the Cincinnati Enquirer, October 11, 1942, section 3, page 7, Syd Skolsky’s Hollywood, crediting a cartoon in the Mexican magazine, Rumbo.

    “What’s new?”
    “I have some good news and some bad news.”
    “What’s the good news?”
    “Hitler has been murdered.”
    “And what’s the bad news?”
    “The news that Hitler was murdered is not true.”

    To me this has the feel of an already established routine, with its origins in American vaudeville or the British music hall or similar popular cultural practices elsewhere in Europe.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    So I announce on ADS-L that 1942 is the best we’ve done to date, and then of course antedatings appear. Two, one of them quite considerable:

    From Jon Lighter:

    1936 Seattle Daily Times (May 7) 23:
    Good news and bad has reached the ears of Otto Sanford, chairman for the four-way ski competition due Saturday and Sunday at Mount Baker. The good news is the fact that …. The bad news is ….

    From Stephen Goranson:

    New-Orleans-Republic, Nov. 3, 1871, 1/5. [Am. Hist. N.]:
    A Colloquy.
    Shortly after it became known that Hon. Thomas W. Conway…was attacked with yellow fever, one prominent citizen said to another whom he met:
    “I have some good news to tell you.”
    “What is it?”….
    “It is that Conway…is very sick with yellow fever.”
    The second party then said in rejoinder:
    “I have some bad news to tell you.”
    “What is that?”
    “It is that Dr. Holcombe is attending Conway, and he is going to get him well.”

    Note 7/7 from Garson O’Toole:

    The 1871 citation fits the template; however, to heighten the humor
    the designations “good news” and “bad news’ have been swapped.
    ..
    Conventional version of the tale:
    Bad news: a problem has occurred (Thomas W. Conway…was attacked with
    yellow fever)
    Good news: the capability to solve the problem has opportunely become
    available (Dr. Holcombe is attending Conway, and he is going to get
    him well)
    ..
    Comically inverted version of the tale:
    Good news: a problem has occurred (Thomas W. Conway…was attacked
    with yellow fever)
    Bad news: the capability to solve the problem has opportunely become
    available (Dr. Holcombe is attending Conway, and he is going to get
    him well)

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now from Geoff Nathan on ADS-L:

    There’s a variant that is probably somewhat younger that it might be interesting to explore, although I’m not sure how to do it. One exemplar is as follows:

    The good thing about digital cameras is that you can take thousands of pictures without having to worry about running out of film
    The bad thing about digital cameras is that you can take thousands of pictures….

    …. you get the idea.

    The form is:
    The good thing about X is Y.
    The bad thing about X is Y.
    conveying that property Y of X is both good (in one way) and bad (in another).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Addendum to Geoff Nathan’s special case, from Margaret Winters on ADS-L:

      To follow up with a headline from yesterday’s [7/6] New York Times: The Good News: The Job Market Is Solid. The Bad News: The Job Market Is Solid.

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    And from Garson O’Toole on 7/7:

    Here is an anecdote published in 1852 with contrasting “good news” and “bad news”. The anecdote is intended to be at least mildly humorous; I think. The template is:
    — Bad news: a problem has occurred
    — Good news: the capability to solve the problem has opportunely become available

    Literary Anecdotes and Contemporary Reminiscences of Professor
    Porson and Others, by Edmund Henry Barker, Volume 1 (1852, J.R. Smith, London)
    Section CXIV (1837), pp. 98f.: Anecdotes of the Rev. T. Barker.
    ..
    He had a female servant, who married a man that was shortly after the marriage chosen to serve in the militia. His intimacy with Mr Bethel, who was the Colonel of the Regiment, induced him to try to get the husband excused from serving; he accordingly proceeded to Mr Bethell’s seat at Rise, and, as the Colonel was at Scarborough, proceeded thither, and succeeded in effecting his object. As he was entering the Rectory, on his return to Cherry-Burton, his man-servant met him at the gate, and said with a woeful countenance, ‘Lord, Sir, I have some bad news to tell you, the haystack has fallen down.’ ‘Never heed,’
    replied MR BARKER, ‘I have some good news to prop it up,—I have got the man off.’

    (AZ note: Rise and Cherry Burton are genuine Yorkshire placenames, not OCR errors.)

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