Cartoonist Al Capp Gives Speech Offered Through the University of Utah’s Assemblies and Convocations Committee

By Taylor Barney

Alfred Gerald Caplin, better known by the abbreviated Al Capp, was a cartoonist from New Haven, Connecticut. Capp had gone to work for Ham Fisher, a cartoonist in Connecticut known for his popular comic strip, Joe Palooka. In 1933, while working on Joe Palooka, Capp introduced a hillbilly character into the comic’s cast of characters. This hillbilly character, a boxer from Kentucky named Big Leviticus, became a quick favorite of the comic reading public. So, when Capp quit working with Fisher, he decided to begin a new comic strip that took place in the South. Capp’s most famous comic strip, Li’l Abner, was established with this vision on August 13, 1934. (Studies in American Humor, 2001)

Li’l Abner became the biggest comic ever set in the South. At its height, the comic strip was read by “such great people as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, and novelist John Steinbeck.” On top of the comic’s famous readers, it was being read by about “60 million readers in over 900 million American newspapers and 100 foreign papers in 28 countries.” (The Daily Utah Chronicle, 1960)


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Provo Sunday Herald, October 2, 1960


Li’l Abner could locally be seen in the Provo Daily Herald, and had become a student favorite at the University of Utah. Al Capp was able to capture real-life happenings and make them into a satirical comic strip. In the October 6, 1960, issue of the Daily Utah Chronicle, a reporter gives a brief overview of just some of the topics that could be found in Li’l Abner, such as “sex, law enforcement, and the housing situation.” Al Capp was putting a humorous lens on top of things that were critical to the American life in 1960.

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Al Capp addressed a large crowd at the University of Utah Union Ballroom. Daily Utah Chronicle, October 7, 1960.

With Capp’s popularity among the University of Utah Students, he was a perfect fit to begin a set of speeches that were being offered by the University’s Assemblies and Convocations Committee. Capp’s speech was to take place on October 6, 1960, and was aptly titled “Al Capp Talks.” In an article titled “Capp and Cows” from the October 6 issue, a reporter observed, “To many, he is more than a satirist or a cartoonist; he is an institution.” Possibly the biggest indicator of just how popular Al Capp was among the students is shown in the September 22, 1960, issue of the Chronicle. In the issue there’s an article titled, “Top Speakers Set for Shows,” where the first speakers were announced for the Assemblies and Convocations Committees upcoming speaker series. Among the speakers were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then Senator Paul Douglas, and one of the most widely known American columnists at the time, Drew Pearson. In front of all of those names, and with a large photograph right in the middle of the article, is none other than Al Capp.

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A portrait of Al Capp appeared in the Daily Utah Chronicle issue of September 22, 1960, with the article, “Al Capp Sets U Appearance.”

During his speech at the University of Utah, Capp touched on every one of his major topics while still finding a way to surprise the audience. In the Chronicle article, “Capp Treats Campus, Lampoons Television,” the reporter said that Capp had spoken on “everything from his suspicion of lawyers with three names to his opinion of abstract art.” Reading through the article gives a wider view of just what type of comedy and satire Capp was giving in his speeches, and it’s easy to see why college students of the time were infatuated with the man. The article brings up how Capp could also tone it down and become very serious. At one point Capp “drew a modern comparison between television programs and Fagin of Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist.’” He delved into politics when he said about war, “Less emphasis should be placed upon which world political faction is better prepared to destroy the other and more upon the fact that this destruction could take place.” After a night of laughter and wisdom, a full Union Ballroom crowd was complimented when Al Capp said how much he had enjoyed Salt Lake City and the University of Utah. Capp left the crowd with this final thought, “The American Humorist is freer to print what he wants to today than he has ever been before.” (“Capp Treats Campus”)

In summary, Al Capp was a prominent figure in 1960. He gained popularity from his Li’l Abner comic strip, where readers found real-life issues that were brought forward with a satirical view. He then toured the country giving speeches at multiple universities, where the students enjoyed his anti-war, anti-establishment talking points. In the 1960s Capp was showing a rather progressive viewpoint through his speeches and cartoons, and students across the country were able to find someone who spoke in a way that resonated with them.

Taylor Barney is a senior at the University of Utah, where he is studying communication with an emphasis in journalism.

Primary Sources

Top Speakers Set For Shows,” Daily Utah Chronicle, September 22, 1960, 4.

Al Capp, “Li’l Abner,” Provo Sunday Herald, October 2, 1960, 19.

Al Capp, “Li’l Abner,” Provo Daily Herald, October 3, 1960, 13.

Capp’s Lecture Kicks Off ’60 Guest Speaker Series,” Daily Utah Chronicle, October 4, 1960, 1.

Capp Speech Set For Union Tonight at 8:15,” Daily Utah Chronicle, October 6, 1960, 1.

Capp and Cows…,” Daily Utah Chronicle, October 6, 1960, 2.

Capp Treats Campus, Lampoons Television,” Daily Utah Chronicle, October 7, 1960, 1.

Secondary Sources

Arnold, Edwin T. “Abner Unpinned: Al Capps “Lil Abner,” 1940-1955,” Appalachian Journal 24, no. 4 (Summer 1997): 420-436.

Inge, Thomas. “Al Capp’s South: Appalachian Humor in “Li’l Abner,” Studies in American Humor 3, no. 8 (2001): 4-20.