The origin of the "Ha! Ha!" meme guy, a research journey

The origin of the "Ha! Ha!" meme guy, a research journey

Originally a thread on Twitter, archived here for posterity, plus an expert weighs in at the bottom!

Nov 22, 2018 — 6:17pm

somebody buy this antique(?) copy(?) of the original oil painting(?) that inspired the HA! HA! meme guy so i don’t have to plz [expired ebay link]


seller suggests it’s an original by the same artist, it could be a a maquette — a preliminary work

probably a copy painting tho

but for the life of me i cannot figure out what it’s a copy/maquette OF


no combination of search terms has found me an original painting in any museum (larger or otherwise), but old prints suggest it WAS a known thing.


tricorn hats went out of style c. 1800… and not a lot painters in the 1700s-1800s painted people with extreme facial expressions. it’s not joseph ducreux


somebody found this on in 2008 for $5. it’s obviously not that old. which again implies: famous painting worth copying, but WHAT IS IT? i’m going crazy.


the text on the back of this amateur copy painting said: “The man who resigned a Midland position in 1874 and got his pay." which, obv, is NOT when the painting originated (remember: the hat.)

basically somebody was already memeing with this guy’s face.


ah fuck it, i bought it, i can’t take the mystery.


HA! HA! my resolve not to buy something lasted 15 minutes


time for another clue: the glasses. pince nez, specifically. according to wikipedia, this is the C-bridge type. wikipedia says it dates post-1820

according to, post-1880 [link now goes to the Wayback Machine because the original is gone, RIP]


first mention of FORBES INSOLUABLE DRY PLATES in Google Book search: 1885


found an original use of the “HA! HA!” ad with the illustration of the man in the tricorn hat. c: 1890.

but it’s NOT the source for the meme graphic. the associated typography (and shadow from other side) are different“I’m using” “Forbes insoluble”&pg=PA164#v=onepage&q&f=false


can’t believe i’m still coming up empty. my google-fu is strong. it seems like riff on rembrandt…


more signs: in the late 1880s, super high, starched collars were called “father killers.” they had this plain overlapping look. not sure his is tall enough to qualify but similar.


STILL NOT ABLE TO FIND THE ALLEGED ORIGINAL PAINTING. now i’m wondering about this lithograph print titled “A capital joke!” sometimes people would take e.g. currier & ives prints and paint their own version, pre-Paint By Numbers…


“A capital joke!” as a subtitle definitely puts us in the exact same time period of 1860-1890, according to google’s ngrams


however, the text below “A capital joke” is a goddamned mystery due to shit image quality. reverse image search does NOT find the source of the image. probably an old ebay or craigslist listing, which means NO ARCHIVE.


i searched the crap out of it. nothing. then i thought: people sometimes would frame cartoons from humor mags.

BUT… it doesn’t appear to be from Puck (left) or Punch (right)… their illustration style was VASTLY more complex; full-pagers had 2+ bodies, & two-pagers were color


google search is the lazy way, so i found an online archive of Puck magazines and browsed through quite a few from the mid-1880s… none of them have single-person cartoons, none used that typeface


so i went back to currier & ives. they’re perennial favorites though — the likelihood of there being an ~undiscovered~ C&I print is so low.

BUT this 1885 C&I General Grant portrait bears stylistic / typographic similarities


i think i would say that whoever executed the lithograph was more skilled at their job than whoever painted this painting


you guys i have RUN OUT OF GROUND to cover. i’m gonna have to seek expert help! this basically never happens so it’s kind of………………………… thrilling?


i’ll update this when i figure out who to ask. 😂 in the mean time, enjoy the history of the HA HA meme:


one last circle back tho… i originally thought the design was *too old* to have been current in 1874, but actually the pince-nez glasses are too new to have been used in 1874. so this Goodwill find remains a mystery


why is this dude wearing a hat that went out of style in 1800 and glasses from 80 years later?? I NEED TO KNOW


one more thing… this is just weird, not remotely helpful.

left: 1890
right: 1921


had another thought: what if the laughing man in the ad was a kind of 19th century clip art? a non-brand-specific printing block (called a stereotype or cliché).

didn’t find a cliché but i did find this:



Laughing man, c.1875, F. Pons, Science Museum Group collection

Nov 23, 9:48am

STILL lots of mystery surrounding my newly acquired f’d up antique painting and its presumable original source, this photograph… like…

1. why… ?
2. how… did this photo end up in so many different forms?
3. who… is the photographer, “F. Pons.” ?

haven’t found anything yet


further enigmatic appearances as :

1. hobbyist painting (left) with a line on the back dissing an 1874 Canadian train company executive, and
2. in a book (right) about how laughter is horrible and no right thinking person should do it!


1. the name F. Pons. is probably french
2. the carte de visite (french) photograph is in a UK collection
3. one amateur painting found in a USA Goodwill, but enscribed about Canada
4. my oil painting found on eBay, also USA

this victorian meme is international

Nov 26, 4:31pm

update: HE’S HERE! and i wrote the museum in possession of the photo, but apparently wrote the wrong wing, and need to re-email the correct division


observations: wow more menacing in person

i think the absurdly excessive cracking is because the canvas got wet at some point and the oil layer delaminated (see wavy bits top right)

the messed-up teeth are artistic license, not in the source materials (litho OR photo)

Nov 12, 2019 10:31am

NEW WRINKLE in this mystery of the HA HA! meme guy! [deleted quote tweet]

Dec 30, 2022 4:26pm

the tweet in my previous tweet has been deleted, so here it is for posterity:

the Ha! Ha! guy on an antique toothpaste pot lid from melbourne, australia


David Bruce and/or his pot collecting pals also found some other examples of the Ha! Ha! man in newspaper ads the first from 1880-81 (shortly after the Melbourne Exhibition), the second from 1889

Email from Kendra Bean, Collections Assistant, UK Science and Media Museum, Nov 18, 2019

Dear Amy,

Thank you for your email and your interest in the ‘Laughing Man’ carte-de-visite in the Science and Media Museum collection.

Sadly, we don’t have any information about F. Pons. – whether he was the sitter or the photographer, or whether it refers to what’s going on in the photo. The carte was purchased at Christie’s as part of an auction lot that included other carte-de-visites by photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron and Oscar Gustave Reijlander (these named photographers would have been the draw for us in terms of our collecting practice). The auction info can be found here:

The carte doesn’t have any information on the back as to who took the photo or where it was produced. Carte-de-visites were indeed *that* popular in the later 19th century. They were kind of the equivalent of baseball cards, tradeable and collectible.

As far as the image becoming a meme, Know Your Meme lists its origins from the dry plate advertisement. But we have the original photograph (there may be other copies out there in the world).

I hope this is helpful. Sorry we don’t have any concrete identifying information as to the sitter/photographer.

Kind regards,