Title

Our Oddball River: Poking Good-Natured Fun at the L.A. River

This L.A. River article is part of a donation matching challenge grant supported by Newman's Own Foundation. Learn more about the L.A. River and a special thank-you gift of an original handcrafted mosaic necklace that commemorates the river.

Anyone who’s stepped on the banks of the Los Angeles River knows it’s an experience quite unlike that of going to see the Mighty Mississippi, much less the Thames or the Danube. Majestic isn’t an adjective that comes to mind when visiting this city’s river. Strange, surreal, different would be more applicable.

Unlike its counterparts, the Los Angeles River is a seasonal alluvial river, meaning its banks and bed consists of loose sediments and rock. This relaxed foundation allowed its path to change wildly depending on water flows and season. Before it was paved, it could be dry enough to build homes beside, but when it rained, it could transform into a roiling hazard.

It is, in short, an unpredictable, oddball river. Which is perhaps why it is the butt of many jokes in Los Angeles. Just like the strange kid at the playground who always gets picked on, the L.A. river is ripe for taunts because of its deviance from the norm. History is filled with humorous takes on the city’s river.

In the classic film, “Chinatown,” after hearing about a drowning of a drunk man in the L.A. River, Jack Nicholson’s character scoffs, “It's dry as a bone, Morty… He ain't gonna exactly drown in a damp riverbed no matter how soused he is.”

Another joke starts with the police telling a woman that her husband fell into the Los Angeles River. The wife responds to the authorities by telling them to dust her husband off and send him back home.

However, not being taken seriously has also presented some real challenges in revitalizing the river. Decades ago, the thought of Los Angeles having a respectable river was so farfetched that former councilmember Ed Reyes found himself openly mocked on AM radio for even entertaining the thought of bringing back the waterway.

Not all comedy about the Los Angeles River was as mean spirited, however. Sometimes it just reflects the city’s good-natured acceptance of their river’s shortcomings.

On April Fool’s day in 1950, the Los Angeles Examiner published a photo depicting a giant ocean liner on the LA River. The Los Angeles Public Library archive also holds another mysterious photo showing an upper crust man sailing down the river encased in concrete and powerlines.

LA examiner river joke sailboat
On the water, in their dreams. L.A. Examiner find funny in the LA River. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library. 
LA examiner river joke steamboat
Los Angeles Examiner's April Fool's joke published in 1950. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

Others went even further by staging a spectacle starring the Los Angeles River.

After 115 lives were lost in the river’s 1938 floods, Los Angeles Herald Express reporters attempted to lighten the city’s grim mood by undertaking a boating expedition on the waterway. Christening themselves “Foghorn” Eldridge and “Wharf Rat” Watson, who were actually reporter Fred Eldridge and photographer Coy Watson, Jr., the duo boarded a craft and tried to sail the river from Atwater Village to the river mouth in Long Beach.

They only got as far as six miles fro downtown Los Angeles, but their ridiculous image has survived in a photograph today. Dressed like caricatures of river adventurers, the two navigated a sagging gangplank onto their “ship,” a kayak bearing a dinky umbrella, cheered on by children. Eldridge eventually ends up chest deep in the muddy river, while Watson waves a flag he had hoped to plant on the river’s mouth in Long Beach.

It was probably one of the last expeditions on the wild river. The disastrous flood would prompt the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish channelizing the river.

00028407.jpg
Waving to their well-faring fans, "Foghorn” Eldridge and “Wharf Rat” Watson are southbound on the river. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Libray.
00028406.jpg
Ahoy! Minutes later, their mission ends in mud. Journies gone awry is part of the fun. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

Story continues below

By 1958, the Army Corps had finished the job. Fittingly, yet another duo—Charles Hillinger and photographer Bruce Cox from the Los Angeles Times—once again attempt to navigate the Los Angeles River in a five-man inflatable boat.

Their expedition reads like a comedy of errors. The river was often too shallow. (Two feet counted as deep water.) The boatmen frequently battled with their slowly dilapidating raft, at one point even having to bail water from their boat with their shoes. Hillinger cheekily points out that their shoes were only so useful because of the men’s big feet. The two didn’t make it to the mouth of the river, as well, and instead opted to view the river the classic Angeleno way—via car. 

But, like the kid who learned how to tell jokes about himself to ward off bullies, the Los Angeles River and its advocates have turned these jokes about the river on its head, using it instead to capture the limelight.

It was a tongue-in-cheek video of George Wolfe taking the river instead of the freeway to work that inspired ex-Army Corps biologist Heather Wiley to see whether the river could prove to be “navigable.” It was.

Proving the river could be “navigable” meant that the river would have a better case for more access and recreational use for a once-forgotten river.

Since then, the river has enjoyed more and more attention, prompting outsized support for a $1.3 billion restoration plan and ever-increasing development interest in the neighborhood.

It wouldn't be a stretch to claim that comedy had turned the river’s fortunes around. Until today, advocates continue to use comedy as a tool to reach out to a greater public.

For a city video, filmmaker Rory Mitchell chose a lighthearted approach to showcase the activities that one can undertake on the river. Mitchell chose to cast council members Mitch O’Farrell, the “Sultan of Silver Lake,” and Nury Martinez, the “Principesa of Panorama City,” as contenders in a kayak race.

“The idea was to show a different side of the river and bring attention to the all things happening down the river,” says Mitchell. The comedic kayak race did its job. It showed that the city did have a river and it was possible to kayak its waters. Mitchell says that by using this comedic approach, the city was able to talk about serious matter without having residents’ eyes glaze over. “We’re using what people expect to see on the river and subverting it, slipping in some educational lessons about the river under the guise of a silly boat race.”

Recently, also taking a lighthearted but more risqué approach, comedian Kurt Braunohler and actress Lauren Cook slip under the usual bureaucracies that plague any undertaking on the river with a new spectacle. This March 19, will don inner tubes and “race” each other down the historic waterway in the “First Annual L.A. River Tubing Expedition Competition.”

tube race organizers
Kurt Braunohler and Lauren Cook are organizers of the First Annual Tubing Expedition.

Though the event is slightly transgressive, the couple says this spectacle is done out of a love for the river. Just like the stunts before them, the sheer absurdity of Braunohler and Cook’s inner tube race serves to test the limits of what is deemed possible on the Los Angeles River, and just perhaps, changing opinions. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that kayaking on the river was just absurd and now it’s become a yearly recreational activity.

When it was first announced in October last year, Braunohler and Cook’s crazy idea sparked excitement online, as well as debate. Despite it being a hare-brained scheme, Braunohler says the idea, which the two conceived during one of their many walks around the city, found many enthusiastic supporters. “We were overwhelmed by how many people were interested in coming,” says the comedian.

The sight of whirling inner tubes floating down the Los Angeles River 48 hours after an El Niño rain would be something to talk about—and that’s probably what has drawn so many interested people.

Braunohler and Cook compare the inner tube race to polar bear plunges, which ask volunteers to dunk themselves in super cold water to raise money for a charitable cause. “From the outside, it’s a pretty dumb thing to do, but when you’re there, it’s a beautiful and amazing experience, says Braunohler. He and Cook have both participated in a polar bear plunge. The two hope to produce a similar, unforgettable experience on the Los Angeles River, which would bond a community together. The after-party post-race certainly doesn’t hurt.