All Kinds of Funny
Posted by: Neil Hollands
I’ve just finished the Library of America’s The 50 Funniest American Writers (According to Andy Borowitz). Does it contain the 50 funniest American writers ever? Probably not. Are the pieces representing the selected writers always their best work? Nope. Do I recommend it to your book group? Absolutely.
The subject of humor is a very slippery thing. One man’s gut-buster will produce a polite titter from his wife, maybe a roll of the eyes from his best friend. In the words of any experienced humorist: comedy is hard. In my experience, book groups have a hard time learning this lesson. The thing is that when someone doesn’t find comedy funny, they aren’t just neutral about it. As often than not, they become actively hostile or contemptuous toward the failed attempt.
This doesn’t mean that book groups should stay away from humor, but they should be prepared for surprisingly big gaps in opinion about the success of comedy. That’s what I like about a book like The 50 Funniest American Writers, with small samples from many writers, all of your readers are likely to find something they like and conversely, something they don’t. A good conversation about the subjectivity of humor and the variety of its many faces is likely to follow. Humor is also especially prone to shifting tastes over time, and a collection like this, with many older pieces that have held up well, will also help feed a discussion of what lasts and what fades away.
My favorites included H. L. Mencken’s vitriolic “Imperial Purple,” James Thurber’s “More Alarms at Night,” S. J. Perleman’s hilarious noir spoof “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer,” e.b. white’s Hemingway spoof “Across the Street and into the Grill,” Peter De Vries’ “House of Mirth,” Lenny Bruce’s “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” Woody Allen’s “A Look at Organized Crime,” a three writer effort called “Our White Heritage,” some of Charles Portis’s old “Your Action Line” columns, Veronica Geng’s newspeak masterpiece “Curb Carter Policy Discord Effort Threat,” the John Hughes story (that I didn’t realize he wrote) which originated Vacation (and is much darker than the film), Bruce McCall’s spoof of mail ads, Calvin Trillin’s spiteful “Corrections,” Dave Barry’s relationship tips, Susan Orlean’s baby-hating “Shiftless Little Loafers,” Ian Frazier’s application of biblical language to “Laws Concerning Food and Drink,” David Sedaris’s “Buddy Can You Spare a Tie?,” Jack Handey on “What I’d Say to the Martians,” and George Saunders’s “Ask the Optimist.” But those are my choices. Yours will be different.
There are dozens of other great writers here: Mark Twain, O. Henry, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, Hunter S. Thompson, Nora Ephron, Molly Ivins, George Carlin, and Wanda Sykes to name just a few. I like that some selections, like Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth, are very serious writers with a funny streak that’s important to their work. A final reason that this is a good choice is that Borowitz leaves in the edginess that makes so much humor work but leaves out most of the outright crassness that can make some humor awkward for groups.