Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Because Guy asked...
I, on the other hand, am NOT a humorist.SSSSSSSSSSSSS. I was going to do a post about the Balanced Budget Amendment being pushed by so many conservatives as a way out of our fiscal woes. But then two things happened. Guy responded to the last post by requesting more information about the humorists cited there. And I realized that there's nothing in the Balanced Budget Amendment idea worthy of a complete post. It's the single most utterly idiotic fixation of the right in this country. It can't pass congress. If passed, it can't secure a three-quarters majority of the states. And even if it could, the amendment would be confirmed way too late to prevent the bankruptcy of the United States. Besides, it's a rotten idea anyway. There are times of great natural emergency when money has to be spent regardless; we couldn't have won World War II without deficit spending. That's all that needs to be said, unless anyone needs reminding that if this is the best our would-be conservative saviors can come up with, we're in even worse shape than I thought. I can't believe such a crappy "solution" to our debt problem is still getting lip service by anyone.
Which brings us back to the topic of humorists. Because laughter is the medicine we all definitely need at the moment. Here's a little more about the authors I recommended on Friday.
Stephen Leacock. He is still remembered today, in Canada, first as a mathematician, second as a famously brilliant Canadian, and third (and distantly) as a literary humorist. There's a Stephen Leacock Institute which celebrates the math thing almost exclusively. But this site has already covered his humor contributions, and you can go here to see them.
P. G. Wodehouse. Another one I've written about before. I read the first definitive biography of him a few years back, and what's clear about him -- as for so many other humorists -- is that his life was in many ways sad, even though he lived to great old age, produced about a hundred novels, and umpty-gazillion short stories. He was a man of baffling contradictions and therefore a more useful source of insight about the U.K. than most of the "serious" writers in his country who were contemporaries or came later. He seems to us locked permanently in the England between the two world wars, a fantasy realm of country estates, two-seat roadsters, gentlemen's clubs, and aristocratic aunts with lorgnettes and no knowledge whatever of everyday English life. Yet he is the source cited by Evelyn Waugh, the deadliest satirist of his age, as the master of dialogue from whom Waugh learned how to eviscerate pretension and hypocrisy in the most maliciously brilliant novels of the twentieth century. In person, Waugh was witty and mean; Wodehouse was everywhere described as dull. Wodehouse was afraid of assertive women, indifferent to sex, not because he was gay, it seems, but because his personality was formed by distant, even cold, family relations, and then frozen for good in adolescence by his happier experience in boarding schools when he finally escaped from home. Then he managed to get himself exiled forever from Britain by being a "good sport" on the radio when he was interned by Germans in the early days of World War II. He never went home again. He never complained. Because that's the way Brits are. No matter what they do to you, you have to petend to have the emotional range of a cricket bat.
The inability of British men to express genuine emotion without degenerating into stuttering incoherence is a staple of dozens of Wodehouse plots, and aristocratic origins aggravate the affliction enormously. The odd result is that this man who never expressed political views in his writing and devoted himself to producing souffles of the purest fantasy is nevertheless a direct progenitor of not only Evelyn Waugh but Monty Python's Flying Circus and the recent Oscar-winning film called The King's Speech, in which an Aussie "Jeeves" comes to the rescue of a "Bertie" who just happens to be the King and a life-imitates-art version of Wodehouse's dimwit protagonist, Bertie Wooster. The life imitated in the latter instance is real life -- neglect, abuse, emotional starvation, and an isolating class system we're being asked to celebrate this week with all the hyping of the royal wedding. In retrospect, the faultessly kind treatment by Wodehouse of the Brit upper classes can be read now as the gentlest of all satires, but his comedy has acquired bite through the passage of time. It is now possible to see in his hilariously lovable depiction of the absent-minded Earl of Emsworth a haunting precursor to the much less benign idiocy of Prince Charles. And so it goes.
Ring Lardner. Finally, an American. I couldn't find the Fitzgerald quote I was really looking for, his reference to Ring's "face like a ruined cathedral." The first book of Lardner's I ever read was titled "How to Write a Short Story." Typically, that title was pure self-deprecation. Lardner lived in a time of consciously "literary" writers -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Stein, Joyce, and company -- who were dazzling the reading public with their singular talent for writing sentences, paragraphs, and whole novels that were self-evidently edifices of words, every scene and moment an incarnation of their own unique voices. Lardner was a throwback to the obsolete template of Mark Twain. He had an ear for the way common men spoke. His point of contact was overwhelmingly but not exclusively baseball. The novel "You Know Me Al," arguably his greatest work, is a throwback even in form, all the way back to Samuel Richardson who wrote the first novel ever, Pamela, which consisted of letters. Lardner's "You Know me Al" did too; it was subtitled "A Busher's letters home."
You know how professors can fool you. I was an English major. In college I was exposed to a list of the consensus "ten best novels of the 20th century." All of which we had to read. Literary stuff. One of the ones on the list was Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier," which we were told accomplished the impossible task of making the reader see what the narrator could not, that the truth of things was very different from the way the narrative represented them. Impossibly subtle. Brilliantly oblique. Blah blah. For years after, I recommended "The Good Soldier" to friends as if I were sharing literary wisdom. It took me some years to realize that I had seen this same "impossibly subtle" feat performed even before I read "The Good Soldier." In a book published at approximately the same time, after what was demonstrably a longer period of gestation, meaning that Ring Lardner started "You Know Me Al" before "The Good Soldier" was published.
Yeah, it's still possible to make the case that "The Good Soldier" was a better book because the 'reveal' is slower. But Lardner makes it clear that seeing past the stupidity of the narrator is something that can be accomplished on the first page, not the 200th. And the art involved is in no way less, because the invitation, the insistence, to read between the lines begins at once. And he actually manages another so-called literary impossibility -- making you keep turning the pages after you've realized you don't really like the person who's the major actor in the story. Ring Lardner was a hell of a writer. Too bad he never knew it. What Fitzgerald was trying to say, if not all he was trying to say.
Damon Runyon. The P.G. Wodehouse of Broadway and the lowlife of New York. Not as great because it has fewer echoes, though there are echoes. If Wodehouse represents the sentimentalization of coddled aristocrats, Damon Runyon represents the sentimentalization of criminals in the five boroughs. The writing is incredibly colorful, as transparent as the prose we've praised in Lardner, and really really funny. There's a sense in which Runyon is a superposition of Wodehouse and Lardner. Aristocracy is transmuted into a realm where Sing-Sing and San Quentin are alumni affilations akin to Yale and Harvard. Except that such intimations are the most blatant possible exposures of a worldview that is hopelessly limited in every way. The fun can disguise the Wodehouse-like satire that a hitman is unaccountably uncomfortable with killing a kid. The stories are collectively an expression of native American optimism, that there is good even in the worst of us, and it will somehow find a way, through either personal decision or confluence of circumstance, to effect the archetypally American happy ending.
Whether you think you know Damon Runyon or not, you do know him. If you've ever seen Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls, Shirley Temple in Little Miss Marker, Glenn Ford, Peter Falk and Betty Davis in Pocketful of Miracles, or, yup, The Sopranos, you have seen the Damon Runyon effect at work. The very idea that there can be something accessible, simply human, and forgivable about the lives of thug criminals is pure Runyon. But the original stories he wrote are far more innocent and enticing than the derivatives..
Will Cuppy. The single best work of humor I've ever read is "The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody." Why? Because as part of their basic operating code, humorists are free to make up facts as they feel the need. The objective is laughter, not accuracy, and unfairness is assumed. Will Cuppy is the closest Americans have to Stephen Leacock, a hybrid polymath. Cuppy was a meticulous historian who wrote a completely accurate book of history that was falling down funny. He researched, researched, researched. Then, when he was confident of his facts, he utterly demolished the reputations of Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and a score of other historic notables.
Of course, he was personally miserable. He lived like a hermit, made no money, and his greatest work was published posthumously.
Robert Benchley. Probably the most dated author on this list. One of the founding lights of The New Yorker and a key member of the notorious Algonquin Roundtable, he seems today an artifact of an earlier simpler time. He's here because he was the first of them I found and he led me to the others. As a kid I read a book called "Chips Off the Old Benchley," and it was like moving into a balloon, weightless and without any possibility of ill consequence. For all that he was a Harvard sophisticate, there was a simplicity about him. I remember a piece he wrote about gardening. He listed three steps: 1) Preparing the soil; 2) Preparing the soil; 3) Preparing the soil. Then he gave up in exhaustion and rested. You can easily find on YouTube the numerous short subjects he did in Hollywood, which are lesser than his written works, but nothing there will explain that he did the best he could for stricken friends like Dorothy Parker and James Thurber. He was always content to play the fool, and it broke my heart to learn that when his brother died in WWI, he heard his mother say, "Why couldn't it have been Robert instead?"
James Thurber. As a child, he got shot in the eye with an arrow by one of his brothers, and that began a long, inevitable march toward blindness, with anecdotal evidence that he -- like Benchley -- was the less favored son. He began his writing career by wanting to be Henry James and wrote a bunch of embarrassing James-like letters before he became James Thurber. He was far more literarily ambitious than Benchley, and he holds up ever so much better all these years later, but that's probably because there was an ever-present darkness we recognize more easily today. He, with his rotten and ever-fading eyesight, did the cartoons that emboldened me to create Shuteye Town 1999 (for which I had no similar excuse), and he never got over being a provincial Ohioan in the land of The New Yorker. If there was a 20th century Mark Twain, it was Thurber. Lots of humor, lots of fanciful stories from youthful days, and a gradually accumulating darkness that led in Twain's case to "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" and in Thurber's to a blind, hospital-bound, mostly humorless swansong called Lanterns and Lances. But make no mistake. He was a genius and an American original. He never forgot that he was from Columbus, Ohio, (as was my mother), and he wrote about dogs and women and people in general in a way that still resonates.
I hate to have to say this, but Keith Olbermann has a whole series of Thurber readings on YouTube. One is all it takes to discover what is going on: The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble. This is a Thurber fable, and it's a fine piece, but it also illustrates the problem with political advocates. Olbermann reads it like a Leninist lesson, assuming we all know who the villainous wolves persecuting the rabbits are. He injects a malice into the text that Thurber never put there. One could as easily see the "wolves" as government bureaucrats whose paranoia about Global Warming ('earthquakes') and disrespectful Tea Partiers mandate the attacks we've seen every day on MSNBC. The measure of Thurber's greatness is that his fables are there to question assumptions, not dictate ideologies. Even his 'morals' at the end of each fable are open to interpretation. There's "The Scotty Who Knew Too Much." Who gets his ass kicked in the fable, but we know to a certainty that Thurber loved Scotties more than perhaps any other breed. He was lampooning 'morals' as well as 'fables.' Let's never forget that he was first inspired by the infinite complexities of Henry James. He was playing with us all the time. It's almost obscene to hear Olbermann read his prose as if it were a New York Times editorial. What you really need to do is read Thurber.
Max Shulman. And then there's all-out humor. I've only read three Max Shulman novels (I'm not even counting Dobie Gillis, which was also his.) Barefoot Boy with Cheek and The Zebra Derby were one of the few examples I've ever known of a sequel that exceeded the original -- jokes about college marxism in the first and a much larger joke about post-war silliness in the second. But the centerpiece is an almost novel-type novel called The Featherbedders, which contains the best send-up of Hemingway anyone ever wrote, complete with all the "thee's" and "thou's" and "little rabbits" of For Whom the Bell Tolls. There are themes that tie all these works together. In the Shulman omnibus I read, he begins by explaining -- a la Ring Lardner -- How to Write. And maybe it's funnier for a writer than anyone else, but he explains metaphor ("his stomach was a like a big round ball") and temporal switching: the flashback, the telescoping flashback, the double-telescoping flashback... Although he never explains his funniest device, which is that every minor character has his own long, long story to tell, until you realize that he is goofing on narrative itself as a form, and that everything he is doing is more sophisticated than his confessedly incompetent and simple-minded style would ever admit of. Max Shulman was deconstructing the novel before Thomas Pynchon ever put pen to paper. Genius.
It bears repeating that none of these masters were what you'd call mean. Or obscene. Or expressly political. They used humor to illuminate their audience.
A synonym for 'meaner' is 'lower' I cheerrfully admit that I am lower than these forebears The audience as a whole is lower. Roles have been reversed. Humorists -- i.e., comedians -- are now mean as snakes, and satirists are the gentler breed, trading pure advocacy for something like perspective.
Except for me. From first to last, Black Mamba. And don't you forget it.
P.S. Also don't forget for a moment who this mamba is protecting with all his malignant venom:
I patrol a space for you. Where you get to talk freely. Because I kill everyone else. Why I'm not as funny as I used to be.
P.P.S. "Any love for Bierce?" asks Apotheosis. Yup. Here. Also, a belated nod to S. J. Perelman, whose "Westward Ha!" is one of the greatest comic travelogues ever written. Can't think why I didn't include him in the first place. If you're in the mood for full-bore genius, acquire a volume called "The Most of S. J. Perelman." You won't be sorry. Like Twain and Thurber, though, he reached a point where he ceased to be funny. At the end of his life, The New Yorker -- after thirty-some years of featuring him -- rejected his work. God damn The New Yorker.