April Fool’s Day Reading

This being April 1, I was thinking this morning about joke books. As a kid, I used to read Dennis the Menace cartoons, collections of silly verse with titles like “Yours ‘Til Niagara Falls,” Mad Magazine (and its imitators Cracked and Sick), humorous memoirs like “Cheaper by the Dozen” Bennett Cerf’s “Try and Stop Me” column in the daily paper, and accounts of scams, cons, and practical jokes. I suppose James Thurber was my favorite “humorous” essayist when young, since my paperback of “The Thurber Carnival” is well worn, to say the least. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” “The Macbeth Murder Mystery”--these were, and still are, delicious jeux d’esprit. Later in college I was introduced to the wordplay of another New Yorker legend, and “The Most of S.J. Perelman” temporarily ousted Thurber from my affections. At various times, I remember reading old “comic” best-sellers like Alexander King’s “May This House be Safe from Tigers,” books by Jack Paar and Bob Hope, H. Allen Smith’s “Low Man on a Totem Pole,” Will Cuppy’s “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everything” (or was it “Everybody”?), Richard Armour’s light verse in the Saturday Review, and old volumes of Stephen Leacock and Robert Benchley. The latter’s “After 1905-What?” is a title I’ve always admired.

To this day, I still turn regularly to comic writing, especially come the weekend or when I need a break from all these high-minded masterpieces I tend to write about. On my shelves of “favorite” books I see the classic novels of P.G. Wodehouse, Flann O’Brien’s newspaper column “The Best of Myles,” the essays of Woody Allen and Fran Lebowitz, novels like Stanley Elkins’s “The Dick Gibson Show,” David Lodge’s “Small World” and many others. Comedy is more human than tragedy, and people do need to laugh.

So this being April 1, let me ask the Reading Room if its members recall any great practical jokes they either performed or suffered from on past April Fool’s Days. Tell us about them. Also, please share some of your favorite works of “foolish” literature, whether it’s Erasmus’s “Praise of Folly” or the latest from Dave Barry or Tina Fey.

- Michael Dirda

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