Two books on humor by Paul Johnson and Willie Geist

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Thursday, January 6, 2011; 11:36 AM

HUMORISTS

From Hogarth to Noel Coward

By Paul Johnson

Harper. 228 pp. $25.99

AMERICAN FREAK SHOW

The Completely Fabricated Stories of Our New National Treasures

By Willie Geist

Hyperion. 214 pp. $23.99

The eminent Paul Johnson has penned histories on subjects ranging from Christianity, to Judaism, to the 20th century (in toto), to art (also in toto). One can't help admiring someone with the intellectual fecundity (or is it promiscuity?) to write authoritatively on such a range of subjects.

Additionally, Johnson has made books out of his own short biographies of those he considers to be great intellectuals, in the aptly named "Intellectuals." He has done the same for those he considers to be great heroes, in the aptly named "Heroes." (Had he shown a similar interest in Philadelphia sandwiches, he might have written another book with that for a title.)

This brings us to Johnson's current offering, "Humorists." As that horrible sandwich joke demonstrates, humor is hard. Not just hard to write, but hard to categorize. In his introduction, Johnson assembles a truly enlightening and readable history of humor. He describes one of the earliest recorded dirty jokes, found in the Bible. He investigates the revulsion that puns tend to engender among humorists (and then shows those humorists to be hypocrites by citing their own punning ways).

Johnson does an admirable job of breaking humor down into two main types. The first he describes as "chaos, contemplated in safety," and he categorizes those who work in this space as "comics who create chaos," the Marx Brothers being a classic example. The second type are those who observe and present the human condition to us in all its absurdity, such as the painter Toulouse-Lautrec. These are the humorists, he writes, "who look for, and find, and analyze, the worrying exuberance, and sheer egregious weirdness of the individual human being, and who present them vividly, and accurately for our delight."


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