Funny folks, through the ages

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The eminent Paul Johnson has penned histories of 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."

Johnson is at his best when he traces current humor traditions back to their roots, as when he shows that Charles Dickens was the inventor of the verbal running gag and Benjamin Franklin the father of the one-liner.

But his short biographies of his chosen humorists tend to fall flat. First, it is never clear whether his goal is to chronicle lives or characterize humor. Second, he offers no methodology behind his choices. Readers are left with the sinking sensation that we are simply being handed rehashed writings about people whom Johnson found to be funny while researching some other project. This sensation is only intensified by the number of chapters that begin with some version of the following: "It stretches credulity to write of Dr. Samuel Johnson. . . as a comic." Thirteen pages later, I found myself saying, "Yes, it does."

My suspicions about the rehashing of his previous work seem further supported by the disproportionate number of painters who have found their way into this volume. While I'm happy to be convinced that William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson each painted canvases that reduced his viewers (some 300 and 200 years ago, respectively) to peals of laughter, reading somewhat dry descriptions of their paintings left me unmoved.

Johnson is clearly a highbrow thinker, yet it seems that his taste in humor runs directly to the puerile. He lavishes attention on Franklin's writings on sex with older women, and he finds occasion to use the word "pudenda" not once, but twice. "Pudenda" is nothing if not a funny word.

In his chapter on G.K. Chesterton, Johnson quotes Chesterton: "Happiness is a mystery, like religion, and should never be rationalized." Reading this book, I'm forced to conclude that the same should be said of humor.

In the realm of more contemporary humor, we find one Willie Geist. Geist, whose television show "Way Too Early" is a godsend to this father of an insomniac infant, is also responsible for the comic relief on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," where he mocks pop cultural phenomena. His new book, "American Freak Show," is the logical extension of that role, except that instead of simply delighting in the foibles of celebrities, he imagines what they might say in sex rehab (Tiger Woods); e-mail exchanges (Bill and Hillary Clinton); Twitter feeds (Lindsay Lohan's Tweets from a Santa Monica jail); parenting advice (Kate Gosselin); inaugural addresses (Sarah Palin) - as well as my favorite, what a remake of the film "The Longest Yard" might look like if it took place at Guantanamo Bay.

Not all of "American Freak Show" is fabricated. The book opens with a priceless anecdote about Rod Blagojevich visiting the set of the show, and Geist is actually at his best when he's commenting on experiences like this. So while "American Freak Show" may not place Geist in Paul Johnson's company of great humorists, it easily earns a spot in a less exalted, though no less essential, library - the one you know you keep by the commode.

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