In 1961, when applying for work at the University of Minnesota as a counselor, Alan Coren had a brush with the infamous MMPI - better known as Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a handy little test that supposedly reveals deep secrets about one's personal life.
"I answered that I like ballet and didn't play basketball; they told me I was queer," Coren says.
And that was when he realized: "This country (America) is so crazy that I just had to write humor about it."
So Coren started submitting pieces to Punch, the British equivalent of The New Yorker (though much less serious), was hired on 15 years ago, and became editor of the 100,000 circulation weekly on the first of this year.
But never mind all that. Some Americans may be happy that Alan Coren has just launched his "Peanut Papers." A 96-page paperback "in which Miz Lillian writes," the book is filled with silly little tales that Coren originally wrote for Punch:
"Yoh ole granmaw is shoh obliged tuh y'awl foh thuh hubcaps, don see too many forn automobiles heah in Plains! Guess ah'm jest go make that theah Mercedes-Bainz thuh prize of mah collection . . . Wishit tuh hail ah could git mah hans on one of them Rolls-Royces, tho: iffn y'awl spot one on yoh way tuh school, ah'd be mighty grateful."
"It's a short book, so you have to make it seem long," Coren says of the dialogue, which does slow a reader down.
Coren is fascinated by Jimmy Carter, although as a foreigner he says he thinks Carter is a bumpkin when it comes to foreign policy.
"It amazes me," says Coren, "the way Americans seem to accept Jimmy Carter for God and country. If Kennedy had said he was going to become Pope after he left government, they never would have accepted that. But Carter says he'd like to become a missionary and that's fine. A strange fellow. I looked at him the other night dancing with Beverly Sills and I couldn't help think of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
When the Peanut Papers first appeared in Punch, they were greeted with mixed assessments. Miss Alison Oliver, of Edinburgh, an 81-year-old schoolteacher made a formal complaint to the British Press Council, which serves as a watchdog for the British press, claiming:
The articles are written in a phonetic gibberish supposedly representing the speech of a southern state.
The articles are calculated to hurt, annoy and antagonize the President of the United States and every American.
The articles blatantly attack and hillory an elderly lady.
The articles make allegations of incestuous connections and half-witted relatives and are not fair comment.
The Press Council failed to uphold the complaint, but "feels bound to remark that they were pretentious, unpleasant and not useful."
Coren, who looks, as they say, terribly British (tweeds and a sort of round face with a climbing forehead and, yes, a trenchcoat) is used to this sort of abuse. Even as a short-story writer in his Oxford days, he found that he had to come to America to study writers he liked (at Yale and Berkeley) because "they abuse you in England if you profess interst in anyone who's living." When his "Golfing for Cats" was published recently, many booksellers refused to carry it because it had a swastika on the dust jacket. (Sales in this country: 6,000.) Similarly his "Collected Bullentins of President Idi Amin" was described by some as racist.
"It's absolute rubbish," says Coren. "The idea that you can't make fun of someone just because he's black. That would have been like Hitler saying you can't publish something because it makes fun of whites."
Meanwhile, Coren continues to draw inspiration from America.
"Just the other night in Boston, we saw an Ex-Lax ad for the deaf on the telly," he says. "Ah,thank God for America, where the deaf get constipated too."