The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose, From William Caxton  to P.G. Wodehouse [last published in 1977], A Conducted Tour by Frank Muir [1920-1998]; Oxford University Press (hardcover 1990)
Within a recent message to another reviewer:
"If Cambridge University [the publisher of Richard Evans's unreadable history "The Coming of The 3rd Reich"] conforms to the practices of the Oxford University Press - which appears likely - this is an offering from the obituary of Charles Arnold-Baker (Telegraph, UK June 15, 2009):
"But whereas...Dr Johnson had a team of some half-dozen copyists in the 18th century, Arnold-Baker wrote ["Companion to British History"] himself after being commissioned by the Clarendon Press at Oxford in 1960.
"As the decades passed, he was pressed to accept the aid of young, more narrowly-educated, professional historians who refused to reveal their identities or the reasons for their criticisms - & he abandoned the project in disgust.
"A sympathetic printer told him that being published by OUP was like going to bed with a duchess: the privilege was greater than the pleasure."
Granted, my exposure to the OOO (Oeuvre Of Oxford) has been minimal. And the only duchess making public overtures in America lately (quite recently, in fact) is Martha Stewart (age 71; failed mattress accoutrement magnate).
Thank heavens OUP isn't Knopf (Alfred A. Knopf), which has come completely unglued since its incarceration as a subsidiary of a larger publishing behemoth (Bertelsmann. Didn't the Germans learn their lesson with Chrysler?).
But I do have a sober respect for wonderful punchlines that contain the moral to a story, & after the "sympathetic printer" laughter subsided, I considered myself fairly warned.
Granted, Oxford's "Balcony Empire, Fascist Italy at War," by journalists Reynolds & Eleanor Packard, was superb. But that was an effort of 1942 & rust never rests. A more recent OUP creation - Alan Schom's horrifying "Trafalgar, Countdown To Battle 1803-1805" (1990) - did a good job of reinforcing my minor apprehensions about further encounters with the Oxford bibliography.
And "Humorous Prose" debuted in the same year as "Trafalgar."
Like other Americans who enjoy reading the obituaries of the Independent & the Guardian, I eventually came into contact with the article about comedy writer Frank Muir, dated January 3rd 1998, which, that day, came flying hot off the press.
Unlike other, less compelling subjects who recline in the morgue of a newspaper's obit department longer than their tenure in the municipal refrigerated file cabinets, Frank had passed away on the previous day & the Independent wasted not a second in punching up the account of Muir's career.
The speed with which the article had appeared dovetailed perfectly with the obit's one punchline that I enjoyed:
"Before Frank Muir & [his writing partner] Denis Norden [inventor of the World War Two comic punchline bombsight], scriptwriting was not seen as a profession, & in fact it has never really developed beyond what they chose to describe as a 'cottage industry' - that is, two blokes in a room inventing humour.
"It's a far cry from the American 'Ten writers, no waiting' approach...' "
The odds are good that that was one of the few punchlines most Americans reading this English obituary could appreciate. Muir's other classic one-liners were opaque: "Shakespeare shouting to the landlord of the Mermaid Tavern, 'See what the boys in the buckram will have!' " That predictably went right over my head & kept going until it landed back at Heathrow (runway 6, aisle 5).
Of course, this was not the obituary writer's fault, at all; since high school days, I've been estranged from the language of the Shakespearean era. And as a general rule, wit of any vintage can be nationalistically idiomatic; hence, to an alien, it is often incomprehensible.
(I found this out the hard way in the 1990s when Japanese bank executives pressed me - almost menacingly - to explain why New Yorker magazine cartoons were convulsing their American counterparts in the office. I did my best. Failure was swift. Afterwards, I sensed their irrational suspicion that I did know how to explain it, but was still sore about Pearl Harbor.)
So, Adam Ant any rate, that was my experience with the quasi-comprehended Muir obituary. And shortly afterwards - even before I had the chance to explain to my wife that I had doped out her new Amazon password (surreptitiously created by her to prevent new book purchases) - there I was, the owner of a copy of the O.B.H.P.
I had conquered my Oxfordbookoephobia, even without having to borrow the Norden bombsight.
And despite knowing that when George S. Kaufman visited England in the 1930s, after being in London for only forty-eight hours, he sent word to a business associate that he had found it necessary to stop uttering his famous impromptu witticisms, always brimming over with coy elements of creative whimsy & irony.
His hosts & new acquaintances were perplexed, & even alarmed, after hearing his comments - having taken everything he had said quite literally.
This is the nation whose sense of comic levity I should savor & trust?
(The Kaufman story is from the 1974 Meredith biography. I can't quote the page number because I can't find it because the Doubleday editor somehow managed to forget to include, in the index, the subject of the biography, George S. Kaufman.)
Five hundred years of English humour are contained in OBH's 1,147 pages.
--- "When people say England, they sometimes mean Great Britain, sometimes the United Kingdom, sometimes the British Isles - but never England" - George Mikes, "A Warning to Beginners" (p. 949). Japanese banking executives are urged to ignore this advice. The words "English" - as in "English humor" - & "England" are not synonymous.
Start again: Five hundred years of English, Irish, American & Australian humor... no, that's not right. Only the English (yes, that includes the Scots, at least for the time being, sit down) & the Irish go back that far.
Having been given the task of first clearing their forests in order to create highly flammable Midwestern cities, the Americans finally invented the mechanical tree stump grinder, which made possible their evolution into a people who could swipe material from the French comedy classics in order to produce the television series, Frazier. Matewhile, the Australians were teaching kangaroos how to read, but nothing by Moliere.
Final Draft: Whatever is in the book is written in English.
I am willing to bet the exact same amount that I'll wager & lose on this week's Kentucky Derby - I like Orb, trained by Shug McGaughey, with a little money sprinkled on the noses of It's My Lucky Day, Oxbow & Will Take Charge as savers - that not a single reviewer of the book in the past twenty-three years has read it in its entirety.
[Post Note (05/07/13) Orb won.]
I am one such reviewer.
A caution: This two-inch thick (measured) edition weighs in at about six-seven pounds (an estimate). If you idiosyncratically prefer to read your books in bed, as I do, before ordering the book, resume your physical fitness program of sit-ups & weight-lifting in order to compensate for the book's heft & weight. Washboard abs are needed for this one.
The Skim-Fast Notes:
The Introduction is, upon inspection, a horror. It has to be the record-holder in the Guinness category of "Most Numerous Occasions Upon Which The Reader Will Be Irritated by the Promiscuous Use of the Hack Writer's Sing-Song-Creating Phrase, 'Not Only... But Also' " (or variations thereof, which appear ten times in the introduction's first six pages).
Muir must also have had 26 planets in Saturn in his natal horoscope; nothing else can explain why the solitary word "not" appears more often than the number of lines on each page. And the essential commas that are customarily missing in English (UK) literature make it a pleasant experience on various occasions to have to parse sentences before being able to comprehend them.
Alternative opening gambit: Skip the Introduction altogether.
But if you insist, Muir's definitions of "Comedy," "Wit" & "Buffoonery" are appreciated.
What is indispensible & accounts for the book's perfect rating - in addition to the great selections - are the superb "précis," the biographical summaries of the humorists that are presented prior to their individual contributions to comedy, wit & satire.
No one person could have possibly assembled The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose. "Friends helped by making out reading lists & by ploughing through volumes on my behalf to find out whether there was anything in them of potential interest. I am particularly grateful to [Dr.] Susan Matthews... & Josh Cunningham, who read indefatigably & wrote witty précis" (it is disappointing that each précis is presented anonymously).
Together, they create a second reason for buying the book - in the category of famous humorists, OBH can give the Cambridge Biographical Dictionary a run for its money.
Musings: Muir gave fair warning that the earliest examples, due to antiquated language, etc., would probably not strike the moderns readers as being funny. He was right.
It was slow going there until Richard Steele's "Tatler" items (1708-1718) broke the ice, & even after that, more Too Old To Be Funny Any Longer persisted until spring bloomed (sometime around page 100 or "the last quarter of the eighteenth century," take your pick).
Again, even if the authors' inclusions in the book merited consideration only as historical curiosities or were outright mistakes (wasn't funny then, not now, never), their biographical sketches are almost uniformly superb.
From the selections, reactions to the précis, or simply quotations, admired silently:
--- It was revelatory to re-read Ben Franklin's "Dear Friend" letter (1745): "Because when women cease to be handsome, they study to be good."
Later in the century, he must have bolted from the premise at the top of the stretch:
"To [Abigail Adams, in 1784]... the sloppy, ill-mannered, egotistical old woman [Parisian mistress of Ben Franklin, Madame Helvetius] seemed the very personification of the decadence & decay inherent in European society."
--- "Christopher Smart was a short, shy, impoverished, slightly deranged poet & Grub Street hack" reminded me of an equally admired, pungent description written by David Brinkley: "Leon Henderson was an economist who could not control his weight, his shirttail, his hair, his shoelaces or his temper."
--- "Mary Edgeworth... was so tiny as a child that efforts were made to lengthen her by hanging her up by the neck. She remained short."
--- We need more Eaton Barretts, regardless of century or targets selected ["(1786-1820, The Heroine, or Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader (1813)"].
--- Some things never change. John Galt published a sentence - one sentence - in 1821 that ran lengthwise into 1822, 12 lines in all. Back then, the damage was less dire. Today, we have the no-talents swamping computer screens with big black dense pools of spilt ink, making their endless sentences & paragraphs a thousand times more unreadable.
--- All artists commit suicide. Page 144.
--- Not to be bested by Galt, Thomas De Quincey's 11-line, one-sentence marathon of 1840 (p. 162) shut down the reading of his Wordsworth essay faster than the Godolphin racing stable got into trouble with steroids in April 2013.
This is where I started skimming even faster.
--- Usually, when someone is lauded for his "originality of mind," the origin of the praise can usually be traced back to the author's public relations firm.
But when a Charles Lamb writes, "An oysterlike insensibility to the passing events... I have not a thing to say... I am flatter than a denial or a pancake; emptier than Judge Park's wig when the head is in it," Muir's praise is a pathfinder.
--- Hugh Brackenridge is, I believe, the first American to join the OBH Club. His letter to an Army major declined the honor of a duel; but not wanting to frustrate the man altogether, he suggested:
"If you want to try your pistols, take some object, a tree or a barn door, about my dimensions. If you hit that, send me word & I shall acknowledge that if I had been in the same place, you might also have hit me."
--- I had no idea that Bret Harte was such an accomplished satirist.
--- "The art of writing short, pithy paragraphs... is still practicised with most wit & finesse in the New Yorker [magazine]..."
This was still true in 1990.
--- George Ade's description of a singer: "She was a town-&-country soprano of the kind often used to augment grief at a funeral" (1899).
--- Ambrose Pierce's definition of a "Saint... A dead sinner revised & edited" (1906).
--- Hugh Rawley: "What kind of a book might a man wish his wife to resemble? An Almanac; for then he could have a new one every year" (1867).
You noticed the odd swaying back & forth of OBH's chronological perimeters (i.e., Pierce's sinner of 1906 preceding Rawley's 1867 Almanac). No one can explain why this happening. Never mind. Find out why Abner Doubleday forgot to include George S. Kaufman's name in the index of their biography of George S. Kaufman.
--- Didn't read any of the Kipling. Neither did Mrs. Kipling.
--- Jerome Jerome's satire of the people lost in the maze at Hampton Court (1889) takes the wind out of the sails of Cornelia Otis Skinner's account of the same fiasco (different tourists, @ 1922) in "Our Hearts Were Young & Gay" (1942).
--- Muir & Co.'s repeating the theme of Irony wears very thin by p. 379. Well, there's nothing we can do about it now. Generally, we need an international, one-year ban on the Isn't That Ironic comments, reviewable each December to see if another year is a good idea, which it probably will be.
--- "Jenny, serving, trembled." Gaven Casey, Australian (1942).
--- My wife wanted to know if I was having a heart attack. No, I wasn't. I was trying to stop laughing while reading "Pigs Is Pigs," by Ellis Parker (1905), who probably was not, eventually, amused that until his demise in 1937, people started every conversation with him with the word, "Pigs."
--- If you're nauseated by the pomposity/verbosity of the phrase, "the fact that," Steve Leacock's "For the matter of that" is a wonderful alternative.
--- "Conan Doyle... having [his satirical target/French protagonist] Gerard completely misunderstand what is going on & believe that he is behaving more like an Englishman than the English" (1903).
The story involves the sport invented by Abner Doubleday, cricket. Americans trying to make sense of the story - when they themselves know even less about the game of cricket than the French prisoner-of-war Gerard did - would be an even funnier story.
--- Katherine Manning "at the age of 21 met a singing teacher eleven years her senior & three weeks later married him. She abandoned him the following morning."
I caught a whiff of this in Sybille Bedford's superb biography of Aldous Huxley. Glad now to be fully informed.
--- I find it to be simply unbelievable that Osbert Sitwell, a worse writer in some respects than Amanda Ros (at the very least, he should have known better), made himself a charter member of a club dedicating to mocking the novels of Amanda Ros.
--- It is impossible to read "The Wedding" by H.L. Mencken, due to the hair-brained decision to print the entire text in italics. Ninety-five years later, Markham Starr made the same ghastly mistake by doing the same exact thing with his interviews of the citizens of a Maine seacoast village in "The Lobstermen of Corea."
--- OBH alone is worth the price charged for having included Ring Lardner's "I Gasperi." That's misspelt because it looks funnier than "I Gaspiri."
--- Future generations were already wondering in 1990 why Benchley's flat tire, "The Treasurer's Report," was selected. It was undoubtedly funny in 1922, both on the night that it was ad-libbed & on succeeding evenings when Benchley was paid a king's ransom to recreate it on a vaudeville stage. Today, on paper, it is a corpse, which is no good for laughs.
--- E.B. White is eternal. So is his eulogy for the automobile, the Ford Model T ("Farewell My Lovely!" Not to be confused with the Oxford Model T). And so is James Thurber. However, Bernstein's biography of J.T. died the moment it was born & can't even be given away for free on Amazon.
--- Not everything in the Golden Age of The New Yorker magazine was golden, but the reflection of that bright hard luminescent yellow color temporarily boosted the careers of the stowaways. Skip Leo Rosten's monotonous "The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n." One of the few bad calls by Mr. Muir.
--- S.J. Perelman has been praised to the skies & every word of the praise is merited.
The Perelman multi-part précis, collectively, is quite informative, yet distilled to brevity ("His work matured"). If any twenty of the writers selected & showcased in OBH had, instead, been sent down to the minors prior to the book's printing, & the Perelman selections had been expanded, it is tempting to think that no one would have noticed.
--- Oxford has a history department (see "Schom," above). From them, the Oxford English department could have easily discovered that the conflict identified below lasted less than four months ("April 25, 1898 - August 12, 1898; 3 months, 2 weeks & 4 days").
Not having called their colleagues, this went to press: "Damon Runyon... after fighting for two years in the Spanish-American war..." (p. 621).
"The Brain Goes Home" is superb, & did much to cure my unreasonable aversion to the writer unjustly created by unwisely reading Jimmy Breslin's biography of Runyon.
(By the way, the above sentence is an example of how to avoid typing the word "not" 632 times in a ten-page Introduction.)
--- In 1930, "W.C. & R.J. Yeatman's extraordinary jeu d'esprit, '1066 & All That,' " as it turns out, preceded Will Cuppy's lesser "How To Tell Your Friends From The Apes," (1931. WC finally caught up to the rank of the writers famous for this style of humor, posthumously, with his hilarious "Decline & Fall of Practically Everybody" in 1950).
"When they had finally completed the book version, Yeatman left it in a taxi & they had to start again from the beginning." (!)
--- Jan Struther's "Mrs Miniver was published in 1939... in 1942, this was made into a major Hollywood tear-jerker..." (I prefer the superior Brit terminology, "weepie," myself). "Starring Greer Garson & Walter Pidgeon, [it] dragged in the Battle of Britain & Dunkirk, which had not happened when the book was written... most unhappily, one of the finer things [in the book] to be sacrificed was the character of Mrs Miniver."
Steeplechaser jockey John Oaksey's memoir, "Mince Pie For Starters, A Racing Life," features the words "happily" & "unhappily" possibly more often than the appearances of the word "not" in OBH's Introduction. I still cringe when I see these words used elsewhere, as in right now.
--- How To Brick Up A Matterhorn Tunnel With An Introductory Sentence:
"The Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) is pleased to announce that Hugh Gallagher, the Executive Director of the Delaware Harness Racing Commission, has been named the recipient of the 2013 RCI Len Foote Award." - Industry Press Release (The Paulick Report, April 28, 2013).
How Not To:
"Rachmaninov, as everyone knows, used to get mad with people who thought his C sharp minor Prelude described a man nailed into his coffin on insufficient evidence who kept banging on the lid to attract passers-by." - Basil Boothroyd (p. 687).
--- A.G. Macdonell's "Napoleon & His Marshals" (1934) has always been one of my great favorites. It was a pleasure to see his name in OBH, along with an excerpt from his "England, Their England" (WHY does it always have to involve CRICKET?!)
ETE is also the subject of a superb Amazon review, written in 2002 by Steve Benner, a Lancaster native. Please see.
--- "In 1930 Mrs Thirkell... returned to her parents' home in Kensington. Here, this difficult, erudite, strangely unemotional lady, increasingly formidable & remote even to her own children, began to write tranquil, charming, funny novels."
This passage is representative of OBH's consistently interesting introductions to the humorists - & also jogged my memory about the age-old admonition: "Never Meet The Author!"
--- "So in 1924, J.B. Morton became 'Beachcomber,' " & penned "Dr Strabismus Is Busy... working hard on about fourteen thousand & fifty new inventions. These include... a leather grape... a hand-woven esparto glass egg cosy which plays Thora when released from the egg... [&] a screw for screwing screws into other screws..."
And stage directions for "Knitting Note": "(Enter the Icebergs, a Jewish family from the Arctic.)"
--- Patrick Campbell stuttered. In his account, "The Hot Box," he was sent to a library to gather information for a story, & there, met the librarian. Now there were two stutterers. Five minutes later, there were three: Campbell, the librarian & another reporter, Theodore Blake. Articulation suddenly became an intensively competitive Olympic event in a hot basement research room.
These things actually happen. It happened to me, in 1988. There was a lady in my office whose eyes since birth had been unable to face in the same direction. One day, the head of the office was replaced by a newcomer. When my turn came to meet him in his private office, I noticed that Francine's name was after mine on the list & it occurred to me to warn Anthony not to be startled by her visible ocular condition. I walked into his office, shook his hand, opened my mouth, looked at his eyes & froze.
---- Did I mention that I admire the introductions (a word I'm using because I'm not sure if "précis" is singular or plural) - ?
Alan "Goren, too, writes in the mixed style which Perelman pioneered... It is the trick of mixing good prose with slang & then suddenly bringing in an erudite reference or some recondite or otiose word (like 'recondite' or 'otiose')."
--- At this point, strangely, a writer's disease is evident, it is believed for the first time - the dreaded "Repetitive Identity Crisis"!
Probably didn't exist a century ago when Will Strunk was teaching writing at Cornell University (otherwise, it would have been diagnosed in "The Elements of Style"). Symptoms: A routine sentence ends with a full, formal name. The next sentence then commences with the exact same two (or more) words.
P. 857: "... Arthur Marshall. Arthur Marshall..." Ouch!
--- From A.M.'s "Boots Boots Boots Boots": "The initials OTC stood, of course, for Officer's Training Corps, though I could never quite follow whether this meant that we were all being trained to be officers or were merely a batch of cannon-fodder being marched about by officers to keep THEM in training." (!)
("Them" in the original text is italicized, which "THEM," above, would also be if the Amazon cannon-fodder book review system didn't automatically eliminate the italicization of all italicized words in the process of posting the reviews.)
--- "Repetitive Identity Crisis" strikes again!
P. 864: "... Requiem For A Nun. Requiem For A Nun..."
--- I'm a Corey Ford fan (buy a copy of his "The Time of Laughter, A Sentimental Chronicle of The Twenties"; Little, Brown & Co. 1967).
"Norris Plan" is a wonderful satire about the mediocre but prolific & popular novelists Charles & Kathleen Norris.
I can't believe that in all the various books & memoirs about The New Yorker that I've read, the existence of this satire was never mentioned. Meanwhile, TNY published an appallingly mediocre anthology of its past humor articles, "Fierce Pajamas," in 2001, which was to humor what styrofoam is to nutrition.
--- If Peter De Vries was a humorist, he didn't prove it with his uninspiring "Laughter In The Basement." The real laughter in the basement was in the aforementioned "The Hot Box" by Patrick Campbell.
--- "The Groucho Letters" (1967; p. 885) was an unmitigated bomb of a book (please see review).
The story of the Warner Brothers film studio's threatened litigation over the prospective title of the Marx Brothers film, "A Night In Casablanca," & Groucho's letters in response (p. 885), is funny because Muir took the time & the trouble to do what TGL's editor didn't: Providing the background information that supplied an informative context.
--- The at-best mediocre Erma Bombeck made it into OBH, whereas one of America's greatest humorists, Russell Baker of the New York Times, did not. Bad call, but instantly disregarded when it is considered that the OBH editors were more than generous with the portion of the book set aside for the American humorists.
For those not familiar with Russell's work, see if you can find a copy of "The Rescue of Miss Yaskell & Other Dreams" (1983), which is a wonderful book that still, somehow, failed to prevent the bankruptcy of its publisher in 1984.
--- "Repetitive Identity Crisis" strikes once again: "... The New Journalism. The New Journalism..." (p. 902). Yeeeech.
--- "Just a minute, Father, the cat's pissed on the matches!" God bless Spike Milligan.
Spike's "Adolf Hitler, My Part In His Downfall" (1971) had the identical impact of "Pigs Is Pigs":
"His story of how dozens of soldiers in his WWII outfit were defeated in their united attempt to heave a huge field tent - 'the lump' - into the back of a lorry had me laughing so hard, I literally had to stop reading. Twenty-four later, I started again. The same hysterical laughter ensued. I couldn't continue."
--- Did Humphrey Berkeley's "The Life & Death of Rochester Sneath" (1974) inspire the manic William Donaldson's "Henry Root Letters" (1980)?
--- I'm cutting the line to slip in here to say that the recently read & intolerably unforgiveable biography, "Wodehouse, A Life," by Robert McCrum (2004) made such an offensive impression, I passed on the Psmith merriment created by the 237th & final author offered in OBH. Next time.
But I did read the various précis (I'm running out of gas here, so let's just assume that that word is in plural form), which very nicely summarized the life of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, especially the tragedies that befell him during World War II, which in turn led to his permanent exile in America. The only criticism I suggest is that appended to PGW having "worked on six major film scripts in Hollywood" should be, "in-name-on-paychecks-only."
--- "People on the Continent [mainland Europe] either tell you the truth or lie; in England they hardly ever lie, but they would not dream of telling you the truth."
And on that note from my Japanese translator, George Mikes, this review ends - not even having scratched the surface of the brilliance of the humorists assembled by Frank Muir - thus saving this reviewer the trouble of skimming past the final one hundred & ninety-eight pages.
I'd willingly do it, you see, but my cat has pissed on the matches.
"CI: The undesirable effect that this book [the squalid sequel to the abominable, mega-profitable '50 Shades of Grey'] has had on you is, evidently, the equivalent experience of our nation recently seeing Tiger Woods cheating in the Masters.
"(In his defense, he was not 'caught' cheating. He turned himself in - even though he didn't realize that that was what he was doing by running his mouth during his post-match interview with a television reporter.)
"The best cure is 'The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose,' by Frank Muir.
"Like all anthologies, anyone who attempts to read OBH straight through will spiral into a library room with padded walls. Avoid this fate. Skim.
"Skim generously - envision that you're running a union benefits fund ('Damn! The money's just SITTING there!').
"One drawback: You'll still be required to provide your own acerbic review titles, which, by the way, can be improved if you employ/deploy fewer adjectives (it just takes One. The Right One. Throw the other 49 away).