Reading "Russell Baker's Book of American Humor" one may think printed humor is dead. Scanning the biographies in back one realizes most of the contributors are dead. Their timelines hardly matter; they were dead men writing.
In what Mark Twain may have termed this "mortuary volume" (he referred to a humor anthology bearing his name) one doesn't know where to begin with the autopsy. We may start with the successes d'estime like Robert Benchley, a much-beloved man who could have written in hieroglyphics. His occasionally amusing cockeyed line can't disguise that he wrote nothing but cockeyed lines whose sum amounts to less than nothing. Likewise with S. J. Perelman, Woody Allen's mentor, who as Joseph Epstein noted was obsessed with ad copy, women's fashions and dry cleaning; he lived in monumental times, Nathanael West was his brother-in-law, and he wrote of trivia, wrote it repetitiously and unfunnily. His brilliant style can't mitigate the waste.
Or we can time-warp ourselves back to the moldy past of Finley Peter Dunne, whose Mr. Dooley stories take three hours to read and yield an aphorism suitable for members of Congress. If that's not archival enough Mr. Baker offers the notorious Charles Farrar Browne, a.k.a. Artemus Ward, whose remains fester here thanks to our editor's excuse that his "Civil War satires seem as bitterly up-to-date as recent satires of the Vietnam War":
"What do you expect will come from this kind of doin's? Nihil fit--"
"Hooray for Nihil!" I interrupted. "Fellow-citizens, let's giv [sic] three cheers
for Nihil, the man who fit!"
The schoolmaster turned a little red, but repeated--"Nihil fit."
"Exactly," I said. "Nihil fit. He wasn't a strategy feller."
If this is up-to-date I'll take my father's Oldsmobile. And he drove a Pontiac.
One feels the acid-free paper crumbling away reading the infinite infinitesimal wisdom of Washington Irving, who could not write a sentence of less than 200 words. But one can really eat the dust examining the sainted Benjamin Franklin, whose "Drinker's Dictionary" requires a footnote on every line:
Has taken a Chirriping-Glass,
Got Corns in his Head,
A Cup to [sic] much,
Mr. Baker says he chose mostly stories that made him laugh. Did Ben's archaisms have him rolling on the floor? Or did he find them funny in an ironic way because they're not funny?
The writers of better-preserved times do no better. There's the annoying "Candid Camera" star Fannie Flagg with her excruciating dissertation on balls (not society or basket, I'm afraid); there's the National Lampoon co-founder Michael O'Donoghue, whose erotica parody is sexless and witless, much like the real thing; there's Groucho Marx in his dotage, proving yet again his best material wasn't his; there's Anita Loos and her tiresome flapper-Monica from Little Rock ("it seems I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings"); there's the great Mencken with a silly piece on women's eating habits and a verbose tribute to Silent Cal which he wrote when his bad mood was in a bad mood; there's intolerable cutesy-pie by E. B. White, himself a humor anthologist; there's the inevitable fingernails-on-blackboard excerpt from Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" (who in God's name has ever thought that book funny?); there's Fred Allen, whose letters give themselves away by their lack of capitals (much as Eugene Field, also represented here, Must Capitalize nearly every Common Noun, and a Few other random Words As well, to Prove he Is Ironic); there's Bob and Ray, that most overrated of all broadcasting's overrated comedy acts, with their typical pointless whimsy; and, to round off our show with a neat display of self-administered log rolling, there's the editor himself, with an alleged satire of local TV news set in ancient Rome. WHY?!?!?
There are also quite a few stories unfunny and unsettling. Larry L. King, author of such masterpieces as "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas", gives a gruesome account of his attempt to sell wood from Ike's second-inaugural podium. The hardy-har-har Ralph Ellison unleashes a psychotic Southern bigot named - get this - Mauler (hardy-har-har) screaming over black sexual habits; we HEAR you, Ralph. Edgar Allan Poe wrote scathing, witty literary reviews, so Mr. Baker chose "The Angel of the Odd," about as knock-down funny as "The Cask of Amontillado." Bret Harte gives us a laugh riot about the Indian warrior killed by mistake. Judging from his four unpleasant fables I'd say George Ade, Bob Benchley's putative inspiration, got his energy pulling the wings off of flies. The great Samuel Langhorne is represented - yes, by three excerpts from "Huck Finn" (guess we had to throw those in), but also by the depressing tale of a pedant who put 1,631 lightning rods on his house, followed almost on its flat-footed heels by an equally depressing tale of the perfidy of watch repairmen, two stories proving something he wrote should be banned. Mr. Baker will say humor is about discomfort. Why must it be verbal hemorrhoids?
Printed humor faces an uphill trek as it is, its grade made steeper by countless comic novels comic in name only, its path dimmed by the unreceding shadow of Sylvester and Tweety and the Honeymooners. Comic anthologies like Mr. Baker's are Interstate-straddling Jersey barriers, at best collections of the obsolete, at worst justifications for aliteracy.