Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is it still funny?

I reread Three Men in a Boat recently and it wasn't funny at all -- well, the bit where they get lost in Hampton Court was, though not quite as funny as it used to be.
Susan Hill, Howard's End Is on the Landing

When I read Three Men in a Boat a few years ago, I didn't think it was funny at all, though my whole reason for reading it was that I had seen it mentioned several times as a British humor classic. Susan Hill thought it funny the first time she read it, but not the second time years later. Humor, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder, and each beholder's idea of what's funny changes over time. And each generation laughs a little differently at different things. It's probably no wonder that Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889, doesn't seem as witty as it once did.

Yet Hill notes that the books of P.G. Wodehouse remain funny today, even a century after some of them were written. Why has his humor held up, while that of other writers has fallen flat with time? (To be fair, Wodehouse has never been funny to some readers, both a hundred years ago and today.)

I have in my library a number of books by humorists popular around the middle of the 20th century. How does their humor hold up in the second decade of the 21st century? To get some idea, I decided to read short excerpts from some of these books and try to determine if, at least in the eye of one beholder, they are still funny.

Robert Benchley
Robert Benchley (1889-1945) was a well-know humorist in his day. In addition to his magazine pieces, he also had a radio show and appeared in a number of movies, including Foreign Correspondent. The book I own is Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949), which collects articles he wrote for The New Yorker and other publications, mostly in the 1930s. I read the last essay in the book called "Why Does Nobody Collect Me?" and found it very amusing. One can imagine Dave Barry or some other more recent humorist writing something similar about the fact that while books by certain other writers are considered highly collectible, their own books are practically worthless.

James Thurber (1894-1961) was a contemporary of Benchley, and a rival since they both sold pieces to the same publications and appealed to the same readers. I read "My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage" from Thurber Country (1953). Some of Thurber's comments about the eternal battle of the sexes might raise a few eyebrows in 2017, since some attitudes have changed a great deal over the decades, yet the piece remains witty.

Richard Armour (1906-1989) was a favorite of mine in the 1960s, and I confess I still find him funny.  I read his brief biography of Herman Melville in his 1960 book The Classics Reclassified. It has lines like this: "Melville was treated kindly by the cannibals and would have been pleased with the way he was plied with coconuts and papayas had he not noticed that Thanksgiving was approaching." That's as funny now as it was when I was in high school.

Sam Levenson (1911-1980) was a teacher who became a writer and then a television star. He was roasted at the very first New York Friars' Club roast in 1950. I read the chapter "Wedded Blitz" from his book You Don't Have to be in Who's Who to Know What's What (1979). As with Thurber on the same subject, some of Levenson's material might strike some people as insensitive today, but still most of it is funny. It has lines like, "Alone can be very lonely, especially if you have nobody to tell it to. Apparently the time had come for God to approach Adam with, 'Have I got a nice girl for you'!"

Art Buchwald
Art Buchwald (1925-2007) wrote a popular column of humorous commentary for the Washington Post for many years, and he even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. From his collection of columns I Never Danced at the White House (1973), I read one called "Inspector Columbo at the White House," published during the Watergate investigation. It imagines TV detective Columbo interviewing suspects at the White House. It happened that I had watched two Columbo episodes the night before I read this piece, so I found this very funny. Yet this is probably the most dated of all the excerpts I read simply because it was so topical. If you are too young to remember Columbo or don't know who H.R. Haldeman or Martha Mitchell were, you probably wouldn't find this amusing at all. Topical humor doesn't age well, as you can tell from Johnny Carson's monologues on Tonight Show reruns.

Erna Bombeck (1927-1996), like Buchwald, wrote a popular syndicated column for many years. I read the first few pages of her book The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank (1976) about her family's move to the suburbs. Because the lots in the Diamond, Ruby, Pearl and Zircon sections of the development are all taken, they settle for the Frankly Fake section. I don't find her exaggeration-based humor funny at all now, but I don't recall liking it back in the 1970s either.

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