You’ve Got to Be Kidding

Why W.C. Fields is funnier than G.K. Chesterton. Or is he?

Judd Apatow’s Collection of humor pieces, “I Found This Funny,” comes with a warning right there on the cover. The subtitle promises Mr. Apatow’s “Favorite Pieces of Humor” but cautions that the selections include “Some That May Not Be Funny at All.” Just in case we missed the point, Mr. Apatow repeats the caveat in his introduction: “I am well aware that significantly more than three pieces in this book are not funny.” He apologizes to those who might mistakenly have picked up the book expecting a compendium of amusing stories. “To be honest, one third of this book might be depressing. I was in a strange place when I picked these pieces.” One marvels at the honesty—and wonders what he could have been thinking.

The first offering is by James Agee, a fellow a bit too earnest to be good for many laughs. “A Mother’s Tale” is a gruesome little fable about the abattoir ever awaiting the bovine masses. Yes, as the bloody-minded fairytale comes to a close, there is the smallest of jokes—a little calf has heard the mother cow tell the whole story and understood none of it—but it’s just a little relief at the end of what is otherwise a grim advertisement for vegetarianism. By this measure “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a laff-riot.

Skip forward a story or two and one finds Mr. Apatow’s own contribution, “How I Got Kicked Out of High School,” a diary of his odyssey helming the short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks.” The pilot is bought. The program airs. The reviews are great. The ratings are not. His back starts to hurt. Did he mention that the reviews were great? The ratings tank. The show moves to a lousy night. His back is killing him. The show is honored by the Museum of Television & Radio. The series is canceled. He gets back surgery. “I did the best work I’ve ever done. I received the best reviews I’ve ever received,” Mr. Apatow writes. “It was the lowest-rated show on NBC.” He suspects that the show failed because he and his team refused to “be like all the other ‘successful’ teen shows.” At least what Mr. Apatow lacks in humor he makes up for with self-regard.

Steve Martin with Johnny Carson in 1980. (These days Mr. Martin writes novels; see review at right.)

Elsewhere in the collection he selects a couple of “Saturday Night Live” scripts, including “Canteen Boy and the Scoutmaster.” Barely rescued on the tube by Adam Sandler’s goofball demeanor and a lascivious turn by Alec Baldwin, the written skit can only be described as lame.

And then there are the various pieces about comedy that frankly make no effort to be funny. Take Jonathan Franzen’s biographical musings on his childhood infatuation with the “Peanuts” comic strip. “I had a private, intense relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle,” Mr. Franzen writes. “He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house.” So Snoopy is a not-animal animal—a truly curious turn of phrase in which authorial pomposity competes with compositional clumsiness. (For my money, pomposity wins.) Also notable is the fact Mr. Franzen had to identify Snoopy as a “cartoon beagle” (I guess for the sake of those too dense to realize that ceci n’est pas un chien). You could say Mr. Franzen’s prose is funny, if unintentionally so.

Among the book’s actually amusing selections are some pages from Steve Martin’s autobiography. Though the excerpt isn’t exactly a gaggle of gags, it is charming and well told. Mr. Martin recounts how he got his start in show business, playing various stock melodrama characters—villain, hero, comic relief—in a rickety, canvas-roofed theater at Knott’s Berry Farm called The Bird Cage. After each show there would be “a ten-minute ‘olio’ segment,” with an actor or two coming out to perform their specialties. It was there, Mr. Martin writes, that “I was able to work steadily on my fledgling comedy-magic act.”

We don’t learn from Mr. Martin why actors and comedians refer to such little routines as “olio” acts. But the answer to that question can be found in “Humorists,” by Paul Johnson. The journalist and historian has written biographical sketches of people he finds funny. One of them, William Claude Dukenfield—better known as W.C. Fields—learned his trade in vaudeville, where his particular specialties were juggling and balancing things: He could balance two billiard balls on the tip of a pool cue. “In his early stage career he performed ‘Olio Acts,’ ” Mr. Johnson writes of Fields, “tricks in front of the oilcloth stage curtain lowered for scene changing.”

Mr. Johnson admires Fields’s mastery at juggling his “hates,” which included—to judge by his quips—dogs, babies, Eleanor Roosevelt and the IRS. But Mr. Johnson likes sly sight gags, too, like the ones packed densely into William Hogarth’s paintings of 18th-century England. In one, a newly elected, and presumably corrupt, member of Parliament is hoisted on a chair and “carried in triumph” through the streets in his rural county. “But his posture is precarious,” Mr. Johnson writes, “for his bearers are drunk, and a huge sow and her piglets have charged through their legs. The MP in fact is about to be precipitated into the stream which flows through the little town.”

Mr. Johnson credits Benjamin Franklin (who used short jokes to fill dead space in “Poor Richard’s Almanac”) with inventing the American taste for one-liners. “God heals, and the doctor takes the fees” is one Franklinism. Another: “One good husband is worth two good wives, for the scarcer things are, the more they are valued.” Then there is Charles Dickens, who “looked at the mass of humanity and plucked out of it the egregious and the eccentric for our delight.” Mr. Johnson cites a character from “Our Mutual Friend,” a villainous man named Wegg who is paid to read aloud to a newly rich dustman. Wegg “charges extra for poetry, for ‘when a person comes to grind off poetry night after night, it is but right he should be paid for its weakening effect on the brain.’ ”

Some of Mr. Johnson’s choices are a bit more of a stretch. He gets much amusement out of Samuel Johnson, whom he sees as part of a category of “really funny talkers” that includes Sydney Smith, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. The part of Dr. Johnson’s wit that Mr. Johnson values, though, makes the great man seem like a cultured precursor of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, relishing mockery and taking much “merriment” at others’ expense. Mr. Johnson also strains to find comedy in the work of G.K. Chesterton, who is too sententious to be truly amusing. Even Mr. Johnson concedes: “To GKC the act of making a joke was one of the most serious decisions you could possibly make, on a par with publishing a political manifesto, or a declaration of war.” You could say that “Humorists” is a motley collection.

Mr. Johnson doesn’t go to much effort to explain what he thinks makes comedy work, but he does endorse a theory that we like to laugh at “chaos, contemplated in safety.” He is particularly tickled by the “chaos artists” who make a mess of everything, whether through sputtering rage or plain idiocy. Such slapstick is ancient in origin and has been endlessly recycled. As Charlie Chaplin himself once told Mr. Johnson: “The best jokes are the simplest, and oldest. The finest stage direction ever is Shakespeare’s, from The Winter’s Tale: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’ ”

There is raw energy in the old chased-by-a-bear shtick, and Mr. Johnson revels in it—just as he takes joy from the Marx Brothers’ unsubtle antics.

It is amusing in itself to see a writer as sophisticated as Paul Johnson—the author of more than a dozen works of history—relishing humor in its less elegant forms when, by contrast, a writer of rather raw comedies such as Judd Apatow prefers the affected sotto voce typical of highbrow short stories. Mr. Johnson chuckles with P.G. Wodehouse and Laurel and Hardy. Mr. Apatow furrows his brow with James Agee and Jonathan Franzen. What gives?

I suspect that where Mr. Johnson is secure enough in his erudition to be seen indulging a taste for slapstick, Mr. Apatow is eager to prove his intellectual bona fides, desperate to be taken seriously. Now that’s funny.

Mr. Felten writes the biweekly Postmodern Times column for the Journal.


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