Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward, by Paul Johnson (Harper, 256 pp., $25.99)

Humor is better laughed at than read about. From immediate delivery to after-the-fact description, something gets lost in translation. The mood, the mannerisms, and the timing of the joke don’t make the journey from the comic’s voice to the written page. The phrase, “I guess you had to be there,” expresses this point. Worse still for the chronicler of comedy is the “sell-by” date that often accompanies the joke. Humor doesn’t age well. Play a random clip from Laugh-In, Fibber McGee and Molly, or Laurel and Hardy to people under 35, and they will likely laugh at rather than with you. And yet, at one time, millions of people undeniably thought such fare uproariously funny.

Such are the handicaps that Paul Johnson faces in Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward. His book offers thumbnail sketches of famous novelists, cartoonists, artists, actors, polemicists, pornographers, and playwrights who made people laugh over the centuries. The difficult job of preserving lively humor on dead tree is thankfully in the experienced hands of an octogenarian writer whose oeuvre includes many tomes on art, which, like comedy, is better experienced than described.

Such hurdles make written appreciations of humorists more challenging, but this isn’t a reason not to write them. “The world is a vale of tears, always has been and surely always will be,” Johnson opines. “Those who can dry our tears, and force reluctant smiles to trembling lips, are more precious to us, if the truth be told, than all the statesmen and the generals and brainy people, even the great artists. For they ease the agony of life a little, and make us even imagine the possibility of being happy.” Humorists, then, are too important to be left to die when the last laugh does.

Time, the reader of Humorists learns, isn’t a laugh-killer for every punch line. Samuel Johnson quipped, “There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there. So what the boys get at one end, they lose at the other.” Speaking to the American Horticultural Society, Dorothy Parker observed: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” When asked, “Do you like children?” W. C. Fields answered, “I do if they’re properly cooked.” We read, we laugh.

If the funnyman’s leading a sad life is clichéd, Humorists reminds us that what is trite is nonetheless sometimes true. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, scribbler of dirty pictures, was a syphilitic, deformed, drunken dwarf. Charlie Chaplin experienced a broken family, an alcoholic father and a schizophrenic mother, and, by financial necessity, a working life in show business shortly after life began. W. C. Fields drank himself into the grave. John Belushi and Chris Farley, then, weren’t the first comics to make us cry after they made us laugh.

Several of the humorists Johnson profiles—in vignettes familiar to readers of his book Intellectuals—are more accurately described as wits than as humorists. The first thing that comes to mind when we think of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Dickens, and G. K. Chesterton isn’t “comic genius.” They can be funny, but often incidentally so and never as a primary concern. People who try to be funny, who are “on” when nobody pays them to be, grow tiresome. It’s precisely because the central aim of Franklin, Dickens, and Chesterton wasn’t to make readers chuckle that we so remember the times when they did. Like italics, funny stands out when it’s allowed to stand out—and not when the constant comic barrage dulls the senses.

Johnson sees political correctness as the greatest threat to humor. PC, he writes,

is, of course, fatal to humor, if enforced and persisted in. For one vital element of humor is inequality, and striking visual, aural, and physical differences. Differences in sex, age, color, race, religion, physical ability, and strength lie at the source of probably a majority of jokes since the beginning of human self-consciousness. And all jokes are liable to provoke discomfort if not positive misery among those laughed at. Hence any joke is liable to fall foul of hate laws. The future for humorists thus looks bleak, at the time I write this.

But there is a silver lining to that cloud. Part of what makes a joke funny is its flouting of manners, authority, and convention. The role that stuffy British authority figures played for Monty Python, and puritanical obscenity statutes played for Lenny Bruce, political correctness plays now for the comic daring enough to act as though Emperor Political Correctness has no clothes.

What couldn’t be said then can be said now, and what could be said then shouldn’t be said now. The lack of official opprobrium regarding sexualized humor has made such jokes as stale as an old marshmallow. Profanity, too, is utterly unsurprising, shocking only when one doesn’t hear it. But for the comic who dares to air what everybody is thinking but nobody is saying, laughter may yet await. It may be nervous laughter, looking-over-both-shoulders laughter, or half-held-in laughter. But it is laughter, and ultimately that, and not the approval of cultural guardians, is what the humorist is after.

And humorless authority figures with God—or any given Wiccan deity—on their side make themselves punching bags for punch lines. Without professional scolds, where would the humorist be? A do-your-own-thing, live-and-let-live, say-anything libertarianism is one man’s utopia. It is the funnyman’s nightmare.


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