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Always Leave Them Laughing

Paul Johnson knows everything about history -- and humor.

By From the April 2011 issue

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Humorists: From Hogarth to Noël Coward
By Paul Johnson
(Harper, 228 pages, $25.99)

In this eclectic collection of highly readable essays held loosely together by a couple of common thematic threads, Paul Johnson, one of the foremost historians and men of letters of our age, establishes himself as an accomplished humorist in his own right.

Early on, discussing the essence of humor, he shows us some wonderful examples of what it is not, and in so doing makes us (at least some of us) laugh. "Many people, for a variety of reasons," he writes, "hate to hear others laugh.… Karl Marx thought to pun was a sure sign of 'the intellectual lumpen proletariat,' and rebuked Engels for so lowering himself (in German, of course)."

In fact, in Germany, he tells us, laughing was "regarded as a form of weakness."

"Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke… was said to have laughed only twice: once when told that a certain French fortress was impregnable, and once when his mother-in-law died." Martin Heidegger, probably one of the last names along with Immanuel Kant to pop up when discussing humor, "is recorded to have laughed only once, at a picnic with Ernst Junger in the Harz Mountains. Junger leaned over to pick up a sauerkraut and sausage roll, and his lederhosen split with a tremendous crack."

Apocryphal? Perhaps. But funny. And certainly Sid Caesar material. All humorists treasure Germany as starting point and lodestone. But beyond that, it's Johnson's intention to explore in this book, the fourth in a series (preceded by Intellectuals, Creators, and Heroes) the nature of humor in general and how it has been expressed over time.

"If comics fall into broad categories, each, if any good, is sui generis," Johnson writes. "The gallery I have assembled in this book is a strange collection of geniuses, worldly failures, drunks, misfits, cripples, and gifted idiots. They had in common only the desire, and the ability, to make large numbers of people laugh."

In this series of books collecting together intellectuals, creators and heroes, I reckon the comics are most valuable. The world is a vale of tears, always has been and surely always will be. 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 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.

Some of us may have never quite thought of William Hogarth that way, but Johnson does. Hogarth, he tells us, is "the only great master to make you laugh." And to illustrate, he gives us the testimony of Charles Lamb, who "had a whole room devoted to Hogarth, the place covered in prints, from floor to ceiling, which he furnished with a ragged old carpet and a rackety easy chair; and there he would sit, and drink gin, and smoke his pipe, and laugh."

Johnson describes the details in those prints that made Lamb laugh. One of them, An Election Entertainment, shows us "Hogarthian comedy at its most direct, brutal, and bizarre.… Most of the characters are drunk.… Drink is available, literally, in great tubs. Some of the faces are bestial in their vile distortions, and the noise, stench, belching, and cries of derision are almost palpable.… Here indeed, is the putative democracy in which the British, alone in the world, rejoiced, and Hogarth shows it in all its naked turpitude."

In many cases, writes Johnson, his works "are not exactly funny." Gin Lane, especially, comes to mind. But "the core of Hogarth's work is his moral paintings, in which he sought to tell the truth about English society in the hope of reforming it."

THE FIGURES JOHNSON assembles, as he points out, have little in common. But what most of them do seem to share is a sardonic view of life and a quick wit. In America, especially, this finds expression in the one-liner.

In his chapter on Benjamin Franklin, Johnson writes: "It can fairly be said that the one-liner, the quintessential form of American humor, was born in Poor Richard's Almanac." ("God heals, and the doctor takes the fees." "Marry your son when you will, but your daughter when you can." "One good husband is worth two good wives, for the scarcer things are, the more they are valued.")

For Johnson, the one-liner runs in a straight line down from Franklin through Mark Twain to Dorothy Parker, the sole American woman represented here, celebrated for the wit that "sprang from her sardonic nature, and her delight in words."

He provides a sampler. This from her address to the American Horticultural Society: "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think." To Harold Ross: "Wit has truth in it. Wisecracking is simply mental calisthenics." On the theater world: "Scratch an actor and find an actress." On a work by Horace Walpole: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

"Wit should be cut to the bone, she said. So she called Alexander Woollcott's Manhattan apartment 'Wit's end,'" Johnson writes. "And for her tombstone she wrote her own epitaph: 'This is on me.'"

Charlie Chaplin, who, as Johnson points out, never adapted to the talkies and seems today little more than a jumped-up mime, poses special problems. Chaplin, writes Johnson, "is, perhaps, the most difficult of all the great comedians to sum up," a man who "inspired deep and irrational dislike, not only from public bodies, like the American government, but from those close to him."

A misogynist who fancied himself a ladies man, he loved to bore others with stories of his seductions. And according to Johnson, he skated very close to the edge with children.

Politically, Chaplin was less than astute. "His unwillingness ever to criticize Communism was his greatest moral failure," Johnson writes. And although Johnson never says it, he was never very funny.

Nancy Mitford, who Johnson knew and who associated with a lot of people he found superficial and silly, seems to have been included primarily because she'd made her mark with an article in Encounter that, among other things, gave us the terms "U" and "non-U."

The article, "The English Aristocracy," dealt with language as an indicator of class status, a subject he tells us also explains much of Noël Coward's success. The subject of humor here seems to get sidetracked by a peculiarly British sociological shuffle. But the detour does provide Johnson with an opportunity to segue into a discussion of political correctness.

JOHNSON DIVIDES HUMOR into several rough categories with the creation of chaos the most important, and Groucho Marx (who, like many of the figures in this book, Johnson knew personally), the supreme chaos creator. Other chaos creators are W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, James Thurber.

In another category are "those who look for, and find, and analyze, the sheer egregious weirdness of the individual human being, and who present them vividly and accurately." Among them, he gives us Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, G. K Chesterton, Damon Runyon.

Finally, there's an endangered category of humor, growing out of "the interplay between different classes, races, nationalities, and ages.… Today, of course, being an age of Political Correctness, the increasingly authoritarian form of militant liberalism, many types of this kind of humor are censored, indeed some are unlawful and punished by prison sentence."

Political Correctness in England is primarily a system of verbal and written censorship, banning all words and expressions likely to "cause offense." … In an attempt to put down "racism," the concept of "hate terms" was introduced into English law for the very first time. This makes many words and expressions unlawful, and punishable by fines and imprisonment.

The implications? "Differences in sex, age, color, race, religion, physical ability, and strength lie at the source of probably the 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.… The future for humorists thus looks bleak, at the time I write this."

Are the prospects really bleak? Perhaps. But let's not slide into the slough of despond. Instead, let's give the last word to Charlie Chaplin, who could conceivably have won a place in this collection for these lines, delivered personally to Johnson: "The best jokes are the simplest. The finest stage direction ever is Shakespeare's, from The Winter's Tale: 'Exit, pursued by a bear.' " 

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).