Here is a happy book: The Humorists: From Hogarth to Noël Coward (2010) by the English historian Paul Johnson. Not happy in the sense of untroubled or mindlessly blithe. Johnson, who clearly loves to laugh, warns on his final page:
“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. The ordinary people like jokes, often crude ones, as George Orwell pointed out in his perceptive essay on rude seaside picture postcards. But are ordinary people, as opposed to minor officials, in charge anymore? Democracy doesn’t really seem to work, and people are insufficiently dismayed at its impotence.”
So much for a laff riot. Johnson understands that comedy is rooted in attraction to, and terror of, incipient anarchy. “The force is chaos,” he writes, “contemplated in safety.” Laurel and Hardy he calls “chaos men,” and the same might be said of most of the others he profiles, including Samuel Johnson, Dickens, Chesterton, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. Humor is one way clever people adapt to the almost impossible task of living with others in the world. Johnson writes of Dr. Johnson, who despite his reputation for solemnity was regularly seized with fits of hilarity:
“Indeed it is likely that Johnson’s greatest explosions of fun went unrecorded, for explosions they were, difficult to put down in words, or even to remember the gist of them. They occurred quite spontaneously, when something struck Johnson as irresistibly funny. Then he would go on fantasizing and laughing, until exhausted.”
That hilarity can mingle with madness, and laughter can make one sick to a pitch exceeding embarrassment, are facts of life for some of us. Helpless, full-body laughter is not pretty or polite. Johnson quotes with approval Charles Lamb on the subject: “Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.”
Most of the jokes I remember, and those I hear that make me laugh hardest, are unsuitable for delicate contemporary sensibilities. I can share them with my wife and brother, but too many people are too good to demean their dignity with laughter. The funniest subjects – death, sex, shit, pride – are off limits. In New York, I went to the same barber for almost twenty years. He never went to college, probably never voluntarily read a book, and played golf obsessively, even in January, and remained my reliable monthly source of jokes so good, some made me weep. Not one of them would I recount on this blog, but my barber was a dependable conduit to humanity’s honest id, and I miss him.
We can quibble over who is funny and what makes us laugh, and even that can be funny. To my tastes, Johnson overrates Chaplin, Damon Runyon, Thurber and Coward, and I might have included Swift, Buster Keaton, Liebling and Flann O’Brien, but at least his taste in comedy largely avoids the sentimental (despite Chaplin) and didactic. What he says of Chesterton is true of most funny people:
"He was a total individualist, seeing everything, as if for the first time in history, with his own eyes, and nobody else's."