I thought of my mathematician while flipping through Jim Holt’s Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes (2010). On page thirty-eight is a photograph of a fellow who might be an insurance agent or Methodist minister, sitting at a table and holding a large volume titled Masters of Mirth. His lips are tight, his eyes are on the page and his scowl may signal displeasure at having his picture taken. The man is Nat Schmulowitz (1989-1966), the San Francisco attorney who specialized in probate and corporate law but is best remembered for successfully defending the great silent film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He also befriended Arbuckle’s loyal friend Buster Keaton and named his summer estate “Smilin’ Thru” (perhaps after the films with that title made in 1932 and 1941).
Schmulowitz’s legacy resides in the San Francisco Public Library where, starting on April Fool’s Day 1947, he donated his collection of humorous books and ephemera, five centuries of material in dozens of languages. Today, the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor (known amusingly as SCOWAH) contains more than 20,000 items. Holt explains:
“A short, stout, balding man, Schmulowitz was known for his warmth and modesty. He was not especially funny himself, according to his niece, Geraldine Weill Levine, but `he would come up with a good pun now and then.’ [Uh-oh.] He adored such comedians as Milton Berle, Phyllis Diller [Uh-oh again.], and Sid Caesar, giving them the run of his collection of humor. Schmulowitz was a tireless advocate of the power of jokes [Uh-oh a third time.], which he called `the small change of history’ [Not bad.].”
Arguments for the health-inducing efficacy of jokes are never funny and always futile. Comedy-as-therapy quickly becomes didactically dull. Keats writes in an 1818 letter to John Hamilton Reynolds: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” The same goes for humor with a palpable design. The Schmulowitz Collection is non-circulating but Holt reports its most frequently requested item is a 1910 volume titled Flagellation and the Flagellants: A History of the Rod in All Countries. We know Holt did his homework because he reports the book’s frontpiece shows “`the beautiful Madame LaPuchin’ having her exposed derrière soundly whipped.” Holt asks:
“Does this qualify as humor? Well, jokes are a medium for fantasizing about what must be avoided in reality, a way of laughing off our cruel, irrational, and aggressive instincts.”