Tuesday, June 02, 2015

`More Belly Laughs Than Joe Miller'

“As for humour, Johnson has given the world more belly laughs than Joe Miller.”

This calls for a footnote or two. The Johnson referred to by Anthony Burgess in his review of James L. Clifford’s Dictionary Johnson (collected in But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen: Homage to Qwert Yuiop and Other Writings, 1986), of course, is Samuel. Miller is his older contemporary, Joe Miller (1683-1738), the actor who posthumously lent his name to the remarkably popular Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum (1739). Its author was John Motley (whose surname is too good to be true). The gag book’s first edition contained 247 jokes, and two additional editions were published within a year. The OED reports Joe Miller soon became a synonym for any joke book and, eventually, any “jest or joke; esp. a stale joke, a ‘chestnut’. Hence (nonce-wds.) Joe-Millerism n. the practice of retailing stale jokes. Joe-Millerize v. (trans.) to render jocular or comic, to turn into a joke.” Here’s a mercifully brief, sub-Bob Hope sample from the book’s 1865 edition:

“A pragmatical young fellow, sitting at table over against the learned John Scott, asked him, What difference there was between Scott and Sot? Just the breadth of the table, answered the other.”

Johnson might have enjoyed that one, but in fairness to Miller, Motley & Co., Johnson was not a joke teller. His wit was omnidirectional. His humor is less a gesture to amuse than an expression of the man and his essential nature. His Dictionary is, among other things, a droll Joe Miller that is genuinely funny, one worth reading sequentially, like a novel. Here is his definition of a now obsolete verb, to worm: “To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.” And of dull: “Not exhilarating, not delightful: as, ‘to make dictionaries is dull work.’” And best of all. his definition of monsieur: “A term of reproach for a Frenchman.” With that crack in mind, here is another observation from Burgess:

“That a man who made the first real English dictionary single-handed in seven years, while forty French academicians couldn’t get theirs done in forty years, should consider himself slothful is hard to accept in an age in which sloth, to judge from the exemplary young, is one of the seven deadly virtues. But Johnson did everything he could to avoid working. He talked. He drank tea. Professor Clifford tells us how much tea he drank. On his travels in Devon, he pushed his cup towards his hostess for the eighteenth time. `Dr Johnson,’ she said, `you drink too much tea.’ `Madam,’ he replied, `you are rude.’”

Now that’s funny.

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