Humor is famously time- and place-specific. Like cut flowers, it doesn’t travel well. It’s a perishable product. Thirty years ago I worked with a reporter who remains the funniest person I have ever known. John had perfect pitch for comedy. His timing was flawless. He remembered jokes and they were always funny, the kind you want to remember and claim as your own. He was a mimic with a good ear for accents. His humor wasn’t the stagey, attention-grabbing sort. He was deadpan and never laughed at his own gags. You sensed he was fitted with a set of lenses that enabled him to see the essential silliness of everything, and he was just reporting what he saw. While hardly trying, he reduced me to incapacity from laughter. He was an ideal companion, always entertaining but never demanding to be appreciated. Here’s the punch line: John would routinely return from an assignment, recount his adventures to the city desk, crack them up, sit at his computer and – nothing. His writing was flat, perfunctory, never funny. He soon left journalism, went back to school and became a lawyer.
John came to mind while I was reading “Sydney Smith 1771-1845,” a 1934 profile by Desmond MacCarthy collected in Humanities (MacGibbon & Kee, 1953). Smith was a well-known wit who disappoints me because he’s not funny, though Guy Davenport called him “a master of glorious nonsense.” MacCarthy explains the likely reason: “Print destroys the spontaneity which accounts for the joy-bringing potency of Sydney Smith’s improvisations.” Smith died more than thirty years before the first sound recordings, and even the most accurate transcript leaves out the comic’s art – rhythm, changes in tempo and volume, body gestures and facial expressions. MacCarthy reproduces a classic Smith routine, stage directions added, that conveys some of his ebullience:
“`Going to marry her!’ he once cried on hearing that a young man was about to wed an enormous widow twice his age, `Going to marry her! Impossible! You mean part of her; he could not marry her all’ (imagine the dubious shake of the head) `himself. It would be a case, not of bigamy, but’ (imagine the rising voice) `trigamy. The neighbourhood or the magistrates should interfere. There’s enough of her to furnish wives for a whole parish.’ (Louder). `One man marry her!—it’s monstrous!’ (Now for the crescendo). `You might people a colony with her--or give an assembly with her! Or’ (now for the climax) `you might read the Riot Act and disperse her! In short, (he roars with laughter and subsides into chuckles) `you might do anything with her but marry her!”
This recalls a contemporary “yo-Mama’s-so-fat” routine. It reads like inspired jazz improvisation. You can sense Smith feeding off his audience’s response. MacCarthy says Smith’s transcribed performances have “lost some piquancy but not all their point.”