Saturday, December 14, 2019

'With His Own Eyes, and Nobody Else's'

A reader shares my love of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and recommends the essay devoted to them by Paul Johnson in The Humorists (2010). I read Johnson’s book when it was published and found it, sorry to say, rather disappointing. For one thing, Johnson is not a funny writer. And too often he attempts to define humor and analyze why his figures are funny, which is a sure way to throttle comedy. But Johnson performs a useful service by keeping alive the memory of Stan and Ollie, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton and W.C. Fields. How many young people are familiar with these names or, if they know them, associate them with humor? Johnson writes on his final page:

“A[ll] 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.”

Johnson (Paul, not Samuel) overrates Charlie Chaplin, Damon Runyon, James Thurber and Noel Coward, and loses me entirely by including the artists William Hogarth, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Thomas Rowlandson. That’s not to condemn those figures. Hogarth’s Gin Lane is grimly amusing. But corralling them as humorists is a stretch. Johnson omits all stand-up comics, including the funniest, Don Rickles and Jonathan Winters, as well as Jonathan Swift, Flann O’Brien, Buster Keaton, Thomas Berger, Kingsley Amis and Richard Pryor. What Johnson 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.” This reminds me of something Mark Helprin (not a notably funny novelist) writes in his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1988:

“One of the best things about writing and writers is the affinity of the profession and its adherents to anarchy and individualism. . . .Literary anarchy is good because a good writer addresses questions over which no human authority can ever hold sway, and therefore he must be able to resist the organizational impulse, that gives rises to ministries of culture, writers’ unions, academies, and cliques.”


mike zim said...

Hear, hear!, regarding Stan and Ollie.
I recently discovered their seasonally-appropriate "Big Business", with a great organ accompaniment. (It brought to mind the Big Lebowski Corvette-bashing scene.)

Re: the two Johnsons and “A[ll] jokes are liable to provoke discomfort if not positive misery among those laughed at."
Was cheered to learn just today, that a long-time favorite Emerson joke, "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”, could have very probably been inspired by Dr. Johnson.

Baceseras said...

To yesterday’s question (“and – who?”), I sez to myself, David Warren – although he’s only a young feller and I wouldn’t want to turn his head, but if he keeps at it – might be an answer, I won’t say the.

Faze said...

Late in life, I have come to appreciate the still outrageous humor of Al Capp and his creation, Li'l Abner (especially the strips from about 1938-52). Unbridled misanthropy, reportedly read by 40 million people a day.