Monday, January 2, 2012

Comic Writing of the Shorter Kind

I have spent my Christmas break researching 20th-century comic writing, giving especial attention to the shorter forms: the sportive essay, the comic short story, and the humorous fairy tale. My goal was to become familiar with a wider range of comic techniques with which to grace my blog observations, anecdotes, and tales.

I chose to begin with F. Anstey, nom de plume of Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856 – 1934), a Victorian writer who published comic novels and short stories from 1882 to the early years of the 20th century. The choice should not be perceived as a slight to Mark Twain or other 19th-century comic masters. (I am aware that Twain lived until 1910, but his most significant literary creations were published before 1895.) Twain's humor seems to me to be a culmination of American frontier humor; and though Twain exerted a broad influence on later American writers, he left no disciples capable of wielding his satiric pen, unless you wish to rope in H. L. Mencken. By contrast, in F. Anstey's writings I see the beginning of a comic thread that continues to the present day. Elements of P. G. Wodehouse's style have been traced to Anstey's comic use of Babu English, that is, the bombastic English spoken by Indians who have learned the language from books (cf. Richard Usborne's book Plum Sauce).

Anstey's earliest and most influential works featured the intrusion of a fantastical element into normal life. (I myself am fond of this device and used it frequently in my Kindle collection, Comic Tales & Fantasies.) In Anstey's The Tinted Venus, a Victorian barber accidentally summons the goddess Aphrodite when he places a ring on a statue's finger. Here is a sample of Anstey's elegant prose:

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He had retired step by step before her to the hearth-rug, where he now stood shivering, with the fire hot at his back, and his kettle still singing on undismayed. He made no attempt to account for her presence there on any rationalising theory. A statue had suddenly come to life, and chosen to pay him a nocturnal visit; he knew no more than that, except that he would have given worlds for courage to show it the door.

The spectral eyes were bent upon him, as if in expectation that he would begin the conversation, and at last, with a very unmanageable tongue, he managed to observe, "Did you want to see me on – on business, mum?" But the statue only relaxed her lips in a haughty smile.
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Early in the 20th century P. G. Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) made British humor light, peppy, and playful. Here is a representative sample from the story Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg:

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Sometimes of a morning, as I've sat in bed sucking down the early cup of tea and watched my man Jeeves flitting about the room and putting out the raiment for the day, I've wondered what the deuce I should do if the fellow ever took it into his head to leave me. It's not so bad now I'm in New York, but in London the anxiety was frightful. There used to be all sorts of attempts on the part of low blighters to sneak him away from me. Young Reggie Foljambe to my certain knowledge offered him double what I was giving him, and Alistair Bingham-Reeves, who's got a valet who had been known to press his trousers sideways, used to look at him, when he came to see me, with a kind of glittering hungry eye which disturbed me deucedly. Bally pirates!
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Canada's Stephen Leacock (1869 – 1944), born before Wodehouse but gaining notoriety as a comic writer at roughly the same time, mixed the stately prose of the Victorians with his own brand of cheerful nonsense. He directly influenced and encouraged a young Robert Benchley. Here is a sample of Leacock's writing from his early collection Literary Lapses:

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Next, take the question of germs and bacilli. Don't be scared of them. That's all. That's the whole thing, and if you once get on to that you never need to worry again.

If you see a bacilli, walk right up to it, and look it in the eye. If one flies into your room, strike at it with your hat or with a towel. Hit it as hard as you can between the neck and the thorax. It will soon get sick of that.

But as a matter of fact, a bacilli is perfectly quiet and harmless if you are not afraid of it. Speak to it. Call out to it to "lie down." It will understand. I had a bacilli once, called Fido, that would come and lie at my feet while I was working. I never knew a more affectionate companion, and when it was run over by an automobile, I buried it in the garden with genuine sorrow.

(I admit this is an exaggeration. I don't really remember its name; it may have been Robert.)

Understand that it is only a fad of modern medicine to say that cholera and typhoid and diphtheria are caused by bacilli and germs; nonsense. Cholera is caused by a frightful pain in the stomach, and diphtheria is caused by trying to cure a sore throat.
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Robert Benchley (1889 – 1945) mined the same vein of comedy as Stephen Leacock but gave greater emphasis to the technique of comic perspective, humor arising from viewing life from a particular persona. Benchley would often adopt the persona of a harried little man struggling to cope with modern life. S. J. Perelman was greatly influenced by this use of comic perspective and in the 1930s would further develop the comic possibilities of the persona of a hapless schlemiel. Then, much later in the century, Benchley's disciple Dave Barry would make a pretty penny recycling the comic stylings of his master. Here is a sample of Benchley's use of comic self-deprecation from his collection Love Conquers All:

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As a rule, I try not to look into mirrors any more than is absolutely necessary. Things are depressing enough as they are without my going out of my way to make myself miserable.

But every once in a while it is unavoidable. There are certain mirrors in town with which I am brought face to face on occasion and there is nothing to do but make the best of it. I have come to classify them according to the harshness with which they fling the truth into my face.

I am unquestionably at my worst in the mirror before which I try on hats. I may have been going along all winter thinking of other things, dwelling on what people tell me is really a splendid spiritual side to my nature, thinking of myself as rather a fine sort of person, not dashing perhaps, but one from whose countenance shines a great light of honesty and courage which is even more to be desired than physical beauty. I rather imagine that little children on the street and grizzled Supreme Court justices out for a walk turn as I pass and say "A fine face. Plain, but fine."
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S. J. Perelman concocted his comic style from a mixture of influences. He adopted Robert Benchley's use of a comic persona, added some slangy wordplay from George Ade (1866 – 1944), borrowed a dollop of nonsense from Stephen Leacock and a touch of high-toned language from F. Anstey, and then cribbed liberal doses of snappy prose from Ring Lardner (1885 – 1933). This heady stew of influences was spiced by Perelman's showy vocabulary and gift for free association. But before dealing with Perelman, let's look at his predecessors George Ade and Ring Lardner. Here is a bouncy sample from George Ade's Fables in Slang:

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Once upon a Time there was a slim Girl with a Forehead which was Shiny and Protuberant, like a Bartlett Pear. When asked to put Something in an Autograph Album she invariably wrote the Following, in a tall, dislocated Back-Hand:

"Life is Real; Life is Earnest,
And the Grave is not its Goal."

That's the kind of a Girl she was.

In her own Town she had the Name of being a Cold Proposition, but that was because the Primitive Yokels of a One-Night Stand could not Attune Themselves to the Views of one who was troubled with Ideals. Her Soul Panted for the Higher Life.

Alas, the Rube Town in which she Hung Forth was given over to Croquet, Mush and Milk Sociables, a lodge of Elks and two married Preachers who doctored for the Tonsilitis. So what could the Poor Girl do?

In all the Country around there was not a Man who came up to her Plans and Specifications for a Husband. Neither was there any Man who had any time for Her. So she led a lonely Life, dreaming of the One--the Ideal. He was a big and pensive Literary Man, wearing a Prince Albert coat, a neat Derby Hat and godlike Whiskers. When He came he would enfold Her in his Arms and whisper Emerson's Essays to her.
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Here is a sample from Ring Lardner, taken from the start of his short story Ex Parte:

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Most always when a man leaves his wife, there's no excuse in the world for him. She may have made whoop-whoop-whoopee with the whole ten commandments, but if he shows his disapproval to the extent of walking out on her, he will thereafter be a total stranger to all his friends excepting the two or three bums who will tour the night clubs with him so long as he sticks to his habits of paying for everything.

When a woman leaves her husband, she must have good and sufficient reasons. He drinks all the time, or he runs around, or he doesn't give her any money, or he uses her as the heavy bag in his home gymnasium work. No more is he invited to his former playmates' houses for dinner and bridge. He is an outcast just the same as if he had done the deserting. Whichever way it happens, it's his fault. He can state his side of the case if he wants to, but there is nobody around listening.
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S. J. Perelman's short comic pieces were the highest expression of literary American humor from the 1930s through the 1950s. Many others did excellent work during this golden age of humor (e.g., James Thurber, E. B. White, Frank Sullivan), but none were as inventive and reliably funny as Perelman. Here is a sample from Perelman's 1938 piece Down with the Restoration, written when Perelman was entering his prime. The self-deprecating persona and the characteristic collision between high-toned references and jazzy patter are in full display.

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Does anybody here mind if I make a prediction? I haven't made a prediction since the opening night of The Women some years ago, when I rose at the end of the third act and announced to my escort, a Miss Chicken-Licken, "The public will never take this to its bosom" Since the public has practically worn its bosom to a nubbin niggling up to The Women, I feel that my predictions may be a straw to show the direction the wind is blowing away from. I may very well open up a cave and do business as a sort of Cumaean Sibyl in reverse. You can't tell me people would rather climb up that Aventine Hill and have a man mess around with the entrails of a lot of sacred chickens when they can come down into my nice cool cave and get a good hygienic prediction for a few cents. So just to stimulate trade and start the ball rolling, here goes my first prediction: One of these days two young people are going to stumble across a ruined farmhouse and leave it along....Well, what are you sitting there gaping at? You heard what I said. That's my prediction.
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And so, the comic lineage that I have begun to explore for my own writing education starts with F. Anstey and ends with S. J. Perelman. This lineage establishes the comic path I wish to follow.

You may ask, what about other humor writers? Let's review them by category.

Older humorists Woody Allen, Garrison Keillor, and Brian O'Nolan (1911 – 1966): While there is much to admire in the early comic pieces of Woody Allen and Garrison Keillor, both of them strongly influenced by S. J. Perelman as they were breaking into the field of humorous prose, neither Allen nor Keillor is currently doing interesting short pieces. Brian O'Nolan, writing in the Irish Times as Myles na Gopaleen, was in a class with S. J. Perelman for dazzling use of language. I intend to delve into O'Nolan's comic pieces and may well add him to the Anstey-Leacock-Benchley-Perelman lineage.

Newer humorists Dave Barry, Bill Bryson, and David Sedaris: Dave Barry's work is fun to read, but it's more efficient for me to go back to the wellspring and study the work of his idol Robert Benchley. Bryson and Sedaris have made notable contributions to recent American humor, but I don't feel drawn to emulate either of their perspectives.

Newspaper columnists Art Buchwald (1925 – 2007), Russell Baker, and Donald Kaul: Their columns required them to strike a balance between journalistic concerns and flights of fancy. They follow a different comic path.

New Yorker writers Veronica Geng (1941 – 1997) and Ian Frazier: Their work reflects some of the older New Yorker comic tradition but does not generally advance that tradition. I'll stick with Perelman.

Commentators P. J. O'Rourke and Stanley Bing: P. J. O'Rourke is a funny guy when he's not trying to be The Pundit, but studying his prose won't help me get to where I want to go. Gil Schwartz, writing as Stanley Bing, is doing some wonderful comic pieces about business. In general he is following a different comic path , but once in a while he strays onto the Anstey-Leacock-Benchley-Perelman path and does an amazing job.

I have enjoyed the work of many other worthy writers of comic pieces (e.g., H. Allen Smith, Erma Bombeck, Max Shulman, etc.); however, they aren't on the path I wish to follow.

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Onward down the path!

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