February 19th, 2006


All booked up

A few posting ago, I talked about the stool my father made that my brother FedExed to me last week. What I want to talk about now is the rest of what was in that box. My brother and his wife threw in a couple of late birthday presents – two books – and I am delighted to report that they were both direct hits (the books, that is).
One is titled Fierce Pajamas. It is an anthology of humor writing reprinted from The New Yorker. Weighing in at just under 500 pages, it is a remarkable archive and treasury of humorous thought from the early 20th century to the present. The roster of authors whose essays may be found therein runs from James Thurber, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Groucho Marx right on through to Woody Allen, Garrison Keillor, and Steve Martin. I will take my time reading this one; what little I have explored thus far makes me want to linger over these delicacies.

The other book is also an archive of humor. It’s called Steve Allen’s Private Joke File. If the late Mr. Allen’s introduction is to be believed – and I don’t know why it wouldn’t be – the title is literally true. Allen relates that he spent many years collecting and cataloguing jokes, and this book is the result of his decision to publish his collection. The style of these jokes is mostly rather old-fashioned; they seem rather stale compared to modern comedic styles, but there is a purity to them, a purity that a humorist of any era would do well to understand, because I think that mastering this type of material provides one with a sturdy foundation from which to depart into more sophisticated comedy styles. The real impact of this can probably only be felt if one ingests a large dose, but I will quote one humble example just to give you a feel for it:

CONDUCTOR: Madam, pardon me, but you’re standing on my foot.
PASSENGER: Why don’t you put your foot where it belongs?
CONDUCTOR: Don’t tempt me lady; don’t tempt me.

Not what anyone would call ‘hip’ humor, but a simple, solid comedic thought nevertheless.

I should add that Steve Allen (1921-2000) is someone whom I admire greatly. It has only been in the last decade or so that I have come to recognize the scope of his accomplishments. Although he is probably best known as the original host of The Tonight Show, he was also a prolific song writer and author who published over 50 books on a wide range of topics including, comedy, fiction, politics, history, and sociology. He was a sharp, clear thinker with a well honed bullshit detector. If you’d like to read a decent summary of his life and work, click here.

And once again, thanks to F and T for the lovely presents!
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