Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Laughing Matters: Discuss

The New York Times
December 7, 2010

From Hogarth to Noël Coward

By Paul Johnson
228 pages. Harper. $25.99.

In the 1940s, long before the unlovely abbreviations LOL and ROTFL became standard usage, the great film critic James Agee broke the four main kinds of laughter inspired by silent-film comedians into four more intricate categories: “the titter, the yowl, the belly laugh and the boffo.”

There are titters, and perhaps even a few yowls, in the British historian Paul Johnson’s new book, “Humorists: From Hogarth to Noël Coward,” which contains chapters on both the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. But in this warmly appealing if slightly dotty book, Mr. Johnson is far more interested in wit that slowly simmers and mellowly embraces la comédie humaine. He admires the kind of sustaining good humor that, as he writes about Dr. Johnson’s apothegms, makes us “hug ourselves with pleasure.”

Thus “Humorists” is packed with essays on figures who don’t immediately come to mind when you think about funny people. Don’t look here for appraisals of Woody Allen, Bob and Ray, Richard Pryor, Fran Lebowitz or the comic princes in Monty Python. Only one of Mr. Johnson’s subjects, Nancy Mitford, was born in the 20th century. He’s more at home with the artists William Hogarth, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Thomas Rowlandson, or with writers like Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton. He calls this grab bag, which includes Benjamin Franklin, Damon Runyon and James Thurber, “a strange collection of geniuses, worldly failures, drunks, misfits, cripples and gifted idiots.”

This book’s long view, and its deep eccentricities, are what give it a burnished glow. You’ll want to consume it with good Scotch and (what the hell) maybe even a pipe, agreeing with Charles Lamb, who hoped that “the last breath I draw in this world will be through a pipe, and exhaled in a pun.”

Mr. Johnson, who has written similar volumes with titles like “Intellectuals,” “Creators” and “Heroes,” reckons, persuasively, that among all these people comics “are the most valuable.” The world is cruel, he observes, and “those who can dry our tears, and force reluctant smiles to trembling lips, are more precious to us, if the truth be told, than all the statesmen and the generals and brainy people, even the great artists.”

Among the smart lines approvingly quoted in his book are the following, from Dorothy Parker, about a book by Hugh Walpole: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” There will be those who will hurl Mr. Johnson’s book with great vigor too. His pantheon — those worthy of a chapter here — includes, alas, only one woman, and that woman is Mitford, who was never all that funny. He wanders so far off topic, even in short essays, that it’s like watching Mr. Magoo toddle about. And he is not a particularly funny writer himself.

The range of reference here is dated, but then so is Mr. Johnson. This book contains many startling confidences on the order of “Jean-Paul Sartre told me in 1953,” or “Groucho Marx said to me,” or, about Mitford, “I met her in Paris in the early ’50s.” There’s a bit about listening to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (born in 1909) tell riotous stories. Mr. Johnson, who is 82, makes growing old seem quite worthwhile, at least if you can derive as much pleasure from the world as he clearly does.

Mr. Johnson takes humor seriously, tracing its history — the Old Testament has no fewer than 26 laughs, he reports — and attending to its often reprehensible motives. One of the best things ever written about laughter, he notes, is Arthur Koestler’s essay about it in Encyclopedia Britannica. Koestler “describes laughing as a ‘luxury reflex,’ ” Mr. Johnson writes, “containing elements of aggression and hostility, even savagery.”

He has a keen eye for rosy detail. About Martin Heidegger, known for his solemnity, Mr. Johnson writes: “He is recorded to have laughed only once, at a picnic with Ernst Jünger in the Harz Mountains. Jünger leaned over to pick up a sauerkraut and sausage roll, and his lederhosen split with a tremendous crack.” After a shout of glee, Heidegger immediately caught himself and resumed his habitual fierce expression. Mr. Johnson also reminds us what Dorothy Parker said to a friend who had had a baby: “Congratulations. We always knew you had it in you.”

Mr. Johnson’s best essays, perhaps because unexpected, are those on Hogarth, Toulouse-Lautrec and Rowlandson. He admires their jolly, forgiving and often randy views of society. About a dancer at the Moulin Rouge whom Toulouse-Lautrec drew, he writes: “He made her live, and presents her in all her charm and folly: rambunctious, joyful, gobbling everything in sight, living for the hour, giving everything she had to give without thought for the morrow, talented, a kind of bohemian genius but also ignorant and stupid.” He expertly describes so many drawings and paintings that it’s a crime that this book does not include illustrations.

The author’s description of Toulouse-Lautrec himself is memorable: “He limped, had very large nostrils, bulbous lips, a thickened tongue and a speech impediment. He sniffed continually and drooled at the mouth.” He was said to do quite well with women.

Mr. Johnson is far less interesting on silent comedians and on writers like Runyon and Thurber, who have been analyzed with more vigor and discrimination elsewhere. But his celebration of largely forgotten talents like Chesterton will have you wanting to read more.

Here’s one decent thing Chesterton said: “Science has many uses. Its chief one, however, is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich: ‘kleptomania’ for example.” Here’s another: “Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.”

Reading “Humorists” is not itself quite a perfect and supreme experience, but it’s a pleasure to sit around the gently crackling fire that is Mr. Johnson’s mind.

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