It’s not funny any­more

Writ­ing about hu­morists falls flat if you over­think the jokes.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - book­world@wash­ Jeff Nuss­baum is a part­ner in the speech­writ­ing and strat­egy firm West Wing Writ­ers and a co-founder of a hu­mor-writ­ing group, the Hu­mor Cabi­net.

HU­MORISTS From Hog­a­rth to Noël Coward By Paul John­son Harper. 228 pp. $25.99 AMER­I­CAN FREAK SHOW The Com­pletely Fab­ri­cated Sto­ries of Our New Na­tional Trea­sures By Wil­lie Geist Hype­r­ion. 214 pp. $23.99

The em­i­nent Paul John­son has penned his­to­ries of sub­jects rang­ing from Chris­tian­ity to Ju­daism to the 20th cen­tury (in toto) to art (also in toto). One can’t help ad­mir­ing some­one with the in­tel­lec­tual fe­cun­dity (or is it promis­cu­ity?) to write au­thor­i­ta­tively on such a range of sub­jects.

Ad­di­tion­ally, John­son has made books out of his own short bi­ogra­phies of those he con­sid­ers to be great in­tel­lec­tu­als, in the aptly named “In­tel­lec­tu­als.” He has done the same for those he con­sid­ers to be great he­roes, in the aptly named “He­roes.” (Had he shown a sim­i­lar in­ter­est in Philadel­phia sand­wiches, he might have writ­ten an­other book with that for a ti­tle.)

This brings us to John­son’s cur­rent of­fer­ing, “Hu­morists.” As that hor­ri­ble sandwich joke demon­strates, hu­mor is hard. Not just hard to write, but hard to cat­e­go­rize. In his in­tro­duc­tion, John­son as­sem­bles a truly en­light­en­ing and read­able his­tory of hu­mor. He de­scribes one of the ear­li­est recorded dirty jokes, found in the Bi­ble. He in­ves­ti­gates the re­vul­sion that puns tend to en­gen­der among hu­morists (and then shows those hu­morists to be hyp­ocrites by cit­ing their own pun­ning ways).

John­son does an ad­mirable job of break­ing hu­mor down into two main types. The first he de­scribes as “chaos, con­tem­plated in safety,” and he cat­e­go­rizes those who work in this space as “comics who cre­ate chaos,” the Marx Broth­ers be­ing a clas­sic ex­am­ple. The sec­ond type are those who ob­serve and present the hu­man con­di­tion to us in all its ab­sur­dity, such as the painter Toulouse-Lautrec. These are the hu­morists, he writes, “who look for, and find, and an­a­lyze, the wor­ry­ing ex­u­ber­ance, and sheer egre­gious weird­ness of the in­di­vid­ual hu­man be­ing, and who present them vividly, and ac­cu­rately for our de­light.”

John­son is at his best when he traces cur­rent hu­mor tra­di­tions back to their roots, as when he shows that Charles Dick­ens was the in­ven­tor of the ver­bal run­ning gag and Ben­jamin Franklin the fa­ther of the one-liner.

But his short bi­ogra­phies of his cho­sen hu­morists tend to fall flat. First, it is never clear whether his goal is to chron­i­cle lives or char­ac­ter­ize hu­mor. Sec­ond, he of­fers no method­ol­ogy be­hind his choices. Read­ers are left with the sink­ing sen­sa­tion that we are sim­ply be­ing handed re­hashed writ­ings about peo­ple whom John­son found to be funny while re­search­ing some other project. This sen­sa­tion is only in­ten­si­fied by the num­ber of chap­ters that be­gin with some ver­sion of the fol­low­ing: “It stretches credulity to write of Dr. Sa­muel John­son. . . as a comic.” Thir­teen pages later, I found my­self say­ing, “ Yes, it does.”

My sus­pi­cions about the re­hash­ing of his pre­vi­ous work seem fur­ther sup­ported by the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of painters who have found their way into this vol­ume. While I’m happy to be con­vinced that Wil­liam Hog­a­rth and Thomas Row­land­son each painted can­vases that re­duced his view­ers (some 300 and 200 years ago, re­spec­tively) to peals of laugh­ter, read­ing some­what dry de­scrip­tions of their paint­ings left me un­moved.

John­son is clearly a high­brow thinker, yet it seems that his taste in hu­mor runs di­rectly to the puerile. He lav­ishes at­ten­tion on Franklin’s writ­ings on sex with older women, and he finds oc­ca­sion to use the word “pu­denda” not once, but twice. “Pu­denda” is noth­ing if not a funny word.

In his chap­ter on G.K. Ch­ester­ton, John­son quotes Ch­ester­ton: “Hap­pi­ness is a mys­tery, like re­li­gion, and should never be ra­tio­nal­ized.” Read­ing this book, I’m forced to con­clude that the same should be said of hu­mor.

In the realm of more con­tem­po­rary hu­mor, we find one Wil­lie Geist. Geist, whose tele­vi­sion show “Way Too Early” is a god­send to this fa­ther of an in­som­niac in­fant, is also re­spon­si­ble for the comic re­lief on MSNBC’s “Morn­ing Joe,” where he mocks pop cul­tural phe­nom­ena. His new book, “Amer­i­can Freak Show,” is the log­i­cal ex­ten­sion of that role, ex­cept that in­stead of sim­ply de­light­ing in the foibles of celebri­ties, he imag­ines what they might say in sex re­hab (Tiger Woods); e-mail ex­changes (Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton); Twit­ter feeds (Lind­say Lo­han’s Tweets from a San­taMon­ica jail); par­ent­ing ad­vice (Kate Gos­selin); inaugural ad­dresses (Sarah Palin) — as well as my fa­vorite, what a re­make of the film “ The Long­est Yard” might look like if it took place at Guan­tanamo Bay.

Not all of “Amer­i­can Freak Show” is fab­ri­cated. The book opens with a price­less anec­dote about Rod Blago­je­vich vis­it­ing the set of the show, and Geist is ac­tu­ally at his best when he’s com­ment­ing on ex­pe­ri­ences like this. So while “Amer­i­can Freak Show” may not placeGeist in Paul John­son’s com­pany of great hu­morists, it eas­ily earns a spot in a less ex­alted, though no less es­sen­tial, li­brary — the one you know you keep by the com­mode.

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