Thursday, March 26, 2015
Book Review 343: American Cornball
AMERICAN CORNBALL: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller. 530 pages, illustrated. Harper, $35
The funniest thing about “American Cornball,” which is about broad-gauge American joking in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, is how often Christopher Miller refers to Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who wrote in French and never, so far as I know, paid any attention to America. I didn’t keep count, but he is mentioned at least 20 times, about as often as W.C. Fields.
And Fields is mentioned as much as anyone, as much as the Marx Brothers, Mort Walker or Lucille Ball.
This “encyclopedia of stale humor” is massively erudite about the strangest things. For example, you will perhaps be surprised to know that in an early episode of the newspaper comic of Mickey Mouse that Mickey attempted suicide several times because Minnie rejected him. Also, the oddly involved history of the whoopee cushion.
“American Cornball” is organized by topic, from Absentminded Professors to Zealots, and includes such surprising categories of mass appeal fun as Suicide, Infant Mortality, Flatulence (the longest entry) and Rape.
Miller, a prodigious collector of old postcards showing fat women and watcher of early sitcoms, says he wrote “American Cornball” to be consulted by topic, like other encyclopedias, although it can be read through (as I did it) as a series of little essays on the whys and wherefores of lowbrow humor.
He divides the zeitgeist into broad categories -- an early period of slapstick and violence, followed by increasingly tame jokes (the suburbanization of humor) and ending (for his purposes) in the sort of joke desert of ‘50s conformity.
He has a tendency to use the same examples over and over -- Thimble Theater, Scooby Doo, Li’l Abner, Milt Gross. As result, and because the book is organized by topic and not by practitioner, some notably funny and democratic jokesters are completely absent (Montague Glass, Harry Leon Wilson) or barely mentioned (George Ade, Walt Kelly).
Nevertheless, his selection from a nearly infinite pool of more or less lame material is remarkably comprehensive in theme. I have, somewhere in my library, what may be the funniest book ever published in America, a listing of every scene in every movie in which any portion of an actress’s secondary sexual characteristics were revealed, however fleetingly.
It is good that some people care so much about so little. I could have done with fewer mentions of Henry James (the only writer I know who is more tedious than Samuel Beckett) and more mentions of, say, Ben Hecht (never mentioned at all), but on the whole a fun read.