Why is it that books that are meant to be put down are almost impossible to put down? One of the reasons we love anthologies of short stories is that we can read one or two at our leisure, go about our business, then read one or two more.
Short stories don’t have cliffhangers leading you to the next story. Few anthologies feature stories that have characters in common. For the very busy, or those suffering from ADD, collections of short — better yet, extremely short — stories are ideal. Return of the Dittos by Dale Andrew White is an example of short, short stories. Most of White’s stories don’t fill three pages and they’re all very entertaining. It’s a funny collection of stories (by one author) for those with limited reading time or attention spans.
Humor Me, subtitled An Anthology of Funny Contemporary Writing Plus Some Great Old Stuff Too, presents the reader with a collection of stories so satisfyingly amusing that after reading one, there’s a strong desire to read another. And another. And another. You know what I mean.
Editor Ian Frazier has united the works of a brilliant assemblage of humorists including Steve Martin, Ray Blount, Jr., David Mamet (!), Andy Borowitz, Polly Frost, Garrison Keillor, and Bruce Jay Friedman, in a volume that reminds us what humor is supposed to be. There are stories from 45 contemporary writers in Part I; Part II, “Some Great Old Stuff,” delivers Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Michael O'Donoghue among its nine writers, although some of us don’t feel that 1970s literature is all that old (especially if we read it when it was first published).
Late one evening, I picked up Humor Me with the intention of reading a story before going to sleep. I committed the error of choosing “What I’d Say to the Martians” by Jack Handey. Big mistake. There was no way I was going to just fall asleep after reading something that hilarious. So I went on to “Hitler’s Secret Dairy” by Bruce McCall.
“Hitler’s Secret Dairy” is funny on several levels. One is that many readers will misread the title as “Hitler’s Secret Diary,” as I did. Since the piece is made up of diary entries, that misapprehension is supported by the text. However, it’s the contents of the diary that reveal our misunderstanding. Again, too funny, I had to read more.
What I really needed was something to lull me to sleep, a story that would find itself face down on my chest as I sailed into dreamland. I should have known that a story titled “How Important Moments in My Life Would Have Been Different If I Was Shot Twice in the Stomach at Close Range” by Jake Swearingen was not going to fulfill my needs.
Some of the stories in Humor Me are not exactly the kind of short stories you read in high school English Lit classes. Such is the case with the Swearingen piece which describes important moments, such as baby’s first step and high school graduation, with the added fillip of two gut shots. Andy Borowitz’s “Theatre-Lobby Notices” is a collection of notices about the evening’s production similar to those one might find in a theater lobby (where else?). They include such advisories as “WARNING: Owing to a typographical error, the Times review of this play omitted the word ‘horrible,’” and “WARNING: In Act III, there is full frontal nudity, but not involving the actor you would like to see naked.”
There is so much that is so good in Humor Me, it’s the kind of book you’d like to share, but won’t because you’re afraid you won’t get it back. It’s impossible to single out any of the stories as “the best” or “the funniest” once you’ve read them all, and quite a few of them invite you back to reread them.
If you’ve never heard a father lay down the law like it came from the mouth of God (“For we judge between the plate that is unclean and the plate that is clean, saying first, if the plate is clean, then you shall have dessert,” Ian Frazier, “Lamentations of the Father), or how “La Bamba” can improve your life (“La Bamba Hot Line” by Bobbie Ann Mason), then it’s time to take a laugh break and pick up Humor Me. If entertaining yourself isn’t enough reason to buy a book, then you’ll be pleased to know that proceeds from the sale of Humor Me will help support “826 Seattle, a chapter of 826 National, the Dave Eggers-founded nonprofit tutoring, writing, and publishing organization with locations in seven cities across the country.”