Oddly enough, readers of The 50 Funniest American Writers according to Andy Borowitz will quickly discover that only one of the writings of this superlative group included in the anthology seems to have been published prior to the 20th century. Although 11 of the writers were born in the 19th century, they don’t seem to have gotten funny until after the new century turned. It would seem that other than Mark Twain, who managed to be funny in 1879, Americans were too busy doing other things to be funny back then. Still, it may be somewhat curmudgeonly to voice any complaint about Borowitz’ selections in light of the introductory essay in which he points out that it is really impossible to create a “funniest” list that will satisfy everyone, so he really didn’t try. These are simply writings by writers who make him laugh. Besides, the only reason he even suggested the project was that “best of” lists were surefire money makers. In effect: don’t complain, make your own damn list.
Clearly criticism of what is not included is off limits, but so, it would seem, is criticism of what is included. – you can’t claim that some of the pieces are not all that funny. First of all Borowitz thinks they’re funny, and second of all these are a collection of pieces by the “funniest” writers, not a collection of funny pieces (despite what the unwary reader might expect). You can’t say that some of these writers — Sinclair Lewis, Philip Roth, Charles Portis — haven’t written a funny piece or two or even a dozen, but when shove is met by push their claim to fame is not their power to create laughter. I mean how do you define funniest? Is the man who wrote one really funny essay, funnier than the woman who wrote a gaggle of moderately funny essays and a short story that got a few chuckles?
There is no point in going on without seeming little more than a quibbler without a sense of humor. Under the circumstances the only reasonable course of action is to describe what does lie between the covers and let you, dear reader, come to your own conclusions. Borowitz limited his selections to prose: essays, short fiction, excerpts from longer works like memoirs and novels — no poetry, no dramatic works, no stand-up routines. There is satire, both political and social. There is parody. There are witty gems and attempts at witty gems. There is humor intellectual and humor sophomoric.
Of the 50 selections there are some that stand out (there are some that fall flat but with 50 to choose from, the dreary few are forgivable). The anthology begins with Mark Twain’s confessions of his wicked deeds as a prelude to making a presidential run and ends with Larry Wilmore’s advice to some future president about how to apologize to blacks for slavery without really apologizing. Between the two there is Sinclair Lewis’s satiric account of crass middle class culture in a section from his novel Babbitt, the O. Henry story that could have been the model for Home Alone, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and a Ring Lardner description of a conversation between two old acquaintances who have nothing to say to each other. There is a parody of noir detective fiction by S.J. Perelman and political satire by Molly Ivins. There’s a clever bit about deploying vowels to Bosnia from The Onion and an overly long piece about stereotyping from the National Lampoon.
My own highlights: “Vacation ’58,” a story by John Hughes (yes, the movie guy) which was to become the basis of the National Lampoon vacation series. George Carlin has a rant about the misuse of language by broadcasters called “If I Were in Charge of the Networks” that is both funny and informative. A section from Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People destroys any idea that a comic’s life on the road is in any way glamorous. Woody Allen’s send-up of the Mafia, “A Look at Organized Crime,” is a good example of his earlier work and very funny. Peter de Vries’ story of one man’s attempt to get his wife to play straight man for him at dinner parties had me laughing out loud. This has to stop: Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, E.B. White, Hunter Thompson, Bernie Mac, David Sedaris — if you can’t find something to make you laugh, you have a problem.
In an interview on NPR, Borowitz talked about The 50 Funniest American Writers as a bathroom book. I don’t know about bathroom, but it is probably a book you want to dip into from time to time and read an essay here, a story there. Reading it all at once tends to get you jaded. You begin to suffer from the law of diminishing returns, and suddenly things aren’t quite that funny. You may not want to keep the book in your bathroom, but you might well want to keep it handy and read a piece or two to take a break from War and Peace.