Bonus: The one about the Old Comedians' Club!
It’s been a long week, so for Friday let’s go for the easy layup: What’s something in a book — not film or TV, but a book you might re-read — that makes you laugh every time you look at it?
It’s funny how that works. There are some bits from movies, for instance, that make me laugh pretty much every time — for example, the “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” gags from Bugs Bunny cartoons.
I find sure-fire-every-time movie gags tend to be musical or balletic — that is, structured and dependent on rhythm more than sense, like “Springtime for Hitler” or the Jack D. Ripper capper in Dr. Strangelove, “precious bodily fluids.”
But it’s rare than something that is written funny makes me laugh out loud when I read it again. It’s almost like re-reading jokes rather than re-watching comedians telling them. (Speaking of that, do you know the one about the Old Comedians’ Home? See below*.)
The ones most likely to make me laugh on second reading are usually the ones with the strongest intimation of physical action. Sometimes it’s because I can see the humorous doings very clearly, like a little film. Since I am a lunkhead American, if the action is violent it helps.
Re-reading any Thurber story pleases me, for example, but most in a quiet way — “The Wood Duck” and “A Couple of Hamburgers” are satisfying but I don’t laugh out loud at them anymore. The ones that still tickle me have a lot of action: “The Departure of Emma Inch,” for example, because Emma, her absurd crotchets, and her ridiculous bulldog Feely are so vivid (“Feely in her arms, snuffing and snaffling, as if he had been swimming a long way”) and practically Vaudevillean. But the one I laugh all the way through is “Something to Say.” The premise is funny enough — the narrator describes Elliot Vereker, an alleged poet maudit who, it is readily apparent, is no more than a belligerent and probably deranged drunk — but the distance between the somewhat hortatory tone and Vereker’s brutal behavior just slays me. e.g.:
He might go upstairs to wrench the bathtub away from the wall (“Breaking lead pipe is one of the truly enchanting adventures in life,” he said once), or he might simply leave for good in one of those inexplicable huffs of his which were a sign of his peculiar genius. He was likely, of course, to come back around two in the morning bringing some awful woman with him, stirring up the fire, talking all night long, knocking things off tables, singing, or counting. I have known him to lie back on a sofa, his eyes closed, and count up to as high as twenty-four thousand by ones, in a bitter, snarling voice. It was his protest against the regularization of a mechanized age.
There’s one guy, though, that gets me going without being so knockabout, and that’s Flann O’Brien, particularly in the Myles na gCopaleen mode in which he wrote the “Cruiskeen Lawn” column for The Irish Times. He has what I guess we could call an extended riff that begins with his description of a “Book Handling” service, to which he is inspired by a friend “of great wealth and vulgarity,” that supplies home libraries with books to make their owners look smart -- not by their contents so much as by their condition:
Let me explain exactly what I mean. The wares in a bookshop look completely unread. On the other hand, a school-boy’s Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary. Similarly with our non-brow who wants his friends to infer from a glancing around his house that he is a high-brow. He buys an enormous book on the Russian ballet, written possibly in the language of that distant but beautiful land. Our problem is to alter the book in a reasonably short time so that anybody looking at it will conclude that its owner has practically lived, supped and slept with it for many months…
There are, of course, levels of service with corresponding rates:
‘Popular Handling — Each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark. Say, £1 7s 6d. Five per cent discount for civil servants.’…
‘De Luxe Handling — Each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets…
‘Le Traitement Superbe’… suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz:
Yes, indeed !
How true, how true!
I don't agree at all.
Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151…
'Not less than six volumes to be inscribed with forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work, e.g… ‘Well, A.B., both of us are getting on. I am supposed to be a good writer now, but I am not old enough to forget the infinite patience you displayed in the old days when guiding my young feet on the path of literature. Accept this further book, poor as it may be, and please believe that I remain, as ever, your friend and admirer, G. Bernard Shaw.’
And I haven’t even gotten onto the subsidiary service O’Brien invents, whereby subscribers can be accompanied by “unemployed ventriloquists” at theatrical events (“The Myles na gCopaleen Escort Service”) to make their conversation sound brilliant: “Your only worry throughout the evening is to shut up and keep shut up completely. The trained escort answers his own manly questions in a voice far pleasanter than your own unfeminine quack, and gives answers that will astonish the people behind for their brilliance and sparkle…”
I have let that go on for so long (but without getting to the crisis caused when some escorts turn out to be extortionists) for two reasons: First, because I am tired and lazy and want to fill the page without much effort of my own; second, so you can get a sense of O’Brien’s style and see that along with the classic comic problem-solving mechanics (with which, by the way, O’Brien sometimes entirely dispenses), there is an element of poetic speech in his style that is not only pleasurable but funny in itself — ticklish, I would call it. And it provokes laughter even without punchlines whenever I read it. What a pleasure to have something like that around.
What about you? What rereading makes you laugh?
* So this fella gets taken to visit the Old Comedians’ Home, which looks like an English gentlemen’s club — very old guys sitting in club chairs, sipping drinks, reading, dozing. Suddenly one calls out, “47.” There is a general appreciative titter. Another calls, “27.” A milder response. “What’s this?” the guest whispers. “These comedians have been in the business so long,” says his host, “that they’ve given numbers to all the jokes, in order to save themselves the effort of telling them out loud.” Then a comedian calls out, “36,” which gets some warm laughter — except for one comedian who absolutely howls and doubles over with laughter. “What’s with him?” asks the guest. “Well,” says the host, “I guess he’s never heard that one before.”