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From Robert Benchley To Andrew Dice Clay
Is the kind of humor popular today another symptom of the general erosion of civil discourse? Maybe, says a man who has spent a good deal of his life being funny; but more likely it’s just a vigorous breeze from the American frontier.
October 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 6
Here am I, overly full of years and self, taking the liberty of criticizing Mark Twain as though he were human.
In a country that had started putting on fancy airs, unpolished humor seemed to menace hopes for creating a high culture. Henry James, yearning for the sublime, wrote, with an exquisitely delicate touch of contempt, “In the day of Mark Twain, there is no harm in being reminded that the absence of drollery may, at a stretch, be compensated by the presence of sublimity.”
What stuffy nineteenth-century Americans deplored in Twain were the qualities that critics still deplore as “bad taste.” “Bad taste” has been applied to the nightclub humor of Lenny Bruce, the television humor of “Saturday Night Live,” the movie humor of comics like Mae West and W. C. Fields, and the comic-strip humor of Carry Trudeau, among thousands of others.
Rude , coarse , and vulgar are the words commonly used to justify a “bad taste” verdict against humor, and they were often applicable to Mark Twain. Rude usually means nothing more shocking than “shows no respect for authority and convention,” while coarse and vulgar mean pretty much the same thing with the added suggestion that the disrespectful party is also an untutored lout.
Mark Twain apparently felt so vulnerable to Nice Nelly criticism that he even let his wife occasionally purge his work of what she considered vulgarities. How the East’s stiflingly insecure society must have weighed him down! Blessed with divine gifts, he yet so yearned for respectability that he took advice from wife and editor when they cautioned him not to let Huckleberry Finn utter that vulgar word hell .
What would have happened had he fallen under the power of The New Yorker ’s editors with their institutional contempt for the old lady from Dubuque? Hannibal, after all, is just a hundred miles or so downriver from Dubuque.
I mean The New Yorker no harm by suggesting it would never have got along with America’s preeminent humorist. The magazine more or less defined American humor for a good third of the present century. It was the citified Eastern voice of an America that, culturally, had begun to leave Europe behind. With The New Yorker American humor began to master the arts of understatement, to refine the crudities of old-fashioned burlesque into satire, to treasure subtlety and wit, things European humor seemed to have done forever. Very quickly, however, The New Yorker was doing them better. For two generations after Harold Ross started his magazine in 1925 it was the home office of American humor. Every high school wit yearning for glory dreamed of being published there, and some of the funniest people who ever wrote the American language actually were. Ross and Hemingway changed the language of American fiction. Both wanted a language rid of ornate fuss and fretwork, a more economical English in which every word counted, every sentence carried weight. The contagious idea that less is more was in the air, and Ross and Hemingway both seem to have caught it.
In The New Yorker this led to a humor of precision. It was vital to find the one word that was exactly right. Writers had to stay within the framework of their original conceit, which meant they no longer enjoyed the freedom to wander away from the subject and browse elsewhere as Mark Twain used to do, sometimes with great effect. In Robert Benchley, Ross was blessed with a humorist who always seemed to be wandering away for a browse far off the premises, and the astonishing brevity with which Benchley managed to make his ridiculous excursions not only upheld the principle of less-as-more but also seemed to satirize the woolgathering of oldfangled essayists.
It is the children of the frontier, vulgar and insolent, who seem to be in charge of the humor business again.
Mind you, I do not insist that this is what Benchley was consciously up to. I don’t know what Benchley was consciously up to, and maybe he didn’t either, and it doesn’t matter because the result was so totally and satisfyingly absurd.
Harold Ross’s triumph encouraged American humorists to concentrate on producing small, highly polished gems. Though a few of the magazine’s stars like Peter De Vries also wrote comic novels, what made it special were its short humor sketches, short stories in the style of James Thurber, the flawlessly casual essay style set by E. B. White, and S. J. Perelman’s hilariously savage but always meticulously wrought assaults on the frauds of American life. The ultimate New Yorker product is Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It comes as near perfection as it is possible to reach without poetry. Even if you have read it before, you’ve probably forgotten how good it is. Try it again.