From Robert Benchley To Andrew Dice Clay

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The New Yorker doesn’t count for so much in the humor business these days. It is the children of the frontier, vulgar and insolent, shocking and rude, who seem to be in charge again. They live a million light-years from Thurber, White, Benchley, and Perelman. The totemic magazine of the new era has been National Lampoon . Writers who grew up working on it, or just loving it, now set the standards of what’s funny, and what’s funny nowadays would have got an even cooler reception than Mark Twain at the old New Yorker .

At the moment Americans seem to prefer everything, including humor, “in your face.” I’m not sure what an American expects to have done “in your face” that is so entertaining, but I believe it is supposed to be something perfectly uncouth and therefore—such is the level of popular expectation here at the end of the century—exhilarating and delightful.

Today’s wit is as subtle as a bladder slapped across the buttocks. The language is blue. The jokes are leers. Crude insult passes as satire. And often, as old Lampoon addicts and “Saturday Night Live” fans know, the ham-fisted assault of it all can be irresistibly funny.

You can propound dozens of explanations for the change. The courts have ended old taboos on crude language and expanded the public’s right to abuse practically everybody. The collapse of public education was bound to end the demand for highly literate humor. There has been a breakdown in the American social contract. And so on. I prefer to think that there are cycles in American culture and that the old frontier tradition has simply come around again in humor, just as it has in gunplay. At its worst, today’s humor makes you fearful about what may happen to the kiddies if you don’t take them away from all this. At its best, it gives us most of the elements that produced Mark Twain. As those spoiled twerps in the beer commercial say, it doesn’t get any better than that.

This essay was adapted from the introduction to Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor , published this month by W. W. Norton. The anthology will embrace both the genteel and rowdy traditions, but not James Russell Lowell’s Biglow Papers : “Encountering these in college many years ago,” Baker explains, “I swore to , have my vengeance though it should take me a lifetime. ”