May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Here, I’m sorry to say, is my grandfather’s favorite joke: An elderly couple used to wear the same pair of dentures on alternate days. One evening the wife comes home from a tea party and hands the dentures over to her husband. The husband snaps them into place and then sits for a moment, smacking his lips.
“Goody, goody!” he exclaims. “Macaroons!” Perhaps we should not pass judgment on our ancestors’ laughter, for nothing ages faster than humor. Nevertheless I nominate for most overrated American humorist Charles Farrar Browne (1834–67), a failed reporter who inexplicably stole the name of my Revolutionary War relation. As “Artemus Ward” he wrote interminable pieces in a tortured Irishy dialect that apparently delighted not just the Know-Nothings of the mid-nineteenth century but such better angels as Lincoln and Twain.
Go figure. “Every man has got a Fort,” begins one of his much-beloved sketches. “It’s sum men’s fort to do one thing, and some other men’s fort to do another, while there is numeris shiftless critters goin round loose whose fort is not to do nothin. Shakspeer rote good plase, but he wouldn’t hav succeeded as a Washington correspondent of a New York daily paper. He lackt the rekesit fancy and imagginashun. That’s so!” And so on. To the horror of his Secretary of War, Lincoln used to read this stuff to his cabinet and just about die laughing, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with Stanton on this one.
I doubt if some future Hal Holbrook will ever contrive to impersonate Charles Farrar Browne in a one-man show, but if Lincoln is looking down upon us now, he will no doubt be just as puzzled by my choice for most underrated humorist, or, in this case, humorists—namely, Bob Elliott and the late Ray Goulding, known to radio audiences as Bob and Ray. Trying to recapitulate one of their routines will probably be another case of macaroons, but I remember one in which Ray played the world’s shortest man as a touchy attorney with a basso-profundo delivery. The little guy objects with wounded dignity when Bob describes him to his listening audience as standing eleven inches tall in his stocking feet, “and cute little stockings they are.” Over the course of the next couple of minutes, Bob blithely avoids asking anything one might actually want to know about the logistics of the little fellow’s day-to-day life and elicits instead his recipe for a tiny Manhattan cocktail.
Bob and Ray’s best work was as droll and light-footed as anything Thurber gave us, or Benchley, or Perelman. Yet you won’t find it in any of the collections of American literary humor I’ve seen. Perhaps this is because the compilers would actually have to transcribe it from tapes, which is a lot of work.