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- Published on Amazon.com
"BBA" = The Big Book of New American Humor, The Best of The Past 25 Years, William Novak & Moshe Waldoks, Eds.; HarperPerennial [HarperCollinsPublishers] (1990 Paperback; 342 Big & I Mean BIG Pages)
"Kelly Oxford @Kelly" [etc.] (N.Y. Post, March 31, 2014)
--- "Someone please put a maraschino cherry on top of Shirley Temple's casket."
Remember when comedians had to create something slightly longer (not necessarily funnier) than what passes for humor today --- the Anemic/Bulimic Twitter/Tweet (Average weight: 0.0001 Oz.) punch line?
Things... like this?
A DELP FOODIE REVIEW
"I have been to The Library Restaurant many times with friends & we usually had nice experiences. But the night before last, four years ago, WELL! That will be the LAST time our feets will fail us now by ever stepping foots inside there again.
"I was escorting my usual soggy friends on an evening out on the town. There was NO waitress at the Library, so we had to go up to the bar every time we needed food & drink.
"After hours of sitting there, eating & drinking & ripping the satin on the pool table with our butter knives & covering up the tears with the butter & allowing more friends flashing the Secret Club Sandwich handshake to join us, the manager stormed over to our huge table indoors at the same time it was raining in Delaware what a coincidence & yelled at us --- saying that everything we ordered would be on ONE bill at the end of the night.
"This was not a problem, but the way he attacked us, talked down to us & insulted my friends, that was a problem but did nothing to diminish our appetites. So we kept going to the bar because, tragically, there was still no waitress to serve the customers.
"The Manager never let up! He continued raving like a lunatic. We didn't have NO problem. We will never know what his was. Lunatics with problems continue to rave like this, in my opinion.
"So he kept on yelling, this time at himself while facing the mirror behind the bar. When he got tired of doing that, he resumed tirading at those friends of mine who wanted to diplomatically close out their tabs at the bar.
"His mind had been lost. Just in case, I consulted the orderly contents of my wallet to see when I had last had a rabies shot.
"The other bartenders - who had refused to work as waitresses because they were all red-blooded males wearing standard University of Albany size 2 dresses - apologized & took care of our bills as Mr. Mind Lost Control stormed out of The Library, got into his truck, slammed the doors that he had not opened in his successful bid to get behind the wheel of his vehicle, & drove off with his brakes still engaged.
"Which sounded awful.
"Customers were stunned. Where were his People Skills?!
"Meanwhile, while we had been distracted by The Great Escape, the local volunteer fire department had finally sent 50 waitresses over to serve the food.
"And there they were, trying to placate an angry swarm of Librarians while holding massive trays of pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras with tomato-apple jam, aged sherry aioli, bacon & warm house-made brioche, left over from St. Patrick's Day.
"At which point, we went on a hunger strike.
"Which was a shame because, by now, we would have been in the mood to order 9,000 spinach wraps & they would have made A LOT of money.
(Obese Restaurant Critic)
Despite some notable misfires, overall, "The Big Book of New America Humor" anthology is a winner. Why? Opinions about what's funny/what's not are notoriously subjective & here's one more.
Comedy's shelf life usually is as durable as the life of a Pleiades shooting star, so taking a chance on yesterday's humor can end up with an irate buyer tossing his bad bet. In this respect, "Big" passes the test. In it, by & large, what was funny 24 years ago is still funny today.
Big Book is also a great thing to have in reserve on the nights when we're sitting in a Broadway theatre at 7:50 p.m. & should instantly know what is going to happen when the curtains open when this is overheard:
"Wow! What great seats! And they were still available only 24 hours before Opening Night!"
(Thank you, Town Hall.)
Which Big Book artists & writers provide delight?
Mad magazine's star illustrator Mort Drucker is backed up by Russ Cooper, the librettist (yes I can say that) of "If Different Comedians Told The Same Joke (There's a fly in my soup)."
Steven Wright: "I heard about this restaurant... had reservations... but I went anyway..." (p. 4).
Additional "fantasy stand-ups" about The Backstroking Fly are spoofs of Dana Carvey, Robin Williams, Rodney Dangerfield, Yakov Smirnoff & others (dirty old man Dave also made the cut fair & square. Back then, he was funny).
"Big" also proves that another has-been, Gary Trudeau ("Doonesbury," p. 10) back then knew what he was doing & did it very well:
"Zonker, about your love child with Mrs. Gorbachev-"
Veronica Geng - abysmally represented in the expensive, crashing bore, "Fierce Pajamas, An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker" - sings a torch song about her clandestine affair with Mao-Tse Tung in "My Mao" (p. 18):
" ' Why don't you ever introduce me to your friends?' I asked. The Chairman made no reply, & I feared being pushy."
"Roger Devill" (David Buskin?) contributed a wonderful Christmas office party parody, "Greetings, Names" (1986; p. 30):
"Charo's pregnant; Who beguiled her? Cornell's Wilde but Thorton's Wilder!"
[From a 2006 interview with television writer Merrill Markoe. Q: "Do most late-night talk show writers dream of being guests on the show one day? A: I think they probably do dream of being a guest. And it's not such an impossible dream. When you work on a talk show you find out that guests are canceling at the last minute on a daily basis. . The producer of Johnny Carson's show once said to me,'There is a point during the week where Charo starts to look very good to you.' "]
Joe Queenan has a wicked but not dastardly wit:
"With the possible exceptions of... the League of Scintillating Philadelphia Conversationalists, there is probably no fraternity smaller than..." ("A Who's Who Whodunit," p. 31).
(It's also a reminder that a strong opening sentence is a writer's best friend.)
Matt Groening ("Life In Hell," p. 64). Some 13 years later, his "The Simpsons" turned into a typical Hellish Hollywood-Faustian garbage disposal unit. But in 1990, we didn't know that this would happen.
The announcement will be made any day now that Groening has won the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Homer, in the show's 50th year, will be opening Duff beer cans with it).
Dave Barry's reprinted columns are excellent (pp. 66, 233, 236 & 262). They were written long before -
The advent of his lazy/fatally predictable "gimmick" conclusions: Always ending a story with a sardonic "wraparound" reference to an event that had occurred in the middle of it, or some twist along this line; &
Barry's later appalling affiliation with vulgarity, which more or less took root at the same time that Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" became unwatchable for the same reason.
The cartoons of George Booth ("Poor Daddy, off on another business trip," p. 71) - of which 15 would have been better than the too few selected. Evidently, there was also a critical mission underway to reward failure (see Roz Chast, below, "Drawbacks").
David Lloyd's masterpiece comedy sitcom script - yes I know that sounds impossible - "Chuckles Bites The Dust" (from the Mary Tyler Show; p. 79) is also a grim reminder that nothing like it today can be produced unless it meets with the approval of Kardashian Inc.
Bruce Jay Friedman's "Lonely Guys" ("They tend to be a little bald... Buck Henry. Guys like that...Women can be Lonely Guys too... [those] who are sensitive but are trapped inside lovely faces & bodies") --- is positioned perfectly next to one of "The Jokes" (p. 124).
The book is salted liberally with these things, Extra Legible Bold Type/Inside Margin Positioned / Blue Lined /Meals Ready To Eat Generic Jokes. None of them are attributed to a writer because an old show biz cliché finally came true: They wrote themselves.
Most are very good. Some, I suspect, were written prior to 1965, decades before the day when Bob Hope would only be famous for his name being the most desirable blind pick out of the hat in the ODPs (Office Death Pools).
And a surprising number of them, with their ability to ignite bursting-out-loud laughter, have more punch than the work of the identified contributors.
The one anchored next to "Lonely Guys" I would quote, but it's the sort of joke that dies an instant death if not viewed in its native habitat (so see p. 125).
Some stink. A businessman in Arkansas (negative adverb) who was one of Bill Clinton's first boosters is the subject of a joke in which he meets the Pope. Somehow, Wonder Bread is also a key ingredient in this earthquake of mirth.
Much better - & FOR ADULTS ONLY - is the following (p. 234; slightly edited).
"A cop is driving along & sees a car in front of him weaving all over the road.
"He flags down the driver & says, 'Lady, you're not driving straight. Did you have too much to drink? Let me see your license.'
"He looks at it & says, 'Okay, Mary Kowalski - that's Polish, right?'
"As she nods her head, the officer unzips his fly.
" 'Oh no,' she says. 'Not another Breathalyzer test!' "
Bruce Feirstein's "Female Dating Styles Through The Ages" (p. 132) demonstrates how much better Saturday Night Live could have been in past years had he been allowed to work at 30 Rock for at least as long as Jean Doumanian.
Ian Praiser (not Ian Frazier) & Howard Gewirtz's script for a "Taxi" episode, "Take My Ex-Wife, Please" (p. 139) is the best writing in the book, period. It's funny & then serious - then hilarious & then deadly serious - & before disintegrating into mush, it then regains its balance with a fateful, touching conclusion. Even if you don't buy this book, try & find this script elsewhere.
P.C. Vey's cartoon is BRILLIANT (p. 143); as is also B. Cliban's lady exclaiming, "So YOU'RE the one who was doing that!" (p. 293).
"One Night Stand" (p. 155-58) is a comic masterpiece. The name of the artist/writer is prominent, yet illegible (which is somewhat comparable to the situation in which the identity of the father remains unknown after these things run their course).
"ONS" appears to be the work of Shary Flenniken, whose spaced-out profile on Wikipedia appears to be the work of Jean Doumanian.
My God, even Robert Mankoff ("The Omen," p. 148) back then had a sense of humor.
--- His justifiable response: "YOU survive six years of the Tina Brown regime & THEN we'll discuss who's still 'funny' - or not."
--- Mankoff was not likely amused in 1990 to see that the hot comedy tyro Matt Groening's name was on "Big's" back cover in "Bold Type," while the long-established "Robert Mankoff" was in "No Type."
(Proof that irreversible logic exists is to be found in "Big's" table of contents, where the writers & the titles of their work are listed --- but not that of the cartoonists, who are simply identified in a perfunctory alphabetical order.)
Say, whatever did happen to the wonderful Steven Wright ("The Other Side of The Ice," p. 172), who delighted us with his dead-pan drollery?
---"I got up the other day & everything in my apartment had been stolen & replaced with an exact replica."
Please don't say, "Branson, Missouri."
Even though there's a good reason for it, I had never heard of Ronnie Shakes ("My Shrink Sends Me Hate Mail," p. 189):
"Girlfriend didn't just fake orgasms. She lip synched them..."
Read the rest of it & you won't need a shrink anymore. Then send him to me.
Francis Levy's excellent (people just get tired of typing "superb") "The Unspeakables... Tonight's Episode: The Albert Camus Story" (p. 190) made me appreciate the recent reading of a biography of Ottoline Morrell, who was not a mushroom in any sense of the word other than when she found Bertrand Russell physically attractive.
The voluntary demise of Bill Watterson's "Calvin & Hobbes" cartoon strip was the HMS Titanic of my generation.
Nora Ephron's "My First Husband" (p. 279) is absolute proof that once or twice a century, talented people are allowed to have something to do with making good movies.
I stormed out of Town Hall recently, aghast that a program of Broadway musical hit tunes could be something that migrated from a Secaucus church basement theatre.
Why could it not have been, instead, a revival of Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues"? (the hilarious "Temple of Fire," p. 283).
Calvin Trillin ("Alice, Let's Eat," p. 306) made me fall out of bed laughing when he suggested that I renew my New Yorker magazine subscription & send a birthday card this year to Mr. Sulzberger. Imagine a HUMORIST coming up with such ideas!
Now, for the drawbacks.
To make a short story short, there's a Roz Chast cartoon in there, somewhere. If the doctors thought along these lines, they'd abandon the cure for scurvy.
You Might Want To Know That: The price of the book in 1990 was $17.00 & the publishers would have had to charge $100 to be able to buy enough ink so that all of the text could be readable.
Ergo, a sizeable chunk of "Big" --- unless manually highlighted with either dozens of Sharpie "Hot Mama Yellow" markers or illuminated with an Army surplus anti-aircraft spotlight --- is barely legible.
Now, this may just be an isolated instance of personal bad luck.
I had bought a used copy. During its previous ownership regime, it may have been escorted in chains up to the tenement roof to provide some amusement for its owner during the summer tanning sessions - during which time, exposure to copious amounts of sunlight may have "faded" the print.
The upside is that this also neutralized the editors' selections of the "funny" (seriously, they used that word) written by the following artists:
Woody Allen (Cringe! "No Thanks!"); Marshall Brickman (employs Brasso between & above the ears);
Ian Frazier ("Thanks For The Memory," p. 13) is a funny guy until he starts thinking that he's funny & that's when the lights go out.
He's also a "serious" writer (seriously) whose book on exploring Siberia in the 1990s --- in a truck extracted from the Lady Di tunnel smash-up, given $90 worth of rehab work & then shipped for resale to St. Petersburg --- was a masterpiece just waiting to happen until some idiot editor fiddled with the manuscript & added all that crap about Alaska.
[Look, just because New Jersey is physically close by Manhattan & the two areas are separated by an awesome body of water upon which many shared historical experiences have occurred doesn't mean that a book about Manhattan has to start out with a chapter about visiting Hackensack, does it?!]
Fortunately for Ian & for most of us who enjoyed most of the book, "Siberia" survived this nonsense & it became the 18th million New York Times non-fiction bestseller since they started keeping track of these things three weeks ago.
It was subsequently assigned reading in Driver's Ed courses in Paris.
[Do not confuse I.F. with "Ian Praiser" (see "Take My Ex-Wife, Please," above).]
Mel Reiner & Carl Brook's 1-, 2- & 3- "Thousand Year-Old Man" skits (ALL of them) make the 1950s "Humor Is The Best Medicine" feature from the Reader's Digest look like the second coming of S.J. Perelman. Mel, this is the reason why it took you 500 years to get financing for "Blazing Saddles."
Caldwell The Cartoonist (p. 80) should have stayed in the sub-prime real estate market.
An unspeakably sick man, Nick Downes, by now undoubtedly is on work-release parole from Supermax (Cartoon: Santa Claus threatening the life of a child, p. 91).
Don Novella's "Dear Mars Team" is useful if you need to know what the price of a gallon of gas was in 1976 (p. 123).
Where did George Carlin ("A Place For..." p. 192) get infected with the thought that saying the word "stuff" 200 times in one routine would be amusing? In the act of satirizing stupidity, he turned into it.
Jack Handey (was that ever a real person?) is the ultimate proof that ANYONE can get work on television (p. 196). Thirty-five years later, his one-time success is also a reflection of the current nightmares of network executives, horrified that their audiences are now skewing to demos in which the youngest age is about eighty-one.
Tony Hendra, co-author of "The Book of Creation," has written funnier stuff ghosting obituaries for the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce. What hallucination was responsible for THAT selection? ("Deteriorata," p. 224).
Same for Merrill Markoe ("What The Dogs Have Taught Me," p. 202).
It amazes me that the editors didn't notice that Anders Henriksson ("Life Reeked With Joy") had diarrhea of the wit (p. 231).
Memo to cartoonist Skip Morrow: Figure out who logically says what. "Don't Laugh - You're Next!" only works as a Dumb Blonde Joke (p. 235).
Copy editors, beware! Commas & semi-colons are not interchangeable. The blurb on the back of the book:
"William Novak is probably best known as the ghostwriter for the memoirs of Lee Iacocca, the Mayflower Madam..."
And wrapping up what I found deplorable about a book that I'm quite glad I bought (on the advice of B.J. Robbins, of California, who gets 100% of the credit for something that went right, which doesn't happen all that often around here)...
"Insurance Claim #233" (pp. 105-06; anon.) is a rip-off of the great Fred Allen's "Insurance Company," which follows.
It is from an obscure & incompetently (& how!) edited book, "fred allen's letters" - the small case letters are ill-advised but exist anyway - published in 1965 after Fred had passed away years earlier (please see my Amazon review posted on June 06, 2011).
Fred was fanatical about writing his own material (the resulting stress aged him terribly & probably killed him). So it is assumed that "Insurance Company" is an original work. Minor grammatical errors were silently corrected.
June 18, 1932
State of New York Insurance Department
Office of the Special Deputy Superintendent
Liquidation of A Policy of the Southern Surety Co. of New York
111 John Street, New York City
The soullessness of corporations is something to stun you...
Let me review my case.
I carry an accident insurance policy in the ...Indemnity Company, by terms of which the company agreed to pay me $25 a week during which time as I was prevented from working because of an accident.
I went around last Sunday morning to a new house that is being built for me. I climbed the stairs, or rather the ladder that is there where the stairs will be when the house is finished, & on the top floor I found a pile of bricks which were not needed there. Feeling industrious, I decided to remove the bricks.
In the elevator shaft there was a rope & pulley, & on one end of the rope was a barrel. I pulled the barrel up to the top, after walking down the ladder & then fastening the rope firmly at the bottom of the shaft.
Then I climbed the ladder again & filled the barrel with bricks. Down the ladder I climbed again, five floors, mind you, & untied the rope to let the barrel down.
The barrel was heavier than I was & before I had time to study over the proposition, I was going up the shaft with my speed increasing at every floor. I thought of letting go of the rope, but before I had decided to do so, I was so high that it seemed more dangerous to let go than hold on, so I held on.
[The 1st Accident]
Halfway up the elevator shaft, I met the barrel of bricks coming down. The encounter was brief & spirited. I got the worst of it but continued on my way toward the roof - that is, most of me went on, but much of my epidermis clung to the barrel & returned to earth.
[The 2nd Accident]
Then I struck the roof at the same time the barrel struck the cellar. The shock knocked the breath out of me & the bottom out of the barrel.
Then I was heavier than the empty barrel, & I started down while the barrel started up.
[The 3rd Accident]
We went & met in the middle of our journey & the barrel uppercut me, pounded my solar plexus, barked my shins, bruised my body & skinned my face. When we became untangled, I resumed my downward journey & the barrel went higher.
[The 4th Accident: His crashing to the ground.]
I was soon at the bottom. I stopped so suddenly that I lost my presence of mind & let go of the rope.
[The 5th Accident]
This released the barrel which was at the top of the elevator shaft & it fell five floors & landed squarely on top of me, & it landed hard too.
Now, here is where the heartlessness of the... Indemnity Company comes in.
I sustained five accidents in two minutes. One on my way up the shaft, when I met the barrel of bricks, the second when I met the roof, the third when I was descending & I met the empty barrel, the fourth when I struck the barrel, & the fifth when the barrel struck me.
But the insurance man said that it was one accident not five & instead of receiving payment for injuries at the rate of five times $25.00, I only get one $25 payment.
I therefore enclose my policy & ask that you cancel the same as I made up my mind that henceforth I am not to be skinned by either barrel or/& an insurance company.
Yours sincerely & regretfully,
And that is that.