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Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward (P.S.) Paperback – 15 Dec 2011

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (15 Dec. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061825921
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061825927
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 1.5 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,228,433 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


“Warmly appealing . . . . This book’s long view, and its deep eccentricities, are what give it a burnished glow . . . . It’s a pleasure to sit around the gently crackling fire that is Mr. Johnson’s mind.” (New York Times)

“Johnson assembles a truly enlightening and readable history of humor.” (Washington Post)

“A rich set of essays . . . . Johnson casts a wide net and he hauls in good material . . . . Fine anecdotes, examples, and insights . . . . Handsomely written.” (The Economist)

“Johnson masterfully weaves a narrative line among the figures, many of whom don’t spring to mind as comic, with a deep appreciation for their wit in writing, filmmaking, painting, and living.” (Booklist (starred review))

From the Back Cover

In Intellectuals, Paul Johnson offered a fascinating portrait of the minds that have shaped the modern world. In Creators, he examined a host of outstanding and prolific creative spirits. And in Heroes, he brought together a galaxy of commanding figures from the annals of Western history. Now Johnson turns his impressive intellect and piercing insight to the finest wits of the Western world.

Humorists features fascinating and insightful biographical portraits of the greatest wits in history—a diverse cast of legendary funnymen who got a grand kick out of life. Johnson’s selective survey includes Benjamin Franklin and the Marx Brothers, Charles Dickens and Damon Runyon, W. C. Fields and Samuel Johnson, William Hogarth and James Thurber, and features their darkest humor, broadest satire, bawdiest wit, most biting sarcasm, and more. An entertaining and erudite collection, Humorists showcases some of our sharpest minds reflecting on the human condition—its follies, pretensions, and foibles—with that greatest of all gifts: humor.

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars 13 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humor's high priests and the fond pleasures they bring us yet 20 Jan. 2011
By joseph crowley - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
British author Mr. Johnson's longevity allowed him a personal acquaintance with several of the original humorists recounted in this delightful book. His erudite perspective allows inclusion of seminal figures such as Hogarth and Rowlandson from centuries prior to the 20th, as well. Each of the featured characters gets a chapter describing his or her (comedy is not only a man's game; Groucho Marx and W. C. Fields are joined by female wits such as Dorothy Parker and Nancy Mitford) role in the evolution of timeless amusements via stage, screen and in print.

The book's organization is ideal for the reader seeking to spend an hour or two at a sitting. The summation of each artist's era and impact is so thorough that it requires an index. At the conclusion of the book, Johnson leaves off with a helpful set of recommendations about the best reference works to consult on each of the principals. By the time a reader has reached that section, it is a sure bet that at least a few of these luminaries will capture his or her interest sufficiently to warrant deeper investigation.

The pleasure that Paul Johnson takes in his own erudition suffuses his book with a soaring sense of enjoyment that strikes a perfect note for such a treatment.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can we laugh at anyone? 6 Jan. 2011
By cxlxmx - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Continuing in his line of successful group biographies such as "intellectuals" and "heroes," Johnson gives us a series of short bios on humorists. The book is inconsistent. The introduction is a hilarious historical background to the subject, but the chapters are rather dry. Descriptions of visual art without reproductions are difficult to make interesting, but also there are well-told anecdotes. The last chapter turns into a digression on style and language and ends with the depressing but probably accurate observation that our current culture is too awfully serious and anti-humor.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Humor, in the broad sense 14 Dec. 2010
By Jon Hunt - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
If not for humor, where would we be? Paul Johnson has explored the tricky realm of it and has put together a book presenting characters of humor over the centuries. While not exactly the book I had expected, the author has many entries of note.

Beginning with the English painter William Hogarth, Johnson offers up a series of writers, other artists and actual comedians to describe humor during the last three hundred years. Description is the key word here as commenting about humor and experiencing it are two very different things. It's difficult to gauge the laughs one might find in Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson or Toulouse-Lautrec without seeing their works in front of you. Johnson is better when offering up comedic lines from Benjamin Franklin, say, or Noël Coward. These read well.

One gets the impression that Paul Johnson is a very funny man and his introduction is terrific. My only wish is that the rest of the book followed suit with more humor in its content.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a Blockhead 26 Aug. 2012
By Generic Personage - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"No man but a blockhead writes, except for money."
Paul Johnson quotes this aphorism of Samuel Johnson, and the book leaves one feeling that Paul Johnson lives by it. He wishes to write breezy pastiche, and has indeed found a way to be paid for it. More power to him.

Much of the humor described is public domain visual humor, but it seems neither Johnson nor his editor thought it desirable to illustrate the book. The chapter headings are not reliable indicators of the chapter's contents, which are discursive, subjective, and eclectic observations that often as not take the ostensible subject as more of a point of departure than a true "subject". The slapdash research standards suggest that Johnson wanted to get this manuscript delivered and get on to something else. For example, his chapter on Laurel and Hardy emphasizes their marital difficulties, but frankly confesses that he hasn't been able to find out whether they were married at their deaths.

All that said, I found the book entertaining and informative. Johnson has a deft and often original touch for capsulizing the wellsprings of his subjects' successes in the humor game. His verbal descriptions of visual art reveal a mind with a highly developed visual sensibility. A few more weeks of work in researching, writing, and illustrating this would have yielded an enduring critical contribution. What a pity.
5.0 out of 5 stars Fifteen Funny Folks 1 April 2015
By John W. Pearson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Warning! Watch your step today. It's April Fools' Day. This day of practical jokes and jokesters is celebrated in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Brazil and Canada. For book lovers in other countries, look it up on Wikipedia. And did you know that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was the most successful comic in history?

So today I bring you a very satisfying book/comedic journey from historian Paul Johnson who channels W.C. Fields: "We know what makes people laugh. We do not know why they laugh."

Johnson, with his unique style of short historical chapters, elegant writing, and deep insights, delivers a cavalcade of comedy--while spotlighting an amazing list of humorists and their secret formulas for making us laugh.

"Broadly speaking," says Johnson, "humor is a matter of chaos or character." So here's a little April Fools' Day dessert for my more discriminating readers who delight in tickling various funny bones (their own and others). Warning! If you are a public speaker and think yourself witty--think again.

LO! & LOL: ABRAHAM AND SARAH. Paul Johnson says "the Old Testament contains 26 laughs, which do not form any particular pattern or expand our knowledge of why people laugh. The first occurs in chapter 17 of the book of Genesis, and is the first time a case of laughter was recorded in words, about 1500 BC." (It's when God appeared to Abraham. "Lo! Sarah, thy wife, shall have a son!" Read Johnson or Genesis for the punch line!)

PRE-TWITTER: 1709-1784. "The sayings of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, which are memorable or at any rate remembered, amount to at least a thousand by my reckoning. The "Oxford Dictionary of Quotations" lists 276, which puts him fourth after Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Kipling."

"He would often say, Mrs. Thrale records, `that the size of a man's Understanding might always be known by his Mirth."

Johnson on Johnson: "For neatness, profundity, or aptness, pith, and force, they are an unrivaled collection."

The author has high regard for humor. If you've read Johnson's other books (including "Churchill" and Jesus: A Biography from a Believer.), you may be surprised. "In this series of books collecting together intellectuals, creators, and heroes, I reckon the comics are the most valuable."

DICKENS: EGREGIOUS AND ECCENTRIC. "Dickens was not a comic who raised a laugh by creating chaos. He was the other type: the comic who relies upon individual character. He looked at the mass of humanity and plucked out of it the egregious and the eccentric for our delight."

Chuckle along as you read Paul Johnson's pithy descriptions of Dickens' characters (more than 3,000 "adorn" Dickens' novels). And you'll be reminded of "the equally characteristic British device, the verbal running gag." (Were Leno or Lettermen devotees of Dickens?)

"He took trouble over the names of inanimate objects too, especially places." Names like: Slamjam Coffee House, Willing Mind tavern, and the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. "The Tilted Wagon inn is yet another invented pub: Dickens complained that `real inn names are so peculiar it is hard to outdo them.'"

BUT SERIOUSLY. On G.K. Chesterton, "He never made a joke against the female sex, as such, because to GKC the act of making a joke was one of the most serious decisions you could possibly make, on a par with publishing a political manifesto, or a declaration of war."

Chesterton remarked, "It is easier to make a man laugh at a bad joke, but more worthwhile to get a woman to laugh at a good joke."

GAG ME WITH A SHOE. Charlie Chaplin developed his craft (more than 50 gags) under Fred Karno, "probably the greatest instructor of every kind of comic talent who ever lived." Karno required six months to coach wanna-be comedians.

Chaplin: "The best gags are the simple ones which look easy but require the most rehearsal." Some of his best: funny walks in oversized shoes, stamp licking, and more.

Sadly...Chaplin--and many others featured in this rare book--"was scarred for life by a sad and impoverished childhood, which left him with a monumental self-pity."

Note: Johnson doesn't sugarcoat the dark side of these funny faces (Chaplin included). You may want to skip some chapters and profiles. Pastors, though, could profitably use the contrasts (hilarious versus hellish) in numerous sermons.

3 CLERGYMEN WALK INTO A BAR. If you're looking for a joke book, this is not it. If you'd enjoy a deep dive into a British historian's hunches on humor--have at it.

Johnson profiles 15 humorists including Benjamin Franklin, G.K. Chesterton, Toulouse-Lautrec, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, James Thurber, Noel Coward, and others. He includes Groucho's famous line, "I don't want to belong to a club which would have me as a member."

Let me close on this silly day with Johnson's commentary on political correctness gone amuck. "The future for humorists thus looks bleak, at the time I write this." (For example, here is NPR's headline today: "Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart's Replacement, Goes from Hero to Villain in 24 Hours.")

P.S. Begin reading at the back of the book with Johnson's four-page color commentary on how he came to write "Humorists." Insightful and quotable.
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