Collections of American Humor: The Five Best Books

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Adam Gopnik headlined “Five Best: Collections of American Humor”:

The Road to Miltown
By S.J. Perelman (1957)

S.J. Perelman was unique among writers of humor, of any period, because his writing was a record of his reading. Imprinted for life by the pulp fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Sax Rohmer, that Perelman had read as a boy, he engaged in a constant comparison of bookish romance with the ever-growing vulgarity of American life, particularly as it was expressed on Broadway, in Hollywood and in advertising—the terrible triumvirate of midcentury American culture. That he got so much satiric energy out of such mordant material is a tribute to the lexical intensity—the extent of his vocabulary and his ability to pick out of it the one right word—of his almost Joycean literary gift….

The Thurber Carnival
By James Thurber (1945)

James Thurber was for a long time the unquestioned top humorist, and his best work was truly popular, but his subjects—the squabbles of upper-middle-class marriage—are said to be dated. They’re not. His two great inventions, the Thurber husband and the Thurber wife, though born in another time, acutely describe what happens to a male unable to fulfill the assigned patriarchal role, and to a woman compelled to shrink into a conventionally feminine one. Seen this way, they are as sharp a portrait of the absurdities of gender stereotyping as we’ve ever had. Thurber also got more good writers going than any writer I know of because his style, unlike Hemingway’s, is simple without being affected and therefore seems entirely a matter of tone rather than craft….

Love Trouble
By Veronica Geng (1999)

Veronica Geng took the classic form of the satiric casual, as Perelman had perfected it, and turned it inside out, made it ironic and self-conscious and resistant to ordinary ideas of humor. Her basic formula was to propose a classically unlikely collision of sensibilities—say, Ronald Reagan and Proust—while eliminating anything that might be taken for a joke. Satire could go no further in the direction of art without ceasing to be comic at all—and yet her pieces remain, at heart, sweetly, winsomely flirtatious.

The Complete Prose of Woody Allen
By Woody Allen (1991}

Woody Allen put himself together by reading and pastiching Perelman—and, more marginally, Robert Benchley—but his best pieces are still miracles of perfect conception and, unusual in humor, of dramatic form. To read of the adventures of Madame Bovary in New York, in “The Kugelmass Episode,” or to contemplate with him what it might have been like if the Impressionists had been dentists, is to experience something close to comic perfection….

The Most of Nora Ephron
By Nora Ephron (2013)

Nora Ephron’s work has become so popular—a popularity that she herself sought—that she has perhaps become a touch underestimated as a pure writer….She is always funny not because of Perelmanesque accomplishments or arabesques of style—her style remained straightforward, classic Esquire-magazine direct—but for the acute intelligence and bracing truthfulness of her writing….She is the master of practical humor, humor with a point. Like Geng and Perelman, or for that matter Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, if with less self-conscious literary craft, she listened to the sounds of her time to make the shapes of her sentences.

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