H U M O R, C O M E D Y, A N D S I L L Y
Humor and comedy are often thought of as synonymous, but this is an unhappy confusion misapplied by most Toms, Dicks, Harrys, and even Websters. My dictionary plays too loosy-goosy with the terms, and, in an act of ignorance or cowardice, describes Dorothy Parker and James Thurber merely as “writers,” but does describe Mark Twain and S. J. Perelman correctly as humorists. Dotty Parker, well known for her fine and crude distinctions, is quoted as saying, “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” In her introduction to The Most of S. J. Perelman, she comments, “Humor to me, Heaven help me, takes in many things. There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind.” Laugh at calisthenics: laugh, be bemused, and think, because wit and humor work on your mind.
(Shep’s performance, my dialog. Note that, as silly as the image seems,
the performance is a virtuoso expression of knuckles-on-head.)
The distinction he made was the difference between those who told jokes, producing funny lines with great frequency, and those such as himself, who build up an amusing situation, a take on the human condition and what he called human foibles. As these observations sometimes blindside us, we become a bit discombobbled, and, in retrospect, I hope, a bit wiser. Comical matter goes in one head and out the other (Thanks for this visual/mental image, Roger Price, a good friend of Shep’s).
[As I proofread this essay before posting it, I saw that I’d typo-ed: “Roger Price, a good friend of Sheep’s.” It should be: “Roger Price, a good friend of sheep.”]
For this book, Price’s price= $.100
(My mother and I laughed out loud lots while reading this book.)
Humor remains and sets us thinking about what we, as a human species, are all about. Humor amuses and leaves a persistent tickle in the mind. (In his book’s commentary about George Ade, Shepherd wrote that, regarding one of Ade’s ironic stories, “It is wise to note that the man who told the story obviously loved both of them.”)
Shepherd said that one difference is “the longevity of humor versus the short-time value of comedy.” Comedy is, one way or another, sort of wise cracks that produce a laugh because of some surface turn; humor tends to suggest some inherent aspect of the human condition. Way back in the October 1960 issue of that subversive/funny/ significant, and therefore underground, periodical, The Realist, he commented that in comedy, the laugh was the end product, while with humor, “the laugh is the byproduct of what you’re doing.” He seemed especially prone to make these distinctions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, probably because many of his peers were making it big nation-wide on television and with recordings by using their hip and astute cleverness in comedy routines that far outpaced, in popularity, his more contemplative style, which required time to build toward a more solid and long-lasting humorous effect.
“Speaking of serious comedy–
take my joke–please!”
Seriously Funny by Gerald Nachman covered much of the clever, modern comic field with chapters on: Mort Sahl; Sid Caesar; Tom Leher; Steve Allen; Stan Freberg; Ernie Kovacs; Lenny Bruce; Godfrey Cambridge; The Smothers Brothers; Mel Brooks; Dick Gregory; David Frye, Vaughn Meader, Will Jordan; Woody Allen; Bill Cosby; Phyllis Diller; Jonathan Winters; Jean Shepherd, Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding [Note that where there are commas separating names, those people share a chapter], Shelly Berman, Mike Nichols and Elaine May; Bob Newhart; Joan Rivers. Each chapter has an amusingly relevant title: the Shep/Elliot/Goulding one, relating to the medium of radio: “Out of Thin Air.”
Although not filled with rapid-fire jokes as were most of the comedians, a Shepherd creation often results not only in bemused nods of recognition, but in outright smiles and full-fledged belly laughs. Besides which, as I noted in years past, those others and their cohorts decades ago lost their momentary–though highly deserved– stranglehold on our interest, while good ol’ Shep, with what must now be a self-satisfied smirk from the beyond, perseveres in widespread books, tapes, CDs, videos, a blog, and websites, as well as, more to the point, in the disposition and world view of those who take to their hearts and minds his “voice in the night.”
PART WON OF TOO. *
* “won” =”We persevered in the first of these fights,”
“too”=”We hope to win Part 2 also.”
[ Shep claimed he hated puns, but he produced a couple of corkers himself.]
“WE STAND SILENT AND IN AWE AT THE SHEER SHIMMERING, UNEXPECTED BEAUTY OF THE ‘MAJOR AWARD.’”
–Shep’s narration in A Christmas Story.
The honored, first Artsy Fartsy subject (See, this first one actually relates directly to Shep), comes from Shepherd’s first book of stories, IGWTAOPC, the story, “The Old Man’s Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” The “old man” in Shep’s published tale entered a contest by a soda pop company: “The company trademark, seen everywhere, was a silk-stockinged lady’s leg, realistically flesh-colored, wearing a black spike-heeled slipper. The name of this pop was a play on words, involving the lady’s knee.”
Many fans of Shepherd, and especially those who love his movie A Christmas Story, have their own full-size leg lamp replica that they put in the living room window every Christmas season.
I bought the smaller, $50 version. To my surprise, my wife–not a Shepherd fan but she loves the movie–suggested that we install it in the living room window all year round.
She plugged the leg into a timer so that as daylight fades the lamp turns on,
giving our front window every night of the year the glow of electric sex.
“Artsy-fartsy individuals tend to be unemployed and enjoy finger-painting.”