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Humor book fascinating and funny

 


There was once a Golden Age of Comedy in this country. No, this is not it. For anyone interested in great comedy, you should read a great book on comedy, and that’s David Misch’s Funny: The Book—Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Comedy (not to be confused with Funny: The Movie or Funny: the Algebra Equation, neither of which exist).

Misch’s writing is fall-off-your-chair funny, and I’m surprised it doesn’t come with a warning to read it only on a futon. But it’s more: any book that can reference flatulence and Kierkegaard in almost the same breath while providing real scholarly background and a cogent analysis of why humans laugh—along with an Andrew Sarris-like pantheon of comedy greats—is an invaluable contribution to the field. Honestly, I don’t know a more literate and hysterically funny resource on the topic.

Misch begins his comic sojourn with an overview of the mythic Trickster throughout history, expertly demonstrating how humor has developed in time through the varied cultural connections with that figure and its expressions. It’s a kind of Campbellian Hero Journey from the perspective of “Ha,” which is appropriately included in the chapter title. Misch returns to the history of Ha repeatedly in his book, chronicling its mirthful twists and turns in culture and philosophy. But for those who anticipate reading such chapters while drooling in a classroom as Ben Stein intones mind-numbing history, fear not. “Ha” is both a subject and a response while reading.

Funny: The Book also covers pretty much every field of comedy, centering rightly on the great comic progenitors whose work established the basis from which comedy has evolved (or devolved, as many would argue). He appropriately cites Keaton (Buster, not Diane) as the giant of the silent film era and helps the reader understand the huge talent that went into his archetypal work. He remind us that Woody Allen was as prodigious a talent in his literary masterpieces (perhaps more so) as he was in film. He recounts such landmark figures and works as Aristotle (back when when he headlined the Acropolis), the Marx Brothers, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, The Front Page, Harvey, A Thousand Clowns, Mork and Mindy (for which Misch wrote), The Office, and a zillion or two other fascinating examples. The only striking omission for me is the absence of one comic icon: I’d like to have seen a discussion of Preston Sturges, writer, director, creator of such milestones as Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and several others and one of the leading exemplars of screwball comedy. But this is minor when compared with the wealth of historical perspective Misch offers in one convenient and laugh-laden volume.

Perhaps the most compelling feature of Funny: The Book is its daring and rewarding exploration of the mystic aspects of humor. In a pair of remarkable chapters, Misch reveals the purpose and theology of humor from a more enlightened and transcendent viewpoint, one which still accommodates flatulence. “A laugh is a miniature ecstatic epiphany,” Misch writes. “Every titter is a tiny taste of transcendence; every giggle a glancing glimpse of God.” Bold words, especially for many in the contemporary camps of comedy for whom a laugh is a buck or merely a form of self-therapy at the expense of others.

I admire Misch for his stand, his research, his comprehensive overview of the sprawling terrain of humor. Be advised that the book does not flinch from language that might be offensive to some. Notwithstanding, Misch has done all who care about laughter and laughing an enormous service.

 

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