Making a List, Spell-Checking It Twice

For the Love of Cheese
Might Magazine
Boulevard Books

What NOT to Name Your Baby
Andy Meisler and Michael Rey
Ten Speed Press

Do You Remember?
Michael Gitter and Sylvie Anapol
Chronicle Books

WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO LITERARY HUMOR? Anyway? Visit the humor section of any bookstore and you will not find much funny fiction. Oh, the better shops may have a Thurber collection, a Wodehouse or two, possibly a Tom Sharpe paperback. Mostly, what you will find will be recycled collections of newspaper cartoons that were barely amusing in the first place. And all 97 volumes of the “Tasteless Jokes” series.

The situation is getting worse. Paging through Publishers Weekly for upcoming releases reveals that the future of print humor is: Cats. And Dogs. These are a some of the actual titles you can expect to find filed under “Humor” in the coming season: Listening to Catnip: Stories From a Catanalyst’s Couch, Historical Cats, Bedtime Stories for Dogs, A Cat’s Christmas, Holiday Hounds: Songs for Festive Dogs, 101 Reasons Why Cats Make Great Kids. And, of course, let’s not forget Garfield, who, being both a cat and a cartoon represents the ne plus ultra of modern humor.

Ha. Ha.

Hardly anyone, it seems, is writing comical prose. And what work there is gets hidden in the overcrowded stacks of General Fiction, to be utterly ignored by everyone. It was only by happenstance that I stumbled across the funniest book of recent memory, Roddy Doyle’s hysterical The Commitments (Forget the movie, which completely missed the point, the book is a gut-buster). Likewise, the little-known works of Jay Cronley (Quick Change, Funny Farm) are routinely pushed off the shelf each time Clive Cussler releases a new volume.

Of course, who can blame an author for not wishing to have his work sandwiched between an oversize edition of For Better or Worse comics and the collected wisdom of a TV comedian.

In fact, since the death of P.G. Wodehouse, writers regularly producing amusing fiction have been scarce. Before he abandoned comic filmmaking, Woody Allen generated three slim volumes of very funny stories. He seems to have abandoned this as well.

I BLAME THIS SHIFT IN TASTE AND STYLE on the computer. (I blame everything on the computer, but that’s fodder for another day.) Compare humor styles before and after computers became ubiquitous.

In the typewriter-bound ’70s, the epitome of print humor was to be found in the National Lampoon. Though the magazine broke new ground in its use of language, attitude, and subject matter, in the main it still trafficked in the traditional form of wringing laughter from prose. If S.J. Perelman had toked up and wandered into the Lampoon offices, his material would have been welcomed. The Lampoon featured long stretches of paragraphs that one was expected to read. Chris Miller and John Hughes wrote lengthy stories with vivid characters.

By the ’80s, the Lampoon braintrust had dispersed and computers had begun appearing on desktops everywhere. Words were now to be processed. People began “interfacing” with “text,” searching and replacing and compiling backwards and forwards through their databases faster than the blink of an eye. Like ATMs replaced human interaction in the banking industry, digital thinking replaced analog. The advantages of direct access became apparent.

And so by the late ’80s, the epitome of print humor was Spy magazine. Taking a journalistic approach to comedy–or perhaps a comedic approach to journalism, the Spy editors married a sarcastic point of view with the Lexus/Nexus search engine to perfect the art of Statistical Humor. The magazine got laughs presenting the fine print in contracts. Verbatim. Transcripts of lawsuits were offered for our amusement. As USA Today had done with news, Spy condensed comedy into charts and graphs.

And it was funny. We are all now prisoners of the Information Age, and like any tyrant, our new master will be mocked. “Stories” with “characters” are relics of an agrarian age, when people had to amuse themselves around a campfire because there was no cable. In a machine-driven age, data rules. The modern humorist is a clever compiler. And so it is that the most common form of joke-telling today is the Top-Ten List.

And besides, as Chauncey Gardner agreed, “Who has time to read?”

All of which leads, finally, to the books at hand, which are largely list books. And, largely, funny.

What NOT to Name Your Baby (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley. 64 pp.) is perhaps the most noteworthy, because it accomplishes the most with the least. It is in fact merely a listing of names, with ’50s-era photos of babies in distress completing the illusion of an actual baby-naming book. Some names are intrinsically funny (Jor-el, Hortense), but authors Meisler and Rey have not merely slapped together a haphazard collection of ridiculous nomenclature. Working through the list reveals a fine and subtle agenda at work. In the girls section, Dee Dee, Gennifer, and Hillary share an uneasy proximity. Then the improbable Soon-Yi pops up. Kathie Lee might at one time have been perfectly acceptable–no more. La Toya, of course, was never a good choice. Likewise, in the boys section, we find the absurd Axl. But the eye almost passes completely by Orenthal before realization hits.

THIS BOOK PROVIDES A REAL SERVICE, though, when it suggests that no future baby girl should have to go through life as “Kennedy.”

For the Love of Cheese (Boulevard Books, 140 pp. $12) is subtitled, “A Celebration of All Things Cheesy; A Celebration of Life Itself!” Assembled by the editors of Might magazine, this is not a cookbook, but a report on “the very cement that holds this nation together.” Their cheese, like this country, is “everything big and flashy and shiny and squishy.”

There are grades of Might-style cheese. “Velveeta” is typical and tacky and “too obvious to care much about (Animal sidekick movies, fuzzy dice, white shoes, early Bette Midler). “Dorky” is a slight step up, but more to be pitied than scorned (Fern bars, Pictionary, screen savers). “Evil” cheese makes us shudder (being a vegetarian who only eats “chicken and fish,” car commercials that pretend that their assembly line workers love their jobs, Al D’Amato).

But the cheese that Cheese is most concerned with is “Supracheese.” Cheesy, but also fun, it is the “cheese we all share.” Cheese is not an attack on “big-hair-mall-rat-semi-suburban-morons.” The authors bravely admit, “It’s us.”

In tiny, tiny print, three columns to a page, the compilers insightfully sum up so much of the current condition in short, simple phrases. Their “Linnaean taxonomy” includes “Going Out Cheese” (dancing in front of the mirror naked, dancing in front of the mirror fully clothed, dancing in front of the mirror trying out a new dance, practicing your smile, practicing your laugh, putting a condom in your wallet “just in case”), “Political Cheese” (calling yourself a technocrat), “Corporate Cheese” (colored paperclips, the “I-don’t-know-what-to-say-to-you-because-I’ve-already-said-good-morning” smile and wink, employee discount clubs), “Sports Cheese” (Mascots, mascot antics, mascots frolicking with other mascots, mascots doing push-ups, mascots doing push-ups but then giving up after a few, ha ha), “Being in a Rock Band Cheese” (Closing your eyes while you sing; the “no-chicks-at-practice” rule; pointing to someone in the audience; being big in Japan), and many, many more.

An impressive work, but not entirely new. Steve Miller was on to the same thing when he shouted during the fade-out of his 1968 song, “Living in the U.S.A.,” “Somebody give me a cheeseburger!”

Do You Remember? (Chronicle Books, 144 pp $9.95) is funny insofar as one has a sense of humor about oneself. A compendium of pop culture icons, images, slogans, catchphrases, and fads, it catalogs decades of silliness–mostly Boomer-related, but also covering important talismans of Gen-X vintage: “Right foot yellow!,” “Cassius Clay,” “Jarts,” “Dyn-O-Mite!” Boldly designed, it would be an attractive coffee table book, except that it measures only 6 1/2 inches square.

The most useful aspect of Do You Remember is its index. How helpful it would be to have this one-stop guide to the fancies of the last 40 years digitized on a CD-ROM, where it could be searched at the click of a button. A serious lapse on the part of the publishers. This is, after all, the computer age. Print, as the great scientific genius Egon Spengler noted, is dead.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper

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