I haven’t come across a great many writers in my life who actually make me laugh out loud when I read their work, although I’m sure there are several I just haven’t read yet who would send me into fits of laughter with their words.
I’ve already singled out Neil Simon in a previous post as my comedy writing hero, but his work is really meant to be performed, and his words spoken aloud, rather than read (although the comic brilliance of his dialogue can also be appreciated when seen on the printed page, which is how I first became familiar with many of his plays).
Another favorite is S.J. Perelman, whose comic essays and short stories in The New Yorker and other magazines throughout the 1930s and ’40s have been collected and published in book form for decades. His absurdist puns and wordplay can also be found in the screenplays he co-wrote for two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horsefeathers.
Having already committed every line of those films to memory, I searched for and found a collection of Perelman’s written pieces in my high school library during my senior year. I sat down and was soon cackling loudly like an idiot as I read. I almost got thrown out for disturbing my fellow students, who were desperately trying to sleep.
So, as a writer myself, I’ve always aspired to write dialogue like Neil Simon, and prose like S.J. Perelman. Not much to ask, is it? I’ve got such a long way to go, and I’ll likely never get there, but I haven’t given up yet. The joy (and frustration) lies in the effort.
I now add to this short list the name Stephen Leacock. Why doesn’t that name ring a bell, you wonder? Why haven’t you seen him interviewed on TV, perhaps as a guest on a late-night talk show? To begin with, he died in 1944. And, he was Canadian (not that either factor is reason to relegate him to obscurity).
Leacock was born in England in 1869, but his family moved to Ontario when he was six. He spent much of his adult life as an academic, receiving a doctorate in political science and political economy at the University of Chicago, and spent many years as chair of the Department of Economic and Political Science at McGill University in Montreal. He began writing humorous fiction pieces to supplement his income, and in the early 20th century, became one of the most popular humorists in the English-speaking world.
I first became aware of his existence as I read an interview with Jack Benny for The Marx Brothers Scrapbook in the early 1970s, back when I was trying to satisfy my voracious appetite for all things Marx Brothers. While reminiscing about briefly touring with the brothers during their vaudeville days, Benny included this story:
“I would often pass Groucho’s dressing room. Sometimes I’d hear him laughing so I assumed he had company. Well, each time I passed I would hear him laugh and this went on in a couple of cities but I recall it started in Winnipeg. I became curious and the next time I passed and heard him laughing I knocked on his door. I figured that if he was laughing he couldn’t have a dame in there. So I go in and there he is alone reading a book. So I said, ‘How can you sit here alone and laugh at a book?’ ‘Well, Jack,’ he said, ‘I’m reading one of the funniest humorists I have ever come across. A fellow named Stephen Leacock. I’ve got with me the first book he wrote, titled Nonsense Novels, which you should read because once you do you’ll never stop wanting to read Leacock.’ I read the book and from then on I read every humorous book Leacock ever wrote. Groucho was right. He is the funniest humorist I have ever read. Sure there are others, Twain, Benchley, Perelman. But whoever I’ve liked they have always been second to Leacock. Groucho didn’t realize it but he made a big contribution to my life because ever since that time in his dressing room I’ve been reading Leacock. It’s a shame more people don’t know of him.”
For some reason, even I failed to pursue this writer, who had received such praise from two of the world’s greatest comedians. But his name stayed with me, if only in the deepest recesses of my mind.
Recently, while at my local library’s book sale, what did I happen to find but a 2005 reprinting of Nonsense Novels (originally published in 1911). It’s a collection of ten short stories, each story parodying a different style of fiction: the ghost story, detective story, shipwreck story, etc. and I couldn’t wait to read it.
My verdict? Groucho was right. Jack Benny was right. Leacock’s absurdly comical stories, his wordplay, and his talent for leading the reader to think a sentence is going one way before suddenly jumping in another direction–much like Perelman–had me nearly choking with laughter (and in public, too). Sure, there are a few words and phrases referring to everyday life of over a hundred years ago that aren’t as familiar to us now, but other than that, the book could have been written in the present day, by a writer who doesn’t pull his comedic punches. He demonstrates how you have to be quite clever to write something quite silly, which he does with wonderful consistency (I won’t attempt to quote just a sentence or two here, out of context; that wouldn’t do his writing justice).
Leacock isn’t easy to find on library or store bookshelves these days, but I did find a few collections of his work listed on Amazon.com. Nonsense Novels was actually his second publication, the first being Literary Lapses in 1910, a collection of pieces he had written for various Canadian and American magazines. There is still a lot of his comic genius to discover–for me, and I hope for you too!
Until next week…