In 2001, the New Yorker treated faithful readers to Fierce Pajamas, a comprehensive survey of humor culled from the 75-year history of the magazine. When I heard about this, my well-honed cat-like reflexes snapped into action and, three years later, I bought the book. These short pieces, known as “casuals,” include parodies, absurdities and flights of fancy. They showcase the wit of some of the giants in American humor – from E.B. White, through S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman, on up to Steve Martin. And along the way, two of my favorites – Woody Allen and James Thurber.
As is often the case with anthologies, I wind up seeking out more complete works from specific writers. In this instance I was led back to my own bookshelves, to the dusty ‘A’ section in the top-left corner of my wall, for my small but complete trio of Woody Allen books. This necessitates the use of a stepladder because in addition to being obsessively organized – fiction alphabetized by author, then chronological within each. I won’t even get into what I do to my non-fiction – I’m also quite short and can’t actually reach the top shelf of anything in my apartment.
Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects collect Woody Allen’s written humor from the mid 60s through to the late 70s, in 5-year chunks. I think you can get them all in one volume now, but I’m quite partial to my pocket-sized second-hand paperbacks – perfect for explosive bursts of laughter on the subway. There’s hardly a page without some jaw-droppingly hysterical absurdist musing, non-sequitur, or parody of some philosophical tract or of a psychological case-study. Even a few one-act plays for good measure.
Getting Even contains “The Metterling Lists” – essentially a collection of Herr Metterling’s laundry lists, spun-out Woody-style into a psychological and biographical profile. And “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers” – a succession of correspondence-chess letters, each one more politely sarcastic and seethingly hostile than the last.
Without Feathers includes “God” – a now-classic one-act play in which an actor and a writer are on stage bemoaning the lack of an ending to their Greek play. “Audience members” join in the scenario and eventually the melee includes cameos by a wayward Blanche Dubois, and one Mr. Woody Allen, the Creator himself. Reality is turned on its head, then rolled up in a ball and shot through a hoop in this Pirandello-esque comedy.
Side Effects has “The Kugelmass Episode” – a hilarious story in which our hero, with the help of a magician, escapes his humdrum world and retreats into the lusty pages of Madame Bovary for a succession of romantic encounters with Emma, confounding Flaubert’s readers and scholars with the sudden presence of a balding 1970s New Yorker in Emma Bovary’s boudoir.
Fierce Pajamas also led me to the “Ts,” to my somewhat haphazard collection of James Thurber books. Many years ago, my good friend Doug Holland, always a step or two ahead of me, introduced me to the world of Thurber. Humorist, cartoonist, editor, James Thurber was a mainstay of the New Yorker for decades.
Out of the half-dozen books I have, my pick would be My Life and Hard Times, a humorous memoir written by Thurber in the 1930s, replete with illustrations by the author, looking back on his youth in turn-of-the-century Columbus. Deceptively gentle and low-key, his stories often build to a frenetic climax. A common theme is how misunderstanding leads to rumor leads to panic. Seems simple. Yet no one does it quite like him.
A few weeks ago, as I was thinking of what to say about Thurber, fortune shone as my fellow Millions-contributor Patrick posted a great piece about the Paris Review, and in particular “The DNA of Literature“, a treasure trove of archived interviews that you can read on their website. I’ve been exploring this site in the weeks since then, and one of the first things I came across was a great interview (pdf) from 1955 with James Thurber himself!
In it he speaks of his astounding memory and how he can juggle hundreds of details in his mind. And of how he never knows until he’s typing away exactly how his stories will develop. He talks about the “New Yorker style” of humor in which you take your initial gleeful idea, your hilarious impulse, and then rewrite it, playing it down. Thurber also reflects on Harold Ross, the great Editor of the New Yorker, an unread man with bloodhound instincts who demanded clarity of his writers, and, to a man, kept them from being sloppy. Thurber also talks about his wife, his sounding-board, who it seems prefaces everything she says to James with “Goddammit Thurber…”
Always writing, always crafting the perfect phrase, always keeping it concise and clear, Thurber was the consummate New Yorker humorist. His humor took over his body. So much so that when turning a phrase over in his head, his daughter grew so concerned with the look on his face that she asked her mother: “Is he sick?” to which Thurber’s wife reassured her: “No, he’s writing something.”