Monday, July 6, 2015

Review: ‘American Cornball’ entertaining trip through comedy history




American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny
Christopher Miller
2013
HarperCollins
New York

By BRAD WEISMANN 

Did you ever wonder why being stuck on a desert island is supposed to be so damn funny? Or for that matter, why falling safes, rolling pins, snoring, pie fights, hoboes, alley cats, and big butts are an enduring part of America’s comedy DNA? And -- do you want to know what those enormous sweat drops that fly from nervous cartoon characters are called?

Christopher Miller’s mother lode of old-school memes, tropes, symbols, routines and topics is here to help. American Cornball combs through the 20th Century’s postcards, ephemera, vaudeville sketches, radio shows, comics, cartoons, and books to assemble a definitive roster of stuff that used to crack us up.

A joke’s half-life is usually dramatically short. Topical humor is by definition fleeting. Any comedian will tell you that comic style changes over decades. Even a successful one whose work is grounded in general human observation such as Jerry Seinfeld finds he’s not connecting with a younger generation these days. The comics our parents loved we saw as hacks, and our children will feel the same. (If Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison had lived, would they have wound up playing the South Florida condo circuit?) American Cornball reminds us ars longa, comoedia brevis.

Miller’s voracious, if not masochistic, research, grounds an A-to-Z survey that concentrates on American culture from the birth of the comic strip in 1895 to the 1960s, when the idea of a large, homogenous common culture that shared a toolkit of common laughter-generating topics sputtered and died. These primeval gags lurked everywhere in the old days. Miller bravely tracks down their origins and then offers interpretation and analysis, throwing in citation, context, and a timeline as well. (For instance, he carefully breaks down the variegated comic possibilities posed by the three classic home-invasion figures: the plumber, the iceman, and the door-to-door salesman. Who knew?)

Miller’s peculiar genius here is to pare down these examinations to brisk, entertaining passages. His crisp wit sustains us throughout, and he constantly stuffs his entries with tangents of information that make the reader not want to miss any stray nugget of information. The casual reader can enjoy dipping in here and there; the diligent (OK obsessive) reader will absorb many insights Miller deduces from the no-longer-quite-so-hilarious evidence in front of him.

He doesn’t shy away from the plethora of racist, violent and misogynist humor that played so large a role in the comedy of the time and that we now longer officially find acceptable. Long-gone ethnic caricatures of blacks, Jews, “Polacks,” Italians, and “Irishmen” have already been joined by women-driver jokes and may soon also see jokes about homosexuals join them in retirement. Miller neither despises political correctness nor endorses old-school tastelessness; like the best scholars he puts it all out there, tells us what he thinks, and leaves the rest up to us.

And dammit, it’s just funny. By the way, those huge cartoon sweat drops are termed plewds. There’s a lot more where that came from, but you have to conquer this entertaining tome of nerdy brilliance to find out.