I’ve spent most of my life attempting— sometimes painfully — to follow in the footsteps of my favorite comic writers. In all honesty, I haven’t come across a great many writers who actually make me laugh out loud as I read their work. I’m sure there are several whom I simply haven’t discovered yet, who might send me into fits of laughter solely via their words on a page. Maybe I’ll come across them one of these days.
I have often singled out Neil Simon as a comedy writing hero of mine, but his work is really meant to be performed, and his words spoken aloud rather than read in a book— although the comic brilliance of his dialogue jumps off the pages of his plays, which I’ve been reading (and, in some cases, memorizing) since high school.
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 absurd puns and wordplay can also be found in the screenplays he co-wrote for two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horsefeathers. Having committed every line of those films to memory as a teen, I then searched for and found a collection of Perelman’s work in my high school library during my senior year. I sat down with it, and, a page or two into the first story of the volume, I was cackling loudly like an idiot. I almost got thrown out for disturbing my fellow students, who were desperately trying to get some sleep.
Consequently, 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 might wonder? Why haven’t you seen him interviewed as a guest on a late-night TV 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, published 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, I nevertheless failed to pursue this writer who had received such praise from two of the world’s greatest comedians. Yet his name stayed with me, if only in the deepest recesses of my mind.
A few short years ago, while at my local library’s book sale, what did I happen to find but a 2005 reprinting of Nonsense Novels (which was 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 a crowded Panera’s, too). Sure there are a few phrases and references of everyday life from 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, and he does it with wonderful and impressive 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 bookstore shelves 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 much of his comic genius to discover — for me, and I hope for you too.
As for my own comic writings — and here comes the shameless plug — my new collection of short pieces, titled Why Are You Telling Me This? is available at Amazon.com. And, considering that the works of Leacock, Perelman, and Simon are also available on Amazon, this is about the only way by which I can consider myself, without dispute, in their company.
Until next time…