Cackling in Tongues

In a new humor anthology, the wordplay's the thing.

THE CASE FOR this collection—and of course, you can't just put out a collection like this without making a case for it—is to take those satirical throw-aways, those charts, parodies, quizzes, lists, and essays that are typically a media sidelight, and place them front and center. As editor Michael J. Rosen puts it, with mock-solemnity—in an (of course) self-consciously footnoted and irreverent introduction—"My hope is to preserve and perpetuate just these shorter pieces of humor most often considered the filler of magazines and airtime, but which are, in fact, essential supplements to our well-being." MIRTH OF A NATION: THE BEST CONTEMPORARY HUMOR

edited by Michael J. Rosen (HarperCollins/Perennial, $15) "Supplements" being the key word here. How trying, how exhausting, these pieces become when you're confronted with 600 pages of them. There's a reason Dave only does one Top Ten list a night. Still, plenty of extremely entertaining material can be found here, some of which will be familiar to fans of "Shouts and Murmurs," the New York Times Magazine, and public radio's This American Life. There's Mark O'Donnell's great "Diary of a Genius," about a misunderstood advertising visionary ("I watch the electric billboards in Times Square and all I can think is, They're 'fun'—but they don't work"); Henry Alford's guide to being "difficult"; and Michael Rubiner's send-up of socially conscious product labeling ("One percent of our profits goes toward lobbying the Federal Government to convert private golf courses to low-income housing"). The predictable humor warhorses are also represented (Roy Blount Jr., Dave Barry). John Updike seems to be present mostly for marquee value. The ubiquitous Dave Eggers contributes "A Note About the Type," which is funnier in your imagination. The most common device employed is the yoking of one language idiom from its customary context to another—thus we have a Saddam Hussein speech about the Super Bowl ("O patient Bills! Trust that on Sunday your humiliating losses of the past will be as dust blown away by desert winds"); Mr. Blackwell rating the fashion choices of Herman Melville and other famous authors ("We've seen the whale thing before"); Charles Baudelaire as gardening columnist; David Sedaris' pissy theater critic reviewing elementary school plays; philosophers writing about food ("Marx's Kapital, now largely dismissed as an economic analysis, but very good on sauces"); Ian Frazier's Leviticus-like admonition to his children ("Of the hoofed animals, broiled or ground into burgers, you may eat, but not in the living room"); and Frank Gannon's very funny "Long Day's Journey Into Abs," in which Eugene O'Neill is put in the service of selling personal fitness equipment. The quasi-literary, Esquire-style celebrity profile is hilariously sent up by David Rakoff, who interviews El Ni�and by Stephen Sherrill and Paul Tough, who show us Pol Pot on the rebound in Santa Monica. READING SO MANY of these pieces together brought home just how much contemporary humor, like modern philosophy, no longer talks about stuff, beliefs, issues, the nature of the world. Instead it is simply about language: the language of TV listings, of politicians, of quaint country vacation homes and their absurd marketing materials. I'm not saying this isn't funny. But when you read so much of it you begin to realize how limited it is: Language jokes about language are perfect for the knowledge worker in an ironic age, but sometimes I wanted something more meaty. Not that language doesn't reveal much, but is it all? Indeed, except for a wonderful Vanity Fair interview with Fran Lebowitz, politics are hardly hinted at anywhere in this book. (Lewinsky references—an unfortunate by-product of the timing of this collection—do not count.) Lebowitz seems to be one of the very few with any interest in the larger world beyond how we talk about things. And while I'm hardly a color-counting diversity scold, even I was struck by the uniformity here. A hundred and forty pieces, and not a single discernible black voice? Hardly anything from a female point of view? Jewishness, WASP-ishness (in its Midwestern and Eastern seaboard varieties), and wry homosexuality are heavily represented. But the frame of reference starts to seem a little limited after a while. Nonetheless, Mr. Rosen, I thank you. And visitors to my bathroom will thank you for years to come.

 
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