Humor and Comics

Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley books
      Mr. Dooley was a fictional Irish bartender in turn-of-the-century Chicago. His tongue-in-cheek monologues, addressed in thick Irish brogue to his clueless customer Hennessy, wryly commented on the Dreyfus Case, the Spanish-American War, women’s suffrage, urban corruption, and other issues of the day. The underlying drift was progressive, but Mr. Dooley was so funny and so unpredictable that even those he criticized could hardly complain. Before long the Dooley columns were syndicated in newspapers all over the country, and Teddy Roosevelt felt obliged to send Dunne long letters of anticipatory self-defense if he felt that Dunne might disapprove of any of his policies. Mister Dooley on Ivrything and Ivrybody is an excellent selection. There are many others in and out of print.
[Rexroth essay on Mr. Dooley and other classic American humor]

P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and Bertie books  [1881-1975]
      The adventures of addle-brained Bertram Wooster and his omnicompetent and imperturbable butler Jeeves would be mildly amusing (like Wodehouse’s other books) if they were told in third person. What makes them so hilarious is that they are narrated by Bertie himself. This was a stroke of genius on Wodehouse’s part, and it took real genius to pull it off. An actual idiot would have produced a muddled and unreadable narration; Wodehouse manages to make Bertie relate his stories with lucidity while still seeming to be an idiot. My favorite non-Jeeves Wodehouse book is Leave It to Psmith.

Stephen Potter, Gamesmanship series  [1900-1969]
      Wry British humor on how to win games through psychological ploys, gain prestige through elaborate role-playing, or otherwise succeed in appearing one-up on other people. I find Potter hilarious, but he is not to everyone’s taste. The first four books of the series — Gamesmanship, One-Upmanship, Lifemanship, Supermanship — are collected in The Complete Upmanship. The other two, Golfmanship and Anti-Woo, are only available separately. There is also a very funny British film loosely based on Potter’s books entitled School for Scoundrels (1960, with Ian Carmichael and Alastair Sims).

Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor  [1971]
      This collection contains lots of pretty good jokes, but its greatest interest lies in Asimov’s comments on what makes different kinds of jokes funny and how to tell them most effectively.

Steve Allen  [1921-2000]
      Steve Allen was just about the only mainstream television entertainer for whom I had some respect. Within that dubious context he was constantly pushing the envelope. Back in the 1950s he had Lenny Bruce and even Jack Kerouac on his popular variety shows, and he played piano accompaniment to Kerouac’s reading on a now-classic jazz-poetry LP, Poetry for the Beat Generation. He was also a prolific songwriter and a tireless advocate of liberal and humanitarian causes. But he is most fondly remembered for his zany yet always good-natured sense of humor. Some of his funniest experiences are recounted in Hi-Ho, Steverino! My Adventures in the Wonderful Wacky World of TV, but he wrote several other entertaining books about comedians and the art of comedy: The Funny Men, Funny People, How To Be Funny, and Make ’Em Laugh.

David Morgan, Monty Python Speaks  [1999]
      A collective autobiography of the great comedy team.

Ashleigh Brilliant, Brilliant Thoughts  [b. 1933]
      “Brilliant Thoughts” are postcard-size works of seventeen words or less, accompanied with droll illustrations (sometimes original, sometimes cribbed from Victorian-era ads, etc.). Some are merely cute, but a significant portion are quite funny, occasionally verging on the profound. The titles of his book collections are typical examples: I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy. Appreciate Me Now and Avoid the Rush. I Feel Much Better Now That I’ve Given Up Hope. We’ve Been Through So Much Together and Most of It Was Your Fault. I Want To Reach Your Mind . . . Where Is It Currently Located? You can browse among them and order copies of the books here.

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George Herriman, Krazy Kat  [1880-1944]
      Many people consider this the greatest comic strip of them all. It’s difficult to explain its appeal to those who aren’t already familiar with it. The characters talk in a wry, lyrical manner halfway between Shakespeare and W.C. Fields, employing a whimsical logic reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. The plot involves a sort of love triangle with odd differences. Krazy Kat, a sympathetic character with a proto-New Agey innocence and sense of wonder about everything, loves Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz despises Krazy and his supreme joy in life is to bean her with a brick. Krazy takes these assaults as a positive sign — proof that Ignatz is thinking of her. Offissa Pupp, tireless upholder of law and order, is fond of Krazy and constantly on the alert to arrest Ignatz whenever he can catch him red-handed. But Ignatz is always out of jail by the next episode, seeking another brick and the opportunity to wield it behind the back of the canine cop. Every day for nearly thirty years this strange little drama was played out in endless variations against a surrealistic desert background that is as constantly changing as a dream — in one frame you see a cactus, in the next it’s become a fire hydrant or a bathtub and the sun has been replaced by the moon. . . . There are two good one-volume collections, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (republished under various titles, with an introduction by e.e. cummings) and Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman (ed. Patrick McDonnell et al.). Fantagraphics Books has published all the Sunday full-page comics from 1916-1944 (Krazy and Ignatz, 13 volumes; the last ten years are in delightful color).

Walt Kelly, Pogo  [1913-1973]
      The timeless world of Pogo is slightly reminiscent of Krazy Kat, but it’s more folksy and much more populous. While there are few characters in Krazy Kat besides the eternal trio, the characters in Pogo number dozens of regulars and hundreds of others who pop in from time to time, each with their own distinctive personality. Living within the cozy confines of the Okeefenokee Swamp they concoct all sorts of extravagant projects, but it’s mostly just idle talk, nothing serious ever comes of it, and when the droll misadventures of the day are over everyone can adjourn to Pogo’s place for a fish fry. Most of the Pogo books are out of print, but they can all be found at online used book sites. A good introductory selection is Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo.

John Stanley and Irving Tripp, Little Lulu
      Little Lulu was a favorite comic of little girls back in the fifties and sixties, but it was one of mine, too, and still is. Like Tom Sawyer or Tarkington’s Penrod books, it takes me back to those childhood days when so many little things seemed to promise so much fun and adventure, yet within circumstances that were safe and secure. Dark Horse Books has reissued the complete Lulu comics in very reasonably priced book form.

Bill Mauldin, Up Front  [1945]
      While a soldier in Europe during World War II, Mauldin created these cartoons about Joe and Willy, two toughened but basically decent enlisted men, presenting the realities of war and army life from the ordinary soldier’s point of view. A postwar sequel, Back Home, continued Joe and Willy’s adventures after their return to the States. Mauldin went on to become a noted liberal political cartoonist, but these two books are his enduring claim to fame.

Jules Feiffer  [b. 1929]
      In his cartoons Feiffer managed to put his finger on a lot of the foibles and follies of American society, including the more or less urbane, progressive and bohemian sectors that pride themselves on being different. Jules Feiffer’s America: From Eisenhower to Reagan is a good general anthology.

Robert Crumb  [b. 1943]
      Robert Crumb probably needs no introduction. He has been creating superbly outrageous satires since the sixties. The Complete Crumb Comics (Fantagraphic Books, 17 volumes) include everything up to the early 1990s, but not the many other volumes that have been published since then. A good one-volume collection is The R. Crumb Handbook.

Gilbert Shelton, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers  [b. 1940]
The hilarious misadventures of three drug-tripping sixties hippies. Twelve comic books were individually issued by Rip Off Press. A two-volume “Complete” edition (1968-1997) has recently been published by Knockabout Press.

Quino, Mafalda  [1932-2020]
The characters in this Argentinean comic strip are children but their conversations touch on grown-up themes. Mafalda in particular is constantly asking her parents awkward questions and worrying about the state of the world. I’ve been reading the whole series as a pleasant way to improve my very rudimentary Spanish. The original comics (1964-1973) have all been reprinted in various editions. For a long time there was nothing in English, although Mafalda had been translated into over twenty other languages, but two English-language volumes have recently appeared, entitled Mafalda and Friends: English Edition.

Gary Larson, The Far Side  [b. 1950]
      These internationally popular cartoons should need no introduction. Most of them are collected in The Far Side Gallery (5 vols.). The PreHistory of The Far Side presents some amusing background information, including some of the cartoons that were rejected for one reason or another.

Tom Tomorrow, This Modern World  [b. 1961]
      Excellent contemporary political satire. The cartoons have appeared weekly for the last thirty years, and selections have been collected in several volumes. For more information, see the author’s website: www.thismodernworld.com.


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

No copyright.