Some Holiday Humor

The holiday season can be hard on instruments, too


This blog is about roots music — I swear — but have been holed up several weeks and want to keep posting. So, I’m going to include some book reviews just to keep the pot boiling. Here’s a review essay I did for The Wall Street Journal on several new humor books, a few of which are actually funny. This is the original version, before the editors took their chain saws to it.


We could all use a good laugh these days, unless you happen to be amused by financial peril, sanctimonious street urchins, unsolicited tumors,  children who have decided to move back home, and other of life’s non-stop calamities.  

The book industry has responded with a barrage of works promising to bring a smile, or least a smirk, to our weary faces. Some of the material is new, some slightly recycled, some clunky.  None of it is free.

In the fresh jokes department, comic Demetri Martin’s “This Is A Book” has a contemporary air, as befitting a guy who’s appeared on Conan, the Daily Show and his own slot on Comedy Central. His book includes essays, drawings, short stories and plenty of reminders that we live in an age when some people – make that lots of people – believe everything they think or do should be made available for public consumption.

“Nearly ½ of all people in theUnited Statesare torsos,” Mr. Martin observes in a chapter entitled “Statistics,” along with  “Men are 35 times more likely than women to be turned on by looking at a wedgie.” In a chapter about updating flags,  his new flag of the south features a man in a suit holding a Bible and a waffle. “He looks proud and is standing inside a trailer park.”

This stuff might be a lot funnier with a chaser of nitrous oxide, yet there are plenty of smiles in David McRaney’s “You Are Not So Smart,” which argues that humans are experts at self-delusion and in drawing large lessons from abnormal behavior. He cites hysterical responses to the Columbine school shootings:  “A typical schoolkid is three times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be shot by a classmate,” he writes, “yet schools continue to guard against it as if it could happen at any second.”  Keep that in mind the next time your local school officials start chirping about how they’re teaching “critical thinking skills.”  A  chuckle may ensue.

In a sexier vein, Merrill Markoe’s “Cool, Calm and Contentious” is a wry look at life from a woman who loves dogs but is a bit warier of men, as we see in her account of surrendering her virginity to a loutish hack artist who treated indifferently and failed to make the earth move despite being given several opportunities. His name is Brad, if anyone’s interested.  

Some readers might find themselves saying “are you sure you want us to know all this?” yet could be amused by her explanation of why teenagers are “boneheads” about sexting, hooking up and other sexual endeavors: The frontal lobes, which allow us “to comprehend the idea of actions having consequences, aren’t finished being wired for functioning until your late twenties.” Hmmmm. The fact that many of us comprehended the likely consequences of our actions all too well is why we perfected the art of lying at a very early age. That’s no joke.     

There are lots of world-class laughs in Andy Borowitz’s “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” which includes the work of Mark Twain, S.J. Pereleman, Jean Shepherd, Hunter S. Thompson, Nora Ephron, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, Wanda Sykes, Dave Barry and the Onion.  Essays on politics are especially timely: Twain writes as a man disclosing his sins prior to running for president: he not only “treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850” but went AWOL during Gettysburg. “I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it.” Mencken, meantime, proposes that “unsuccessful candidates for the presidency be quietly hanged, as a matter of public sanitation and decorum” and on further reflection concludes ex-presidents be accorded the same treatment. At heart, maybe Mencken was a premature tea-bagger.

P.J. O’Rourke, now an elder in the temple of mirth and the only self-proclaimed Republican in this bunch, still has his teeth about him in “Holidays in Heck,” a collection of re-written magazine articles from Hong Kong, China, Kyrgyzstan and other exotic locales. Mr. O’Rourke, who has added “cancer survivor” to his resume, takes a scalpel to a modern art display at the Venice Biennale, eviscerating a piece by Italy’s Bruna Esposito, who “scattered onion skins on marble floor tiles and, remarkably, did not title it ‘Get the Broom.’” Looking on the brighter side, Mr. O’Rourke theorizes that many dictators, including Hitler, were frustrated artists, so putting their drek on display might have kept them out of bigger trouble. That might make a novel fund-raising line: We’re not hanging lousy pictures, we’re aborting world wars. Maybe worth a try.     

Calvin Trillin, another elder, sounds a bit cranky in his take on health food in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin,” a rich compendium of 40 year’s worth of his work. “Am I the only one worried about how unhealthy the people who work in health food stores look?” he asks before smirking at “bee waste” and “stump paste” and wondering  why legislation hasn’t been passed that protects consumers from “being reminded constantly of the last days of Howard Hughes.” Give it time, sir.  

All told, a few worthy additions to the humor vault.  Other holiday gift suggestions: Juvenal, whose first-  and second-century satires of  gluttonous bluebloods  keeling over on the way to the baths, and incestuous villainy (“every embryo lump was the living spit of uncle”) could have been written last week (though getting them published might be another matter).  There’s also Paul Tabori’s  “The Natural Science of Stupidity,” which includes a life insurance policy of sorts from the 16th century: Soldiers are instructed to sew moss taken from the skull of an executed man into their clothing.  “As long as you wear the jerkin, you are safe from ball, cut and thrust.” Ah, the days before class action lawsuits.  

Some of the best humor isn’t found in books, of course. The funniest line I’ve seen in years is on a funeral urn crafted by artist/songstress Nancy Josephson: “Does this urn make my ashes look big?”

A joke to die for, almost.  


About Dave Shiflett

Dave Shiflett is a writer -- former critic for Bloomberg News and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications -- and author of several books, including one with Donald Trump ("The America We Deserve"). He also writes and performs music and has released four CDs -- "Time Goes Rushing By" (Floor Creak); "Songs for Aging Cynics" (The Karma Farmers); "Afternoon Lamentations" (Dave Shiflett and Friends) and "From the First Time" (Dave Shiflett and Friends).
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