Friday, February 20, 2015

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny by Christopher Miller


Not the foolish joke book or bathroom reader suggested by the title, American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny  is rather a thoughtful and detailed study of the history of humor in America. Using jokes, cartoons, postcards, movies, and radio and television shows, this book gives the reader a clear picture of the ordinary American’s sense of humor and how it has changed. The boarding houses and leftover hash that were a staple of humor during financial hard times are now non-existent, nor are there many vacuum cleaner salesmen or icemen still knocking on doors. Broad changes in the American way of life can be seen through the decades of jokes and cartoons in this book: the husband who washes dishes is no longer a laughingstock, although his frilly apron might be; men still ogle women but it is no longer their ankles that catch the eye; the Irish, who once bore the brunt of American ethnic humor, are now upstanding and successful citizens. Other nationalities have replaced them as butts of jokes. Hillbilly jokes still abound but now they are red-neck jokes. The author digs into the minutiae of humor: which middle initials are considered funny; why is the husband’s mother-in-law is funnier than the wife’s; is the trombone or tuba the funnier musical instrument? Some things never change, such as the speed with which anvils fall off a cliff or the incomprehensibility of modern art. Many formerly funny jokes would now be considered cruel and offensive. This book clearly explains why, in their own time, they were widely appreciated. And, after you read Christopher Miller’s examination of a psychologist’s five-page study on why children find the “moron throws a clock out the window” joke funny, you’ll realize (if you hadn’t before) that some jokes are best left unexamined.