You Had to Be There

What we can learn from things that used to be funny.

Illustration by Emily Carroll

Illustration by Emily Carroll

For a considerable portion of the 20th century, the funniest place in New York City was the corner of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. That’s because for a long while a woman’s lower leg was the height of sexiness. A risqué bit of ankle could lead—according to comic strips, songs, and short films—to all sorts of hilarity: goofy spit-takes and exaggerated rubbernecking from the lecherous men who spotted it, followed by those same men receiving a nightstick or handbag to the noggin from a disapproving copper or angry wife. And thanks to the location at Fifth and 23rd of the Flatiron Building, the wedge-like shape of which tended to amplify wind gusts and send hems a-fluttering, the corner was a prime location for such hijinks. Multiple funny and titillating short films detailed the phenomenon: The Flatiron Building on a Windy Day, What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City.

It helps that 23 is the funniest number. The numeral regularly appeared in titles of funny films (Private Box 23, In Taxi 23, Apartment 23, Pier 23), popped up in the writing of Dr. Seuss (“Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave/ Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?”), and had a cameo in I Love Lucy. (In “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” the heroine gets sloshed while promoting a health tonic that’s 23 percent alcohol.) Need more proof that the intersection Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street was the epitome of comedy? Local cops shooing randy ankle-spotters from the corner maybe possibly helped give rise to the phrase “23 skidoo!” Which, when you think about it, really is the funniest way to say “Get lost.”

This is the sort of labyrinthine esoterica that fills the pages of Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, a herculean effort to dredge up from the past all of the things that folks used to find uproarious. Miller, author of the comic novels The Cardboard Universe and Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects: A Novel in Liner Notes, spent three years combing through show tunes, comic strips, novelty postcards, radio shows, sitcoms, animated cartoons, gag-gift catalogs, and various other doodads, dingbats, and thingumabobs. (Those nonsense words for nameless objects are covered in the entry for “Veeblefetzers” on Page 504.) The process might have gone to Miller’s head: In the book he admits to amassing a fake vomit collection (fake dog poo is too tacky, he decided) and seeking out real Limburger cheese to see if it was as stinky as cartoons and comic strips had led him to believe. (Sadly, he doesn’t tell us what he learned.)

In 200 or so alphabetized topics spread out over 530 illustrated pages, Miller pries open the kitchen cupboards of old slapstick films to list the detrimental effects of castor oil (nausea) and alum (head shrinkage). He points out the meteorological differences between briffits (the clouds left behind when comic-strip characters speed off) and dustups (the clouds that obscure comic-strip fisticuffs). And he pauses cartoonish rolling pins, grand pianos, and anvils mid-flight so he can scrutinize their physical properties, not to mention the various sounds they make when they eventually land on their targets’ heads. Reading through the book is akin to spending a long afternoon in the dusty back corner of a thrift store: You emerge a tad overwhelmed, a smidge scandalized, and quite a bit wiser about things you never knew existed.

American Cornball is more catalog than inquiry. Miller doesn’t spend much time psychoanalyzing all these jokes and gimmicks. “Humor tells us more about psychology than psychology can tell us about humor,” he declares, rightly. Was the funny-amnesia trend of early and mid-1960s sitcoms—everyone from Tony in I Dream of Jeanie to Mr. Ed suffered temporary brain damage—due to the amnesia-like torpor of the 1950s? More likely, argues Miller, such plot devices were an easy way to fill a half-hour. Was the dead-baby joke fad of the 1960s inspired by abortion fears or bloody coverage of the Vietnam War, as some joke scholars have posited? Maybe, writes Miller, such sick jokes simply “expressed a perennial urge to flout certain taboos as flagrantly as possible.”

Those looking for a more thorough examination of humor’s underpinnings can turn to another new laffopedia: The Encyclopedia of Humor Studies. The two-volume series, edited by Texas A&M University–Commerce professor Salvatore Attardo, covers decades of interdisciplinary humor research, from entries on “Absurdist Humor” to “Xiehouyu,” a funny Chinese figure of speech. The intricately detailed and extensively referenced tomes are proof that humor scholarship has emerged as a diverse and formidable academic field. But be warned: The $350 set, weighing in at just under 7 pounds, is designed for the most dedicated humor scholars. For most people, it’s the sort of thing best left to the world of American Cornball, a comic prop that’s forever landing on the head of an absentminded professor.

Miller is clearly fond of the old-fashioned comedy he details, or much of it, anyway—not to mention more recent varieties. “What we have today,” he notes, happily, “is a culture where it is suddenly okay, even on after-school TV, to produce and consume the crudest toilet humor, but where the neuroses that makes that stuff naughty—hence funny—are still entrenched. … And we may as well enjoy it while it lasts.” But he doesn’t shy away from the extent to which such zaniness was steeped in violence, misogyny, and racism. Celebrated New Yorker humorist James Thurber, Miller notes, once quipped, “Everybody will recall at least one woman of his acquaintance whom, at one time, or another, he has had to punch or slap.” He points out that the original version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” the 1920s folk song that enjoyed a resurgence thanks to its appearance on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, included the lines, “I’ve hiked and hiked till my feet are sore/ And I’ll be damned if I hike any more/ To be buggered sore like a hobo’s whore.” And let’s not forget, he writes, “that virtually every classic Popeye carton culminates in an attempted rape” of Olive Oyl by Bluto.

Miller doesn’t celebrate the cruelty of such jokes; he simply aims to bring it to light. In “today’s self-righteous cultural climate,” he writes, “it’s important to remember that, unless we happen to be saints, ugly sentiments are a big part of our psyches.” While the humor he lists was designed to bring people together—novelty postcards sent from a honeymoon, sitcoms watched together as a family, silly gags designed to poke fun at friends—many jokes separated haves from have-nots, highlighting the gap between those doing the laughing and those being laughed at.

If Miller deserves a custard pie or two to the face for his otherwise commendable efforts, it would be for the book’s lack, in many cases, of detailed citations. Whence did he glean the story of Joseph Pujol, a French baker who out-earned Sarah Bernhardt at the turn-of-the-century Moulin Rouge with displays of his musical flatulence? Where, exactly, did he find an online list tallying how many pows, boffs, splats, and zowies appeared in the 1960s Batman series?

Maybe asking for extensive citations is a bit much for a work that’s already a 500-page list of interesting footnotes. But there would be value to such references, beyond the sake of scholarship. As Miller admits, there’s a lot of corniness he didn’t cover in his book: blabbermouths, halitosis, lounge lizards, flagpole sitting. Being forthright about his comedic resources could encourage other budding laughologists to pick up where he left off.

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller. Harper Collins.

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