A well-informed survey of farces, almost-farces, and part-farces in theater and film--concentrating on the 20th century, harkening (erratically) to some theoretical basics, but often lapsing into the unfocused superficiality that afflicts most laundry-list endeavors. Bermel (Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty) begins with a lecture on what-farce-is: its unreality, its use of objects and machines, its overturning of decorum (fulfilling ""our desires for political and social leveling""), its use of laughter only as the ""principal by-product."" Then it's on, at an unseemly fast clip, through all pre-1900 farce--from Aristophanes to Plautus, from commedia to Shakespeare, Feydeau, vaudeville, and Jarry's King Ubu, ""a farce to end all farces."" The upshot? That between 411 B.C. and 1900 farce ""retreated"" esthetically; e.g., ""Lysistrata's brash feminism gave way to the morally tepid bedroom farce."" Thus, as Bermel then turns to post-1900, he sometimes invokes those ancient-farce qualities which got lost along the way. Sennett's silents brought back improvisation, collaboration, turbulence; behind Chaplin's tramp ""stood the ingenious servant of farce Scapino/ Scapin""; Keaton ""revived the tradition of the farceur's mask""; farces with subversive undercurrents (Mroczek's Tango, Joe Orton) are featured. But the all-in-one format here makes it difficult for Bermel to hold together much of a thesis. Instead there are breezy catalogue-chapters on: cartoons; Thirties movies; the too-tame ""popular"" farces (Kaufman & Hart et al.); fantasy farces (Ghelderode, Witkacy, Mayakovsky, Giradoux); the ""realism""-grounded farces of Jules Romain, Pinter, Feiffer; the ""theatrical"" farce, from Pirandello to Tom Stoppard. And the final, best-covered category is post-1940 film, with the screwball-comedy-cum-farces of Preston Sturges, an unusually intense look at the Ealing comedies, and top honors for Woody Allen. (Bermel's idiosyncratic favorite: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. . . .) Still, if often directionless and unoriginal, this is an impressive gathering of mini-appreciations: lively, frequently infectious, only occasionally pedantic or dogmatic. (Billy Wilder and others suffer from the pigeon-holing; Robert Montgomery's Subject to Fits is wildly overpraised.) And specialists will find a wealth of briefly-mentioned lesser-knowns to follow up on.