In his introduction to this collection of nine essays tracing the development of American humor from Revolutionary times to the present, Dudden admits, ""humor has a tendency to evaporate in the heat of critical examination."" Fortunately for readers of this sprightly and perceptive volume, awareness of the problem seems to have enabled Dudden and his fellow critics to keep the humor bubbling without its drifting off as so much hot air. Dudden himself contributes a splendid analysis of political humor. His descriptions of the contributions of Twain, Bierce, Mencken, Lardner, Mort Sahl, Mark Russell and the rest of their iconoclastic tribe provide him with an opportunity to investigate the salubrious effects of comedy. ""Watergate,"" he points out in a particularly effective passage, ""erupted uncontrollably into a laughing matter. . . Laughing offered almost the only way out of the well-nigh universal dismay and chagrin . . . With honor gone, only humor was left."" Nearly as effective is Nancy Walker's treatise on ""Humor and Gender Roles."" Walker is immensely persuasive when she points out that today's feminist humor had its roots in the seemingly bland productions of Jean Kerr, Betty MacDonald and Phyllis McGinley; from The Egg and I to Lily Tomlin's In Search of Intelligent Life is a long, long way, but it is a pilgrimage, Walker convinces us, that was made possible through the (relatively) unthreatening medium of humor. Other essays include Peter M. Briggs' sensitive study of the English antecedents of ""Yankee"" humor, M. Thomas Inge's knowledgeable treatment of the comics, and the uses of ""shticks and sentiment"" in the stand-up routines of nightclub comedians as seen by Lawrence E. Mintz. A revelatory and stimulating look at what many may consider a ""minor"" genre but one that, under this kind of analysis, offers telling insights into today's society.