An alphabetical history of “things that used to make Americans laugh.”
If you yuck and guffaw at the likes of old maids, absent-minded professors and red-nosed topers, then this is just the book for you. As novelist Miller (The Cardboard Universe, 2009, etc.) notes, these were the things that were widely considered to be funny—and perhaps nothing so much as the specter of the henpecked husband. Other things have come along since in a humor culture that may have become less kind and gentle (courtesy of, say, Sam Kinison and his like), leaving these old-fashioned sources of japery in the realm of “cornball.” Miller describes the comedic grammar: Lucille Ball resists the intoxicating powers of Vitameatavegamin, since, by Miller’s light, she was “a fully realized character with twenty-nine episodes of backstory behind her” when that one aired, whereas Red Skelton, as a one-off kabibbler, was free to yield to the sauce. Or, on another matter, since most absent-minded professors teach science, it’s not always easy to distinguish them from their mad-scientist peers—just ask Buddy Love. Miller’s encyclopedia of comic types is wide-ranging, complete and lively; you have to appreciate a sentence such as this: “A fat work-shy self-righteous long-winded blustering grandiose feckless confabulating braggart, Hoople is forever boasting of shooting elephants, overpowering octopi, advising heads of state, and so on.” The only shortcoming is the too-easy glossing on the psychology of humor: There’s more to making fun of so-called easy girls than the mere fact that for men, “it’s something they like to think about. A lot." Freud would tell you otherwise—but then he was one of those pointy-headed absent-minded prof types, wasn’t he?
A good-natured, entertaining read. It doesn’t make Family Circus any funnier, but it explains good bits of Blondie and Snuffy Smith.