The Grand Old Man on an unabashedly personal ramble in pursuit of genuine national (not Irish, Welsh, or Scottish) humorists (no jokesters, farceurs, or satirists) from Geoffrey Chaucer to Monty Python. Priestley's recipe for the real thing? Plant one foot on solid English ground, stick the other into absurdity, and add irony--with limitless affection. No surprise that Shakespeare, Fielding, Tristram Shandy, and Dickens measure up, but so do the Brothers Grossmith (creators of ""Diary of a Nobody"" in Punch), contemporary columnist J. B. ""Beachcomber"" Morton, dinner-wit prelate Sydney Smith, and Thomas Love Peacock. Also-rans: Wodehouse (""a brilliant super-deluxe schoolboy""), Evelyn Waugh (all decline after Decline and Fall), over-macho W. S. Gilbert, and under-indulgent Ben Jonson. Feminine humour--Austen, Mrs. Gaskell, Mitford--merits its own chapter (""I am too old and have been discriminating too long""), as do stage clowns from the Globe to the tube. And the final, illustrated treat offers the author as gallery guide, pointing out background details in a hand-picked display of (mostly monochromatic) English comic art treasures. When Priestley isn't being irresistibly arbitrary or disowning his juvenilia or lifting immense chunks of old favorites, he's railing against kitchen-sink realism, feminists, and the Shakespeare-was-Bacon crowd. The testiness is worth skirting and the hodgepodgery worth enduring--for the remembered acquaintances, for the occasional felicitous phrasings, and for the enthusiastic exhumations of neglected sources of laughter. ""God knows I am no longer fresh,"" warns the preface. Perhaps, but even Priestley's day-old bread beats the melba toast criticism from academia.