Brilliant, erudite, comprehensive essays on the art and ethos of comedy by Gilliatt, novelist (A Woman of Singular Occupation, 1989, etc.) and New Yorker writer. Gilliatt dedicates her latest book to three comedic favorites: Buster Keaton, the ""spine and spirit"" of comedy, the ""poet who thought as an acrobat""; Jacques Tati, ""cooling his forehead against the pane of the future""; and John Cleese, who is hysterically funny ad-libbing for the author in an interview. In addition to the three chapters on these comics, she also offers essays, notes, anecdotes, and observations on comedy from Shakespeare to Genet, from Whoopi Goldberg to Spalding Gray. With a light academic touch, Gilliatt draws intriguing parallels between Keaton and Beckett; with shrewd ethnic and political savvy, she measures Richard Pryor's angry funk. She is wonderfully incisive on W.C. Fields (""the secret agent of calamity"") and both funny and convincing arguing why the French can have no Woody Allen. Her expertise in theater lends interesting stage and production notes along the way, but she is equally sharp, if not as comfortable, with film. Oddly, Gilliatt shortchanges TV, but compensates with rich insights into Polish cinema, an erray of eclectic tidbits (e.g., that Mae West was a Christian Scientist), and fine, stylish writing. Witty, essential reading for all who take their comedy seriously.