Endless wits

Jan 3, 2001 at 12:00 am

Its title puns on an infamous 1915 movie; it was produced by the Thurber House in the funnytown of Columbus, Ohio; it’s half the length of a James Michener treatise (still hefty). So why should you buy this book? (Not, as on a notorious ’70s National Lampoon magazine cover, because we’ll shoot this dog if you don’t. But NatLamp-type yocks are rampant here.) Mirth of a Nation contains mostly four-to-five-page pieces by favorites from Al Franken to “Doonesbury”’s Garry Trudeau to Garrison Keillor. Think “Family” Dave Barry’s not deep enough for you? How about a heavyweight like John Updike? If P.J. O’Rourke’s limitless attitude is too much, try some of Howard Mohr’s wide-eyed Minnesota musing. With 54 contributors, this anthology, which will appear every other year, promises variety that’d have your satellite dish spinning in envy.

Each piece is readable during a long commercial break. And, hey, you’ll see some of these writers on TV, possibly reading their work from this book. ... Sometime TV host Jon Stewart’s “Pen Pals” cleverly invents the correspondence between two celebrity saints — Mother Teresa and Princess Di. Included is a Vanity Fair interview with talk-show veteran New York Fran Lebowitz. Imagine her all in black, with a cigarette poking in and out of her scowl. The iconoclastic talk is about money.

Classic fun is Daniel Radosh’s tell-all on Howdy Doody’s rowdy photo double. Oh, the girls, the drinking. the sawdust ... The best title for the money is “The Million Millionaires March.” Versatile Michael Rubiner also high-techs great verse in “T.S. Eliot Interactive.” Click on the end of an era. Christopher Buckley offers ploys and gambits useful in successful name-dropping. He credits British humor great Stephen Potter (of the “Upsmanship” series) for inspiring the parody. Dropping Potter’s name, for example, is an unsuccessful ploy, unless he could somehow be connected with Princess Di. Or Mother Teresa.

Many of these humorists share traits from the newly conceived “P.J. O’Rourke Checklist.” (Irreverent O’Rourke, long ago with National Lampoon, has written A Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich.) The list: baby boomers, of course!; self-effacing while self-indulgent; intentionally boring setups; outrageous punch lines (just like Chevy Chase); cruelty OK for humor’s sake. Innocent gags are hardly found here. But, praise be George Burns, no infernal Top 10 lists either. And you can join the fun. Submissions for future collections are solicited right on page 6.

Dennis Shea is the MT proof reader. E-Mail [email protected].