Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from the New Yorker
edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder (Random House, 2001)
(This column was first published in the June 6, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
I can imagine few more pleasant tasks than mining old copies of the New Yorker magazine for humor. I can picture David Remnick and Henry Finder giggling not only over the pieces they have collected in Fierce Pajamas but also over the hundreds of additional essays, stories and poems they must have been forced to leave out.
But what they offer here is indeed a feast of writing that draws many of those giggles and not a few belly laughs. (When I was reading this book, my wife accused me of being the noisiest reader she had ever encountered. I tried to come up with a Thurber-type husbandish response but failed.)
Here are a few passages from old standbys:
In Woody Allen's Hassidic Tales: "Rabbi Zwi Chaim Yisroel, an Orthodox scholar of the Torah and a man who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West, was unanimously hailed as the wisest man of the Renaissance by his fellow-Hebrews, who totalled a sixteenth of one per cent of the population. Once, while he was on his way to synagogue to celebrate the sacred Jewish holiday commemorating God's reneging on every promise, a woman stopped him and asked the following question: 'Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?'
"'We're not?' the Rev said incredulously. 'Uh-oh.'"
Veronica Geng on her affair with Mao: "One evening about six months later, there was a knock at my door. It was the Chairman, cheerful on rice wine. With his famous economy of expression, he embraced me and taught me the Ten Right Rules of Lovemaking: Reconnoitre, Recruit, Relax, Recline, Relate, Reciprocate, Rejoice, Recover, Reflect, and Retire. I was surprised by his ardor, for I knew the talk that he had been incapacitated by a back injury in the Great Leap Forward. In truth, his spine was supple as a peony stalk. The only difficulty was that it was sensitive to certain kinds of pressure. A few times he was moved to remind me, 'Please, don't squeeze the Chairman.'"
Garrison Keillor's advice to fans: "Don't gush, don't babble, don't grovel or fawn. Never snivel. Be tall. Bootlicking builds a wall you'll never break through. A simple pleasantry is enough -- e.g., 'Like your work!' If you need to say more than that (I think you're the most wonderful lyric poet in America today), try to modify your praise slightly (but your critical essays stink). Or cough hard, about five times. That relieves the famous person of having to fawn back. The most wearisome aspect of fame is the obligation to look stunned by each compliment as if it were the first ever heard. That's why an odd remark (Your last book gave me the sensation of being a horned toad lying on a hot highway) may secretly please the famous person far more than a cliche (I adore you and my family adores you and everyone I know in the entire world thinks you are a genius and a saint and I think I'm going to fall down on the sidewalk and just writhe around and foam for a while). Be cool. Famous people much prefer a chummy insult to lavish nonsense: a little dig about the exorbitant price of tickets to the star's show, perhaps, or the cheesiness of the posters (You design those yourself?). Or a remark about the celebrity's pet (if any), like 'How much did you pay for that dog?' Personal stuff (Do you have to shave twice a day? Do you use regular soap or what? What was it like when you found that out about her going out with him?) can wait for later. For now, limit yourself to the dog. As it gazes up in mealymouthed brown-nosed, lickspittle devotion, glance down and say, 'Be cool.'"
James Thurber on an auto trip (an essay that cut a little close to the bone for me): "'What's that funny sound?' she asked, suddenly. It invariably made him angry when she heard a funny sound. 'What funny sound?' he demanded. 'You're always hearing funny sounds.' She laughed briefly. 'That's what you said when the bearing burned out,' she reminded him. 'You'd never have noticed it if it hadn't been for me.' 'I noticed it, all right,' he said. 'Yes,' she said. 'When it was too late.' She enjoyed bringing up the subject of the burned-out bearing whenever he got to chortling. 'It was too late when you noticed it, as far as that goes,' he said. Then, after a pause, 'Well, what does it sound like this time? All engines make a noise running, you know.' 'I know all about that,' she answered. 'It sounds like -- it sounds like a lot of safety pins being jiggled around in a tumbler.' He snorted. 'That's your imagination. Nothing gets the matter with a car that sounds like a lot of safety pins. I happen to know that.' She tossed away her cigarette. 'Oh, sure,' she said. 'You always happen to know everything.' They drove on in silence."
And Ogden Nash's Procrastination is All of the Time that begins:
"Torpor and sloth, torpor and sloth,
These are the cooks that unseason the broth.
Slothor and torp, slothor and torp
The directest of beeline ambitions can warp.
He who is slothic, he who is torporal
Will not be promoted to sergeant or corporal...."
But there are a few gems from unexpected authors as well. My favorite is the essay, How to be Obscene by, of all people, Upton Sinclair: "I said: 'Under this arrangement we authors are using the rest of the United States as our selling territory, and Boston as our advertising headquarters.... It is very simple, after all, to get this Boston police advertisement; all you have to do is to take any book of the great standard literature of the world, pick out the passages dealing with love and courtship, write something of the same sort in your book, and then mail a few copies to members of the Boston society. Get 'The Ordeal of Richard Feverel,' for example, or 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles.'"
A great collection and a wonderful bedside companion.-- Gerry Rising