Humor is a Serious Business

By Larry Teren


There is a time to work and a time to play. A time to eat and a time to sleep. A time to watch and a time to read. A picture says a thousand words and a good book conjures up a thousand pictures in the mind.   

If I was a poet, I’d write lyrical words about the books I’ve read. In my pre-teen and adolescent years I soaked up books about sports and humor. Reading a biography about the Say Hey Kid, I learned that Willie Mays had practically zero body fat when he played ball and that he was almost a failure when he first came up. His manager Leo Durocher, though, conveyed to Willie that in the long run he had the utmost faith in him.

As a kid I was interested only in content and did not think at all about form or style. Analysis was on hold until I got to college and took a course in Practical Criticism. In high school, I could care less about the significance of  “The Scarlett Letter” or other classic novels.

In college, I went to the university library often and grabbed as many books as I could find written by James Thurber, Robert Benchley, H. Allen Smith, Goodman Ace and S. J. Perlman. I checked The New Yorker magazine for the latest short story by Woody Allen. If it wasn’t something funny and fictitious, I wasn’t interested. Not until recently did I become very interested in biographies and read those of Mr. Thurber, Woody Allen and H. Allen Smith. What I got from it was that writing about humor was quite a serious business.

James Thurber was a very eccentric fellow who lost an eye in a childhood accident. For almost the last ten years of his life he was also blind in the one remaining eye but still dictated his stories to a secretary. Thurber could be a practical joker as well as melancholic. As with most writers, many of his stories were rooted in episodes from his life. You can say that he tried to find the sunny side of not so pleasant memories. The publication of his doctored reminiscence made those who were part of the events very resentful. Woody Allen was a very serious writer about the human comedy and worked diligently to make his points. Woody Allen claims to have sweated more than any other writer to get his words just right.

On the other end of the spectrum was H. Allen Smith.  James Thurber and Woody Allen were upscale magazine writer-contributors while Smith was a tried and true newspaper service re-write man. He knew how to take someone else’s story, put it into proper words and tell it factually while still finding the human side to it. There was hardly a chip on his shoulder during his most productive years. The other scribes found success in writing for the movies and radio which required a disciplined style and a never-ending fertile mind.

For a good many years I abandoned reading as a hobby and spent excess energies otherwise. A few years ago after I broke the plane that put me closer to one hundred than to zero, I took up the reading habit once again. For a couple of years, I went to a book store every three or so weeks to look for the newer discounted tomes. I made up my mind to purchase no classic novels or modern fiction  but biographies or books of interesting facts.

It finally dawned on me that I was wasting a lot of money that could be saved for more important purchases. After all, there was the library where I could borrow for free. This is what I do now. I am back into the swing of going to a library every other week and picking out a couple of biographies. This past week it was Spencer Tracy and Francois Truffaut.

Read on and prosper!

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