Skip to main content

From Robert Benchley To Andrew Dice Clay

June 2024
7min read

Is the kind of humor popular today another symptom of the general erosion of civil discourse? Maybe, says a man who has spent a good deal of his life being funny; but more likely it’s just a vigorous breeze from the American frontier.

I came to Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson late in life and raced through it in two days, which is rare speed for me. I was totally engrossed. It is late Twain. He is edging toward contempt for the universe, but he’s not there yet. Hannibal, the town of glorious childhood, has become Dawson’s Landing, where a man of wit and intelligence is cast out as a fool.

It’s about slavery. The plot is jerrybuilt, creaky, and based on the old mixed-up-twins story. There are implausible Italian visitors, Luigi and Angelo, whom I took to be Italian rather than, say, Russian or Turkish, only because Mark Twain had probably traveled in Italy and fallen in love with it. They do, however, serve to make the silly dueling, which is essential to the plot, slightly plausible.

Implausibility and melodrama are rampant. There is a villain so despicable that he sells his own mother down the river. At the end Twain faces the exquisitely difficult problem of portraying the psychological and social adjustments that would have to be made by a man who has grown up as a black slave and suddenly learns that he is white and free. Twain deals with this problem by not dealing with it at all. He simply lets the whole matter slide, as though he can’t wait to be finished with the damned book.

It is by many definitions a bad book, yet it is marvelous. A couldn’t-put-it-down page turner. Mark Twain is the most readable of writers even when not in top form.

I set all this down with considerable amusement at my own presumption. It shows how wondrously a man’s self-esteem may increase after he has been forty or fifty years out of school. Here am I, overly full of years and self, taking the liberty of criticizing Mark Twain as though he were human.

Still, it has done my mind a world of good. Scowling at the imperfections of Pudd’nhead Wilson made me realize how consistently two very different strands run through American humor, and while I refuse to stoop to saying, “Never the twain shall meet,” the truth is that they ^^ usually don’t. Defining them to a graduate student’s satisfaction would produce ten yards of academic prose ponderous enough to buckle a mule’s knees, so I won’t try it. The distinctions may be easier to grasp if we keep in mind why Mark Twain and The New Yorker would not have made a happy marriage.

I am speaking now of Harold Ross’s New Yorker , the magazine of James Thurber, Robert Benchley, E. B. White, and S. J. Perelman with the elegant editing of Ross himself, Katherine S. White, and William Shawn. I think that if Mark Twain had submitted Pudd’nhead to that New Yorker , he would have got back one of those polite notes in which editors say that while there is much to admire in your manuscript, they are afraid it’s just not for them.

And there is the nub of the matter: Mark Twain was not for The New Yorker , and not simply because the magazine didn’t exist in Twain’s time. Mark Twain was not for The New Yorker for the same reason that James Thurber was not for National Lampoon .

Twain was Western, The New Yorker Eastern. Twain came out of nineteenth-century frontier culture, meaning a world with no memory older than last week. The New Yorker , though modern as skirts above the knee, represented an Atlantic-seaboard culture with a memory that reached back to a time when Americans were colonials and considered themselves English. With a little streamlining, Benjamin Franklin’s “Silence Dogood” humor columns of 1728 would have been right at home in The New Yorker . In the Spectator pieces of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Englishmen working in the early 170Os, you see a couple of embryonic New Yorker staff writers.

I don’t want to overstate the case. The New Yorker has conditioned me to eschew overstatement. If fancy Easterners of post-Civil War America considered Twain a rustic vulgarian, the quality folk of Europe adored him. Oxford gave him a degree. Distinguished English writers like Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, and Anthony Trollope wanted to be introduced when he came to Britain.

The trouble at home was our long-cultivated sense of inferiority to everything European. In the overstuffed parlors of striving nineteenth-century America he was a potential embarrassment. You could never be sure he wouldn’t say something to embarrass the whole family when you had the preacher in for Sunday dinner.

Twain’s was the voice of the country’s frontier newness, brashness, vigor, disdain for the polite and genteel. It was a voice that enjoyed shocking the squeamish, mocking the piously upright, and laughing at the earnest fraudulence so deeply embed. ded in American life. The problern, of course, was that America was painfully insecure about frontier vigor and newness. Even Abraham Lincoln’s frontier humor seemed to embarrass more Americans than it entertained.

Here am I, overly full of years and self, taking the liberty of criticizing Mark Twain as though he were human.

In a country that had started putting on fancy airs, unpolished humor seemed to menace hopes for creating a high culture. Henry James, yearning for the sublime, wrote, with an exquisitely delicate touch of contempt, “In the day of Mark Twain, there is no harm in being reminded that the absence of drollery may, at a stretch, be compensated by the presence of sublimity.”

What stuffy nineteenth-century Americans deplored in Twain were the qualities that critics still deplore as “bad taste.” “Bad taste” has been applied to the nightclub humor of Lenny Bruce, the television humor of “Saturday Night Live,” the movie humor of comics like Mae West and W. C. Fields, and the comic-strip humor of Carry Trudeau, among thousands of others.

Rude , coarse , and vulgar are the words commonly used to justify a “bad taste” verdict against humor, and they were often applicable to Mark Twain. Rude usually means nothing more shocking than “shows no respect for authority and convention,” while coarse and vulgar mean pretty much the same thing with the added suggestion that the disrespectful party is also an untutored lout.

Mark Twain apparently felt so vulnerable to Nice Nelly criticism that he even let his wife occasionally purge his work of what she considered vulgarities. How the East’s stiflingly insecure society must have weighed him down! Blessed with divine gifts, he yet so yearned for respectability that he took advice from wife and editor when they cautioned him not to let Huckleberry Finn utter that vulgar word hell .

What would have happened had he fallen under the power of The New Yorker ’s editors with their institutional contempt for the old lady from Dubuque? Hannibal, after all, is just a hundred miles or so downriver from Dubuque.

I mean The New Yorker no harm by suggesting it would never have got along with America’s preeminent humorist. The magazine more or less defined American humor for a good third of the present century. It was the citified Eastern voice of an America that, culturally, had begun to leave Europe behind. With The New Yorker American humor began to master the arts of understatement, to refine the crudities of old-fashioned burlesque into satire, to treasure subtlety and wit, things European humor seemed to have done forever. Very quickly, however, The New Yorker was doing them better. For two generations after Harold Ross started his magazine in 1925 it was the home office of American humor. Every high school wit yearning for glory dreamed of being published there, and some of the funniest people who ever wrote the American language actually were. Ross and Hemingway changed the language of American fiction. Both wanted a language rid of ornate fuss and fretwork, a more economical English in which every word counted, every sentence carried weight. The contagious idea that less is more was in the air, and Ross and Hemingway both seem to have caught it.

In The New Yorker this led to a humor of precision. It was vital to find the one word that was exactly right. Writers had to stay within the framework of their original conceit, which meant they no longer enjoyed the freedom to wander away from the subject and browse elsewhere as Mark Twain used to do, sometimes with great effect. In Robert Benchley, Ross was blessed with a humorist who always seemed to be wandering away for a browse far off the premises, and the astonishing brevity with which Benchley managed to make his ridiculous excursions not only upheld the principle of less-as-more but also seemed to satirize the woolgathering of oldfangled essayists.

It is the children of the frontier, vulgar and insolent, who seem to be in charge of the humor business again.

Mind you, I do not insist that this is what Benchley was consciously up to. I don’t know what Benchley was consciously up to, and maybe he didn’t either, and it doesn’t matter because the result was so totally and satisfyingly absurd.

Harold Ross’s triumph encouraged American humorists to concentrate on producing small, highly polished gems. Though a few of the magazine’s stars like Peter De Vries also wrote comic novels, what made it special were its short humor sketches, short stories in the style of James Thurber, the flawlessly casual essay style set by E. B. White, and S. J. Perelman’s hilariously savage but always meticulously wrought assaults on the frauds of American life. The ultimate New Yorker product is Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It comes as near perfection as it is possible to reach without poetry. Even if you have read it before, you’ve probably forgotten how good it is. Try it again.

The New Yorker doesn’t count for so much in the humor business these days. It is the children of the frontier, vulgar and insolent, shocking and rude, who seem to be in charge again. They live a million light-years from Thurber, White, Benchley, and Perelman. The totemic magazine of the new era has been National Lampoon . Writers who grew up working on it, or just loving it, now set the standards of what’s funny, and what’s funny nowadays would have got an even cooler reception than Mark Twain at the old New Yorker .

At the moment Americans seem to prefer everything, including humor, “in your face.” I’m not sure what an American expects to have done “in your face” that is so entertaining, but I believe it is supposed to be something perfectly uncouth and therefore—such is the level of popular expectation here at the end of the century—exhilarating and delightful.

Today’s wit is as subtle as a bladder slapped across the buttocks. The language is blue. The jokes are leers. Crude insult passes as satire. And often, as old Lampoon addicts and “Saturday Night Live” fans know, the ham-fisted assault of it all can be irresistibly funny.

You can propound dozens of explanations for the change. The courts have ended old taboos on crude language and expanded the public’s right to abuse practically everybody. The collapse of public education was bound to end the demand for highly literate humor. There has been a breakdown in the American social contract. And so on. I prefer to think that there are cycles in American culture and that the old frontier tradition has simply come around again in humor, just as it has in gunplay. At its worst, today’s humor makes you fearful about what may happen to the kiddies if you don’t take them away from all this. At its best, it gives us most of the elements that produced Mark Twain. As those spoiled twerps in the beer commercial say, it doesn’t get any better than that.

This essay was adapted from the introduction to Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor , published this month by W. W. Norton. The anthology will embrace both the genteel and rowdy traditions, but not James Russell Lowell’s Biglow Papers : “Encountering these in college many years ago,” Baker explains, “I swore to , have my vengeance though it should take me a lifetime. ”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.