Issue 136, Fall 1995
Longtime readers of The Paris Review will be aware that focusing on a single topic—humor—is something we have never done before. Our original statement of purpose was quite simply to steer clear of critical evaluations and concentrate on publishing fiction and poetry. Perhaps because two of the original editors, John Train and the undersigned, as well as the magazine’s first publisher, Sadruddin Aga Khan, spent undergraduate years at the Harvard Lampoon, the hope had always been to leaven the contents of the average issue with an occasional droll or sly piece, almost as if to keep one’s hand in. In I960 a humor prize was established by Gertrude Vanderbilt who had voiced mild dismay at the lugubriousness in the magazine she had discovered here and there. Its first winner was the novelist Terry Southern (Candy, Flash and Filigree, Red Dirt Marijuana) who won it with sketches about a crazed billionaire, Grand Guy Grand, who used his fortune in bizarre ways to startle the electorate (and indeed Gertrude Vanderbilt!)… sketches which became the novel, The Magic Christian. Winners since then included Bowden Broadwater, Hughes Rudd, Stanley Elkin, Rosalyn Drexler, Mordecai Richler, and Paul Spike. After a hiatus of fourteen years John Train reinstituted the prize under his name. Winners during his regime included T. Coraghessan Boyle, Stephen Dixon, D.F. Wallace, Edna O’Brien, Padgett Powell, Robie Macauley and Dan Leone. Then the prize was once again discontinued, largely because of disagreements between the donor of the prize and the editors as to what was funny. Perhaps the contents of this present issue will inspire someone to come forward and start up the prize yet again.
Humor, in fact, has often been a topic raised in the interviews on the craft of writing, which have been running in the magazine since its founding in 1953. It would seem appropriate to offer a number of excerpts. They follow:
Henry Green: If you can make the reader laugh he is apt to get careless and go on reading. So you as the writer get a chance to get something on him.
Bernard Malamud: The funny bone is universal. I doubt humorists think of individual taste when they’re enticing the laugh. With me humor comes unexpectedly, usually in defense of a character, sometimes because I need cheering up. When something starts funny, I can feel my imagination eating and running. I love the distancing—the guise of invention—that humor gives fiction. Comedy, I imagine, is harder to do consistently than tragedy, but I like it spiced in the wine of sadness.
S.J. Perelman: It may surprise you to hear me say—and I’ll thank you not to confuse me with masters of the paradox like Oscar Wilde and G.K. Chesterton—that I regard my comic writing as serious. For the past thirty-four years I have been approached almost hourly by damp people with foreheads like Rocky Ford melons who urge me to knock off my frivolous career and get started on that novel I’m burning to write. I have no earthly intention of doing any such thing. I don’t believe in the importance of scale; to me the muralist is no more valid than the miniature painter. In this very large country, where size is all and where Thomas Wolfe outranks Robert Benchley, I am content to stitch away at my embroidery hoop. I think the form I work can have its own distinction and I would like to surpass what I have done in it.
James Thurber: With humor you have to look out for traps. You’re likely to be very gleeful with what you first put down, and you think it’s fine, very funny. One reason you go over it is to make the piece sound less as if you were having a lot of fun with it yourself. You try to play it down. In fact, if there’s such a thing as a New Yorker style, that would be it—playing it down.
E.B. White: Writing funny pieces is a legitimate form of activity, but the durable humor in literature, I suspect, is not the contrived humor of a funnyman commenting on the news but the sly and almost imperceptible ingredient that sometimes gets into writing. I think of Jane Austen, a deeply humorous woman, I think of Thoreau, a man of some humor along with his bile.
The editors would like to express their appreciation to the considerable cast who contributed to this “theme” issue —the interviewees (Woody Allen, Garrison Keillor, Calvin Trillin), the large number of writers who responded to the questionnaire (The Man in the Back Row Has a Question), Harold Bloom, of course, the cartoonists, and lastly the panelists who convened at Drue Heinz’s Casa Ecco to discuss “Whither Mirth?” For those readers who find their efforts lacking—not enough laughs, too much pontificating — it should be recalled that Aristophanes warned that his chorus of birds would fly up and defecate on the heads of the judges if his comedy was not appreciated …