No joke: Bernie Mac is the funniest American writer of the past 132 years. Funnier than Woody Allen. Funnier than Lenny Bruce. Funnier than David Sedaris. Funnier than Mark Twain even, and certainly funnier than Dave Barry. At least, the late King of Comedy is this funny if your barometer for absolute humor involves, like mine, a weakness for profane riffs about funeral services — “Why they call it the wake? He ain’t wakin’ up! You gotta sit there and watch this motherfucka in the coffin! Every now and then it look like he breathin’?” — and the realization that Mac’s untitled short story is the most-hysterical piece in the new book The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor From Mark Twain to The Onion.
Is this book, published by the Library of America, the definitive statement on textual comedy in the history of our republic? Of course it isn’t. Some of the stories in the collection aren’t even remotely funny. Garrison Keillor is counted among the 50, for George Carlin’s sake. And if you feel you haven’t read enough wacky stories about the differences between men and women in your lifetime, well, did I mention Dave Barry’s “Tips for Women: How To Have a Relationship With a Guy” is included in this book?
Of course, the above is simply my take on The 50 Funniest American Writers, which was edited with great care and authority by Andy Borowitz, the standup comedian, writer and founder of the satirical news site Borowitzreport.com (sample headline: “Rabid dog briefly mistaken for Tea Party candidate”). Culled from more than 1,000 stories by Borowitz and his cohorts at the Library of America, the book reasonably could have been titled The 51 Funniest American Writers: Borowitz’s introduction is as funny as anything that follows (save, again, that Bernie Mac piece). “All I know for sure is that these 50 pieces make me laugh,” Borowitz writes. “I assembled this book the way I make a playlist for a party. I don’t try to pick the greatest songs of all time; I just choose songs I like and hope that people have a good time — and that they won’t judge me too harshly when they hear ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.’?”
Borowitz, who will sign and discuss the anthology this Saturday at the Miami Book Fair, recently responded to my questions via e-mail.
Which of the stories in The 50 Funniest American Writers most surprised you, and why?
I was surprised — and delighted — that some writers whom we normally think of as “serious” could be so funny. Langston Hughes and Sinclair Lewis are two that come to mind. I was also surprised that John Hughes, who directed some of the funniest American movies ever made, was such a funny short-story writer. His story that’s in the book, “Vacation ’58,” has never been in an anthology before. It’s amazing.
The oldest story in the book, Mark Twain’s “A Presidential Candidate,” was published in 1879 and the newest, Larry Wilmore’s “If Not an Apology, at Least a ‘My Bad,’ ” is from 2009. There’s no argument that Twain’s work remains funny 100 years after his death, but do you think the reverse would be true? Would Americans in the late 19th century find a story such as George Saunders’ “Ask the Optimist” (from 2006) or The Onion’s “Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia” (from 1995) funny?
I wouldn’t bet on any funny writing being considered funny one hundred years from now. Nothing goes out of fashion faster than what we think is funny. But it’s important to know that that’s true of literary taste in general. Writers we now think of as classics — Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example — actually fell out of print for years before being revived. No one was reading them. My goal in doing this anthology was to create the funniest book for now.
Did you consider any story from earlier than 1879?
Library of America suggested that the starting point for the book should be Mark Twain, and I agreed. Although in retrospect, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is pretty hilarious.
In the book’s introduction, you write, “Whenever you come out with a ‘best of’ list, you’re bound to irritate people, and by ‘people,’ I mean the people you’ve left off the list and their relatives. They start bad-mouthing it, which forces other people (me, and my many Internet aliases) to defend it. If you’re lucky, the controversy goes viral and lots of people start arguing about who deserves to be on the list and who doesn’t.” Now that the book has been out for several weeks, and is a New York Times bestseller, what story has generated the most — or most-memorable — arguments?
I wish I could say that there’s been a lot of controversy swirling about the book, but there’s been a disappointing lack of it. People actually seem to agree with a lot of my choices. One reviewer on Amazon said that he thought the book was great but was only giving me a three-star review because I omitted Robert Benchley. If the sum total of the controversy I’ve created is one pissed-off Benchley fan, I feel that I’ve failed somehow.
Other than the fact that each of these stories made you laugh, did you discover a common theme running through them, either while you were editing the book or after all the pieces had been chosen?
There wasn’t one common thread, but if you read the book, you do see that American comedy writers are drawn to some of the same targets: Both Veronica Geng and The Onion make fun of the news, for example, and both Charles Portis and George Saunders parody advice columns. It’s interesting to see what different writers do with the same idea.
Given the book’s title, and that it was published by the Library of America, what do you feel this book has to say about America and Americans?
Well, the fact that it was hard to narrow the list down to 50 shows just how rich and deep American humor writing is. I don’t know if every country has a similarly rich tradition. I don’t think we’ll be seeing The 50 Funniest North Korean Writers any time soon.
You told NPR that The 50 Funniest American Writers is a “bathroom book.” Which books are currently in your bathroom library?
Right now, I have Fed Up by Rick Perry and This Is Herman Cain! They’re perfect because you can open them to any page and get a quick laugh.
If the Library of America were to publish a Tea Party edition of the book, how would it differ from the original?
It would be the same price, but no tax.
Who is your favorite unintentionally funny writer?
That would have to be Rev. Pat Robertson. You would think that his bit about God creating extreme weather conditions to punish gays would get old, but it never does.
You are a fervent Twitter user with a following of more than 120,000 people. How has writing 140-character jokes affected your approach to comedy?
Prior to Twitter most of my jokes were about 70 characters long, so I’ve had to develop them a little further.
As a comedian, whom would you most like to see the Republicans nominate for president and why?
From a comedy point of view, there’s been an embarrassment of riches. I think Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Herman Cain would all be perfect choices for 2012. The ancient Mayan prophets would agree with me.
Andy Borowitz will appear 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19 in the Chapman Conference Center during the Miami Book Fair. Admission is free but tickets are required. Visit Miamibookfair.com.
Contact Jake Cline at firstname.lastname@example.org.