Where Has All the Humor Gone?

We have subscribed to The New Yorker for 30 years.  We read it for the movie reviews, the Cartoon Caption Contest,  and the profiles of Paul McCartney and Mick Herron. We do not read Shouts and Murmurs, the weekly humor piece, because it is just not that funny.

 A longtime fan of the humor writing of Dorothy Parker, E. M. Delafield, Betty MacDonald, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, and Jean Kerr, I wonder what happened to modern humor. 

And so I sat down with The New Yorker and parsed a few of its sinisterly unfunny humor columns to figure out what has happened.

I expected to get off to a good start with Ian Frazier (Western Reserve Academy, Harvard), who is a brilliant writer, despite the handicap of an  Ivy League education.  I admired his book, Family, a history of his family in the midwest , and On the Rez, a history of the Ogala Sioux and a modern account of their daily life. 

The trouble is when Frazier tries to be funny.  The New Yorker recently published his column, “Translation,” a humor “piece” (pow!), or perhaps one would call it a satire of pig Latin, which he purports humorously is derived from the  Latin, which he may have studied at Western Reserve Academy.

He writes:

The earthy, untrammeled, and lyrical other language that I’m referring to was derived originally from Latin, hence its common name, Pig Latin. Among linguists, it’s known as Demotic Ay-speak, for the sake of precision, and to remove any allusion to pigs (which have nothing to do with the language). Other members of my linguistic community will tell you that I’m fiercely proud of my fluency and stand up for the language whenever it is misused. I even prefer to read novels in it, because it makes me feel at home. I first encountered the P.-L. version of olstoy-Tay’s “anna-Yay arenina-Kay” in the abridged translation done by Mrs. Erwin’s fifth graders. The principal translator, Billy Nolan, was a fully proficient speaker.

Okay, it’s mildly funny.   I prefer LOL funny.  But  what’s with Billy Nolan’s translation of “anna-Yay arenina-Kay”?  I happen to know Ian Frazier studied Russian, and perhaps he has read Anna Karenina in Russian.  I wonder which translation he prefers, if he reads it in translation: the illy-Bay oland-Nay, the aude-May, or perhaps the -onstance-Cay arnett-Gay?

I would say that this column is Medium Funny. 

It does make me want to reread Anna Karenina.  Thanks, Ian azier-Fray.  

And now on to a second Shouts and Murmurs “piece,” “Making of,”  by John Kenney, who, according to The New Yorker bio, has contributed to the magazine since 1999 and is the author of six books. 

This column takes the form of a Zoom call, or do I mean a Platonic dialogue?  A writer, art director, strategist, and account exec. are planning a Budweiser commercial. A terse Stream-of-consciousness is their medium of conversation.   

It begins with the writer.

Writer:  We open on a horse.  Cut to, like, a farmer.  Then a welder.  Then a man on a horse.  Maybe a jockey.  We hear a voice-over.  Reciting the Gettysburg Address.

The writer and art director are obsessed with the farmer’s “bare muscular chest… gleaming with sweat,” and invent another farmer who “is also half nude and insanely fit.  And he has a look that says, ‘Let’s do this.’”  Later, the writer imagines American flags everywhere.  “And when we cut back all the men are in drag.”

There apparently must be a horse. The writer insists.  Perhaps a farmer shoeing a horse, perhaps a horse running slo-mo, perhaps someone doing something with a horseshoe.  The writer finds this all very sexy!   Well, a horse is a sex symbol, if I remember my D. H. Lawrence (and you know I do).

I would find this column funnier if I had ever seen a Budweiser commercial.  But honestly I hate sports, and isn’t that where beer commercials air?

I consider Kenney’s column Kind of Funny, but not very.

You’ll be thrilled to know that I genuinely enjoyed a witty Shouts and Murmurs column by Samantha Irby, a comedian and essayist.  She made me laugh with her column, “Please Invite Me to Your Party,” in which she assures her potential hosts that she will try all their weird party food, appreciate their deep cleaning, and charm their family to the point that their dad will invite her to a football game, “an invitation I will dodge till one of us dies.” 

I love her assessment of her personal charms:  she is a fun guest who will do all she can to support and make the hosts the stars. 

“Who is that fat ghost?” your friends will ask as they swipe through the photos you posted to prove that you know people and like to have a good time. Then they’ll swipe to your in your sequined dress and sigh in commitment, immediately forgetting about me.”

Ah, memories of parties past!  Like Irby, I am happy to keep the cat company.  

She continues.

So I can come, right?  You’re gonna text me the address and your favorite brand of tequila?  I need to be invited more than anything I’ve ever needed in my life.  Because, trust me, really am great at a party.  Especially since I won’t show up.

This is hilarious!  I do love a good party where everybody mills and throngs, the conversation flows, and nobody networks.

Especially when I don’t show up.

4 thoughts on “Where Has All the Humor Gone?”

    1. I do like Dave Barry and used to look forward to his columns in the paper. Is he still around? I’ll have to get a collection of his columns.

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, and I am so thankful to actually see somebody say this! American humor has gone downhill in recent years, due no doubt to TV, computer life, and lack of reading and education. That the New Yorker’s wit should have turned into something resembling a stupid sitcom, is depressing.

    1. I’m sure there are some great humorists today, but I don’t know their work! Shout and Murmurs is probably the weakest feature in The New Yorker. Still a great magazine, but the great humor writing is apparently elsewhere. Irby IS good, though!

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