Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2014: Comedy

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts reviewing or referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]

Comedy after Death?  (L.Q. Fall 2013: Death.)  I could die laughing.

“Comedy’s tough!” – Jay Leno, late twentieth-, early twenty-first-century American late-night television host and comedian, for those of you reading this is around 2214.  (Consult your mind chip implant for 2214 explanations of American and television.)

Lapham’s Quarterly is the finest publication I read.  One could spend a decent college semester studying a mere handful of the 75+ literary extracts and authors in each issue.  I feel my reviews are woefully inadequate.  Having said that… (I hate that phrase)…


Each quarter per annum editor Lewis H. Lapham and his staff assemble a compendium of thoughts on a particular subject assembled from the span of written history.  The topics in 2013 were Intoxication, Animals, The Sea, and Death.  What could be more fun than that?  Comedy, of course!  Often, however, I felt like this issue Comedy was more like death warmed over. Sooo serious, this humor thing.  Where’s the fun and funny?  It’s here, some of the time.  Other times we are treated to analysis throughout the ages of why we laugh, or not.

At least in L.Q. I am exposed to the great minds of time immemorial without having to read the complete works of each, such is the state of the modern lackadaisical non-classical education.  Else I might have to suffer this:

” I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
— Mark Twain, Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

See!  I’ve been spared, speared, de-inspired!  (And why did Twain read it more than once?)

“To me [Edgar Allen Poe’s] prose is unreadable—like Jane Austin’s [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.” — Mark Twain

THIS is FUNNY!  But neither quote appears in L.Q.  It’s not an encyclopedia after all.

As usual, I digress.

The L.Q. contributors are as diverse as Voltaire, Dorothy Parker, Aristotle, Mark Twain, Moliere, Jonathan Swift, Woody Allen, Lewis Carroll, Plato, Homer, Lenny Bruce, and Charlie Chaplin, to name a very few.

Lewis Lapham’s Preamble on the theme isn’t exactly riotous this quarter, though it has its moments.  His command of the language seems stilted to me (it always does), perhaps an attempt to drag the hoi polloi among us into at least a microcosm of exposure to intelligent language and thought.  (That would be me, scrolling across sentences line by line, word by word, with my index finger pointer, struggling as perhaps I did in 3rd grade elementary, just to mentally pronounce Mr. Lapham’s lofty scribulous composition, never mind Ruskin’s admonition that “you must get into the habit of looking intensely at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning, syllable by syllable-nay, letter by letter”.)

The three sections of the main body, titled Voices In Time as usual, are Situational (26 writings), Observational (24), and Confrontational (26).


Sarah Silverman.  Charlie Chaplin.  Standards cut and dried.  Joseph Heller, Catch-22.  (A genius of dyslexic logic.  I really must read this book.)

Woody Allen, The w@h^o*r#e of Mensa.  (Internet thing about risqué words on some sites, even though Allen’s story is clean.  Don’t get me started on Political Correctness or I swear I’ll digress on you again.)  Hilarious, with more than a small nod to Mickey Spillane or Dashiell Hammett.  You can find this one at http://woodyallenitaliaDOTtripodDOTcom/short-uk.html.  Some of LQ’s readings are available free but not this one.  (The free link changes quarterly, see Archives on that page for back issues.)

There is analysis of comedy, such as Henri Bergson in The Human Element (p. 35):
“The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming, and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable.”


Lewis Carroll is cleverly funny (p. 94):
1. Babies are illogical;
2. Nobody is despised who can manage a
3. Illogical persons are despised.
Answer: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

1. No one takes in the Times unless he is well-educated;
2. No hedgehogs can read;
3. Those who cannot read are not well-educated.
Answer: No hedgehog takes in the Times.

In L.Q. there is usually a writing or 2 or 3 or more that I find fairly incomprehensible, this in addition to my difficulty with Elizabethan/Shakespearean speech or other antiquity or foreign translations.  The analysis of laughter by Herbert Spencer, p.99, was one such piece in this issue.  He has a point but a complementary piece based on modern research, such as, might have been more enlightening.

screenshot screenshot (Inside Front Cover)

‘Kids on a train’ I liked (1923, Robert Benchley Brings the Kids).  The comedy of minding inquisitive you children.

Jane Austen’s dismissive and subtly sarcastic brief on the kings of England is witty.  (P. 108.)

Chris Rock is here, speed of light rant, soooo politically incorrect.  (Not even in the Confrontational section!)  Hilarious.  (P. 128.)

Dorothy Parker, 1927.  Superrrbly witty and cutting.  (P. 130.)


Arthur Miller, Mark Twain,  Freud (Sigmund, a veritable laugh riot(?)).  On and on.

The prologue essays are excellent (and available free).  Once Upon A Time in the West (a lot about Twain) and Split Peronalities (the dark side of comedians).

Don’t get L.Q, read it, and weep.  Read it and smirk, chuckle, laugh, and contemplate.

6 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2014: Comedy

  1. You know, you almost persuade me…but I don’t have a credit card – so I only download free books, and after all, I own copies of most the books mentioned…its really not fair to give page numbers of a book to do with comedy…I love amusing writing, esp good writing like Mark Twain… (I can’t write funny, Ive tried, and it isn’t funny) So yes, you almost persuade me…


  2. You can read many extracts from all L.Q. back issues by going to and clicking View Contents for any issue. The titles in red are free, the others ask you to subscribe. For newest issues substitute ‘comedy’ or ‘death’ in the URL. The Sea does not seem to be archived. Of course without the Table of Contents it is hit and miss to find who wrote what and if it is worth reading. The best extracts are NOT available free. The Comedy issue seems to have less free than others. I loved the Woody Allen piece but I’m easily amused. It can be found here: .


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