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Howard Chaykin’s Guide To Humorous Fiction

It all starts with P.G. WODEHOUSE—although I didn’t find him ‘til much later—but the three guys here are, to varying degrees, his spiritual sons, or at the very least nephews or sons in law.

 

PATRICK DENNIS

  • AUNTIE MAME
  • GUESTWARD HO!
  • LITTLE ME
  • THE JOYOUS SEASON

Dennis was born Edward Everett Tanner III and died under that name—more on that shortly.

He is best known for AUNTIE MAME, mostly as a result of the unfortunate musical version of the film, MAME. This should not be held against him.

His work, at its best, and the four books noted above are all pretty damned good, reflects a comic sensibility that might not have aged well—I haven’t investigated to confirm or deny this—but his work informs my upbringing that I owe a debt of thanks that can never be repaid.

He lived a double life as a married and successful author, while coexisting as a member of the Greenwich Village homosexual art scene.

He was a huge bestseller, then, suddenly, he wasn’t—like Preston Sturges, it would seem.

He spent the last years of his life living and working as a butler, under his real name. Really.

 

MAX SHULMAN

  • THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS
  • THE FEATHER MERCHANTS
  • RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS

Shulman was less eccentric than Patrick Dennis, but no less an influence on my way of thinking in terms of comedy.

I first became aware of him, as most of my generation did, as a result of the television series based on his Dobie Gillis stories. This is why for me Bob Denver will always be Maynard G. Krebs (“You rang?”) rather than that fucking Gilligan.

Again, I can’t speak for how well this material might have aged—or not—but I wouldn’t be the sublime snark fest I am today without this and the others listed here.

 

JACK DOUGLAS

  • NEVER TRUST A NAKED BUS DRIVER
    MY BROTHER WAS AN ONLY CHILD

Douglas is the outlier in this trio. He’s not a novelist, but a humorist, with an absurdist sensibility that anticipates a line of thought the National Lampoon would explore twenty years later.

His nonlinear way of thinking was a revelation to me, at twelve, when the idea of a book–a book, for fuck’s sake–that could make me laugh so hard I’d nearly piss myself was unheard of.

He was a member and mainstay of Jack Paar’s writing staff, and occasionally showed up on the panel with his Japanese wife, for what even then felt like bullshit malaprop comedy.

The screenwriter Ben Schwartz, no mean slouch in the humorist department himself, wrote a great profile of Douglas for the WGA magazine. It’s worth finding.

And finally,

P.G. WODEHOUSE

  • CODE OF THE WOOSTERS
  • LEAVE IT TO PSMITH

It was until I read Wodehouse that I completely understood the meaning of that classic Anglicism “fey.” The work is droll, rather than hilarity making, but it’s so brilliantly constructed that the reader is carried along by the nonsense.

Just as too many people today think they know all about William Randolph Hearst from a viewing of CITIZEN KANE, an awful lot of Americans’ assumptions about Great Britain are owed to Wodehouse’s signature portrayal of upper-class twits.

A few years back, we saw a near/quasi-Vaudevillian reimagining of CODE OF THE WOOSTERS, entitled PERFECT NONSENSE, starring Stephen Mangan and Matthew MacFadyen as Wooster and Jeeves respectively, in the West End.

It was absolutely brilliant, and came close to making me forget Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry—but nothing could.

And since Wodehouse, for better or worse, is one of the architects of what would ultimately become the American Musical theater, it seems right to go out on stage and screen adaptations of his best work.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin – a prince

 

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