A History of Humor: 14 Humorists & Their Best Work


Recently I read Paul Johnson’s Humorists–an enjoyable survey of the best English speaking  humorists from the 18th to the early 20th century.

Follows is Johnson’s list of favorite writers, actors, directors, and painters and an example of their best work.

Presented this way I think one can quickly see part of the evolution of humor and comedy in the past 300 years.

1. William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Johnson writes of the painter and print-maker: “The safe laugh at the expense of a sad world is one of the chief effects a professional humorist seeks to bring about, and it was Hogarth’s principal strength.”

Johnson considered Hogarth’s Marriage à-la-mode’s six panel print to be his most popular and must successful work. It’s a story told in six captivating illustrations. The best and most amusing panel illustrates a husband catching his wife with another man. Notice the man sneaking out the window:

2. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Johnson believes Franklin is the father of the American one liner who inspired notables like Mark Twain. His best comedic book, Poor Richard’s Almanac is filled with them.

Highlights include:

  • God heals, and the doctor takes the fees.
  • Eat few Suppers, and you’ll need few Medicines.
  • To err is human, to repent divine; to persist devilish.
  • Speak with contempt of none, from slave to king,
  • The meanest Bee hath, and will use, a sting.
  • Well done is better than well said.
  • Keep Conscience clear, Then never fear.

However, my favorite of Franklin’s works remains a letter he wrote to friend entitled: Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress. Read it.

3. Dr. Johnson (1709-1784)

This is an odd inclusion. Though Johnson is a tremendous wit, he was melancholic, depressed, and his best jokes weren’t even written by himself, but instead transcribed by his friends, notably James Boswell. Yet Johnson argues that Dr. Johnson’s unique outbursts and sharp mind made him a true humorist.

Read The Life of Samuel Johnson by Boswell for a full picture of Dr. Johnson’s irascible, combative personality.

Here’s a typical exchange:

Dr. Johnson: “Nay, Sir, it was not the WINE that made your head ache, but the SENSE that I put into it”

Friend: “What, Sir! will sense make the head ache?’

Dr. Johnson: “Yes, Sir, (with a smile,) when it is not used to it.”

4. Thomas Rowlandson

Rowlandson was an artist and caricaturist with a great amount of talent. More often than not, Rowlandson would use this talent for comedic and sometimes pornographic ends. Here’s his masterwork–The Exhibition Staircase. One small accident turns a sophisticated gathering into a scene out of Animal House.

5. Charles Dickens (1812-1870):

Though Dickens has many amusing characters in his works, his comedic masterpiece remains, The Pickwick Papers.

Here’s an expert, chosen at random, from the book:

The dogs suddenly came to a dead stop, and the party advancing stealthily a single pace, stopped too.

‘What’s the matter with the dogs’ legs?’ whispered Mr. Winkle. ‘How queer they’re standing.’
‘Hush, can’t you?’ replied Wardle softly. ‘Don’t you see, they’re making a point?’

‘Making a point!’ said Mr. Winkle, staring about him, as if he expected to discover some particular beauty in the landscape, which the sagacious animals were calling special attention to. ‘Making a point! What are they pointing at?’

6. Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901)

Johnson includes Lautrec in his list because he painted comic scenes from Paris in the late 1800s.

Here’s one of his favorites, entitled La gueule de bois (the hangover):

7. GK Chesterton (1864-1936)

Like Dr. Johnson, Chesterton was a colossal wit and intellect, but not exactly a comic per se. His humor stemmed from his force and personality, not necessarily his humorous stories. Right after Chesterton got married he ran to a store to buy a gun. Now that he was betrothed he figured he now had to defend his wife.

Johnson recommends all of Chesterton’s books because they deftly explain complicated topics with humor and sharp, thoughtful prose.

In light of the new Pope, readers should read Chesterton’s book on Saint Francis.

8. Damon Runyon (1881-1975)

Apparently I’ve always been of Runyon, but I’ve never known it. He’s the mastermind behind Guys and Dolls. Though he didn’t write the musical, he penned the two short stories the movie was based off.

Runyon wrote funny stories about New York gangsters, gamblers, actors, and hustlers. He came up with lines like, “I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is 6 to 5 against.”

Read: The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown

9. WC Fields (1880-1946)

Juggling as a young man to earn a living, WC Fields broke into the movies as the  lovable hothead. Here’s a scene from one of his many classics, My Little Chickadee

10. Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)

Chaplin was a tireless worker who demanded perfect timing for his jokes.

Johnson loves his movie, The Kid the most. Not only is it funny, but it mimics Chaplin’s hardscrabble youth in many ways. Here’s the full movie:

11. Laurel & Hardy

Always playing the idiots Laurel & Hardy were always an innocent, likable, team you could cheer for.

Johnson believes Laurel & Hardy’s performed at their peak when they worked with Lupe Velez. Here’s an example:

12. The Marx Brothers

Johnson believed the Marx brothers were great at creating chaos comedy. He views this scene from Night At The Opera as the best example of this:

13. James Thurber (1894-1961)

His humorous short stories are decent, but Johnson delights in Thurber’s comic work published in the New Yorker.  Thurber propelled absurdist humor and got a lot of laughs be exploring the relations between men and women.

14. Noel Coward (1899-1973)

Last but not least, Johnson highlights the playwright, director, actor,  and singer Noel Coward.

His clever word play, musical skill, and acting talent are best displayed here:

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