Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humor

edited by Michael J. Rosen

Published by HarperCollins Perennial

619 Pages, 2000


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Getting the Dour Out

Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley

 

Sometimes it seems that we've lost our sense of humor. All we tend to hear are the negative items in our society, what the television networks seem to think of as news. We hear of terrorism plots. We hear of civil wars in countries far away. We hear of political factions debating each other.

Shouldn't we hear something sometimes that makes us smile? Something that makes us laugh? What of reviewing school Christmas plays? What of retranslating Madonna? What of cross-dressing with J. Edgar Hoover? Thankfully, we have those essays and more in the newly published paperback, Mirth of a Nation: The Best of Contemporary Humor.

Editor Michael Rosen, author and editor of many notable books for adults and children as well as the literary director of The Thurber House, has collected some funny writing. Seriously, it's good stuff. On each one of the 600-plus pages you can find a gem that makes you snicker, maybe even chortle, or guffaw. Even laugh out loud. As Henry Alford points out "We live in a time in which, increasingly, people are celebrated -- nay, rewarded -- for their ability to harass and vex. And you don't have to be Speaker of the House to join the fun, or even a bilge-spewing talk radio host." I'm not entirely sure who he had in mind (Newt Gingrich? Rush Limbaugh?) when he wrote this.

From the likes of Merrill Markoe, Christopher Buckley, David Sedaris, Kurt Anderson, Sandra Tsing Loh, Ian Frazier, Dave Barry, P.J. O'Rourke, John Updike and many others, we can't help but crack a smile at how they look at our society and the times we live in. Jon Stewart discusses Jesus Christ:

The lack of information and interpretation concerning the life and times of Jesus Christ has, for years, frustrated scholars, theologians and lovers of information and interpretation. To date, the only notable published material on the subject is Franz Shecter's thorough yet ambiguous dissertation, 'That Guy from the Thing.'

So little is known of Jesus because, as Shecter asserts, 'He died a long time ago.'

Mirth of a Nation is the first volume of a biennial series for the art of written humor. The compilation features nearly 150 pieces by 54 of the greatest literary humorists writing today. In Zev Borow's hilarious look at politics in "Upcoming House Votes:"

Differing slightly from many of his colleagues, Terence Roy Erickson, a representative from Kentucky's 11th Congressional District, has proposed a resolution that would label the Spanish Inquisition -- a nearly centurylong period during the 1400s in which the Spanish monarchy and religious leadership brutally tortured anybody who wouldn't convert to Christianity -- 'not all bad.'

I'm slapping my knee right now just reading that over again.

The time has come to laugh! The Cold War is over! The Y2K bug is a thing of the past. It's time to be filled with mirth. If you spend a few weekend afternoons reading Mirth of a Nation, you'll be just that. | March 2000

 

Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye.