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Classic humor and clever caricatures

By Gene Langley / September 9, 1987



Laughing Matters: A Celebration of American Humor, selected and edited by Gene Shalit. Doubleday. 700 pp. $24.95. This book is more than just a laughing matter, it is a carnival get-together with some of the funniest people who ever set pen to paper in essays, scripts, poetry, and cartoons.

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We know the shrewd Gene Shalit from TV. He uses sharp and funny words to destroy the latest Hollywood remake, and he has abundant humor regarding the entertainment world generally. He knows his stuff, and he can be trusted when he offers the likes of Woody Allen, Garrison Keillor, Russell Baker, and E.B. White.

Among the poets Shalit likes, Robert Frost surprises and tickles with a poem about a microscopic mite running rampant across his manuscript. And thank goodness Ogden Nash was not forgotten. ``It's a wise child/ That knows its fodder'' - just to dare one quick quote. Happy news for many readers will be the joy of meeting Don Marquis. His ``archy the cockroach,'' jumping head down onto the typewriter keys because ``expression is the need of my soul'' will open the world of ``mehitabel the cat'' (Archy had to type everything lower-case) and assorted characters and assorted adventures only Don Marquis could see and realize. A must-read classic.

The old days of radio (anybody remember when radios had to warm up?) come back with a great script starring Fred Allen and Jack Benny. Even without ``hearing'' Fred Allen's dry, ever so slight whine, it is marvelous. George Burns with his teammate and beloved mate Gracie Allen had scripts that are still full of inspired lunacy.

And it was a grand idea to include cartoons. There are some long-ago favorites for the scholar. Gluyas Williams of New Yorker fame seems mild today, but his stylish drawings and situations enable him to hold his own. George Herriman's Krazy Kat is well represented, and the master deserves every page. We are also brought up to date with the likes of Mike Peters, Garry Trudeau, Johnny Hart, and Jeff MacNelly.

When you really want to concentrate on this book, and these things are best in small doses, study the comedy of artist Mort Drucker and writer Frank Jacobs taking off together on ``Fiddler on the Roof.'' The drawings of Zero Mostel are worth the price of admission. Or put yourself in a different mood with Edward Gorey's ``The Gashlycrumb Tinies.'' Wow.

Shalit makes a pitch for ethnic and dialect humor in his foreword. He quotes Dr. Johnson as saying (to Boswell, of course), ``A jest breaks no bones.'' There is a need to realize that humor does poke at someone or something, but when not unkind, has a friendly inclusiveness. As people can relax, let us hope the objections will fade away, and everyone will laugh at the rip-roaring buffooneries of the great old dialect artists.

Radio, movies, and television have changed the humor we enjoy, but written humor still has a few greats. This collection shows them off, along with their ancestors, in handsome style. Making Faces, Memoirs of a Caricaturist, by Aline Fruhauf. Cabin John, Md./Washington: Seven Locks Press. 304 pp. $19.95.

For hundreds of years, caricatures have been delighting and appalling the literate and illiterate alike. Broadly speaking, caricatures are drawn two ways - the lightning attack (nasty, most often at politicians) and the clever, quicksilver likeness (friendly, more often of other artists and celebrities).

Aline Fruhauf's ``Making Faces, Memoirs of a Caricaturist'' is in the clever and cunning department. Starting in the 1920s, she drew the writers, musicians, and entertainers she always took the trouble to meet and draw from life. Eugene O'Neill, Noel Coward, Alexander Woollcott, Katharine Cornell, Yehudi Menuhin, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky were just a few she drew so delightfully. Her self-caricatures show her development and self-discovery as an artist in various mediums.

A sensitive observer, she vividly remembers what it was like to be an art student in the New York of her youth. She tells of the time she got up enough courage to disagree with her famous drawing teacher. He thought the drawings of the great caricaturist Max Beerbohm were so much unadulterated fluff. Aline knew better.

The '20s and '30s were a kind of golden age of caricature in the United States. Artists such as Miguel Covarrubias were outstanding. Ralph Barton was a famous caricaturist who encouraged the young Aline, and Al Hirshfeld is still going strong today.

For readers interested in the social and cultural world of her time, as well as art students, this is a valuable chronicle.

One of the many good things going on these days is the increased interest in, and recognition of, women artists. In a very special field, Aline Fruhauf was a charmer.

Gene Langley is a former Monitor artist.