LONDON — Compiling an anthology - ``particularly of humor, when everybody knows exactly what humor is about'' - is ``really putting your head on the guillotine block and handing the cord to the nearest critic,'' says Frank Muir, editor of a mammoth comdendium of humorous prose. `I FEEL rather like a mastodon,'' Frank Muir confesses, emitting an extensive, rippling chuckle. ``I mean ... a prehistoric elephant - who, after 16 years, has given birth to a calf - and feels empty and disinclined to have another one quite yet.''
A large, genial man, though scarcely looking elephantine or extinct, Muir, sporting a pink-and-gray bow tie, sits with a kind of weighty lightness on a sofa in the Groucho Club here.
In Britain, Muir is a household name - and a household face, because of his enormously popular TV appearances in a verbally inventive panel game, ``Call My Bluff.''
In his early days, he (with Denis Norden) wrote (now classic) radio comedy scripts, what his ``Who's Who'' entry used to call ``wit-substitute.'' This year's ``Who's Who'' no longer says that, though Muir's hobbies are still the same: ``book-collecting'' (he owns a first edition Johnson's Dictionary) and ``staring silently into space'' (which he didn't do at all during our interview).
The metaphorical ``calf'' to which he has given birth is ``The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose.'' It is subtitled: ``From William Caxton to P.G. Wodehouse, A Conducted Tour by Frank Muir.'' Publication date in New York (later in the United Kingdom) was rumored to be April 1. But who ever heard of a book being published on a Sunday? What isn't rumor is that this mammoth undertaking (after the initial proposal from the Oxford University Press and discussion of the book's form, 12 years of reading, editing, assembling, and writing introductory passages) has resulted in a tome 1,147 pages long (not counting the index): a book you will never want to put down - once, that is, you've physically managed to pick it up. And this is the slimmed-down version. The publisher asked him, on delivery, to cut it 400 pages. An unfortunate curtailment, perhaps - it meant that, among other borderliners, Woody Allen had to go, and one or two writers were excised by date: 1977 is the book's chronological cutoff.
Muir doesn't see how critics can be ``anything but contrary'' towards his book. One line of defense he's thought up, however, involves a further Muir simile: The book, he argues, ``is like certain areas of the Mississippi'' where ``the breadth is so enormous that at any given point it's only three inches deep.''
Though he is unpretentious to a fault about his book (``Theory,'' he informed me, ``is not the point of the book. The point ... is a funny read.''), Muir is nevertheless quite happy to chat inconclusively for a while about what is or isn't humor, though ``everyone'' has their own ``little theories,'' and ``everyone is right.''
For Muir, humor isn't ``wit.'' He likes Aristotle's definition of wit as ``educated insult.'' And humor isn't an airing of prejudices. Humor isn't satire. Humor is ``when you've got both legs down one pyjama trouser'' he suggests - but if that means humor is comedy, that's not it either. Muir doesn't believe that humor announces itself. ``You should never claim that a thing's funny, you see. I don't say `This is a funny piece' anywhere in the book.''
And humor isn't ``jokes.'' He enters a complaint about disc jockeys asking him (as they publicize the book) questions like ``What's your favorite joke?'' That, he mutters, ``has nothing whatever to do with this book.... Not only have they not read this book, they haven't read any book since they were about seven!''
``Liberty'' (social, political, presumably) is a prerequisite of humor according to Muir (and others). ``Gaol-humor'' is a misnomer. That should read ``gaol-comedy.'' He says: ``All desperate people joke. Jokes are a means of release, the way you keep going. Humor is quite different.'' Humor often involves sympathy for the underdog. Humor is middle-class. Humor is observational. Above all - humor is English.
This, says Muir, isn't a matter of national pride. It's the same as people of different countries having different color hair. He is unembarrassedly positive about the Englishness of humor. And of his own humor. A previous Muir book ``An Irreverent Companion to Social History'' was a No. 1 bestseller in Britain and the Commonwealth and is still in print.
In the US (under an unquotably longer title) ``it didn't do very well'' because his ``work is very, very English.'' He feels that the English forms of irony and ``ridiculous understatement'' sit ``uncomfortably with some Americans.''
There are, however, numerous striking examples of American humorous prose in his book, and also examples from Australia and New Zealand. But the bias is still overwhelmingly English (not even Scottish, Welsh, or Irish).
Muir gives far more space to some authors than conventional anthologies might: Dickens, for instance. He wanted to be fair to a writer who has such ``wonderful ways with paragraphs.... And when he introduces a minor character, he takes him to wardrobe, and takes him to make-up - describes his face - gives him a voice-trick and shoves him on! I give four or five examples of this.''
Some somber writers are shown to have wonderful veins of humor: Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. And Muir doesn't turn his nose up at minor writers with humor to their credit. He mentions particular pleasure in ``Ravenshoe'' by Henry Kingsley (brother of ``Water Babies'' Charles Kingsley).
To P.G. Wodehouse, Muir gives the finale and a generous number of pages. Muir corresponded about the book with Wodehouse.
``I've done a lot of Wodehouse, really to correct people who've heard about him but don't read him all that much.'' He even feels that Wodehouse character Bertie Wooster has been badly misunderstood. ``He wasn't a `chinless wonder'. He was in fact extremely intelligent - in the sense that he used his brain to maximum capacity. The fact that it was about the size of a split pea was unfortunate.'' But Muir insists that Bertie wasn't ``just stupid. And he's not a waster - he's busy, busy all the time...''
Not convinced? Better buy the book and see. And laugh.