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CHAPTER III Humourists
American humour has come to be a bugbear in England, pretty much like American canned meats.

Twenty years ago, when anybody on this side of the Atlantic wished to be rather crudely and shockingly amused, he sent to the libraries for something American. In that day and generation Mark Twain was at the zenith of his fame and powers, and the names of Artemus Ward and Josh Billings were names to conjure with. Autres temps autres moeurs. The popularity of Mark Twain has suffered woeful eclipse, and Artemus Ward and Mr. Billings have gone clean out of vogue, and are remembered only as the originators of a very tiresome kind of humour which depends on phonetic spelling for its more excruciating effects.

The fact is that America and England alike have been dosed to death with the lucubrations of handy scribblers who caught something of Mark Twain’s trick and pretended to something of his gift, and the label “American humourist” nowadays repels with an even greater insistence than it formerly attracted.[30] Mr. Twain made desperate and valiant efforts to retrieve his waning popularity with a book called “A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur.” If ever there was a piece of writing nicely calculated to tickle and make purr the fat-necked American here was the article. But it fizzled in the pan, failed in short to bring ’em on again. And it now belongs to the category of books that people have forgotten. So much for Mr. Twain, whom I admire, but of whom, nevertheless, I have taken leave to speak the truth.

Artemus Ward and Josh Billings are dead, and their souls, I trust, are with the saints; so that they will pardon me when I venture on the opinion that the humour they gave us was of the thinnest sort, and, taking into account the furore it created, extraordinarily ephemeral. However any person of sense came to accept the following for humour passes my comprehension:—
Experiences as an Editor

“In the Ortum of 18— my friend, the editor of the Baldissville Bugle, was obleged to leave perfeshernal dooties & go & dig his taters, & he axed me to edit for him doorin his absence. Accordinly I ground up his Shears and commenced. It didn’t take me a grate while to slash out copy enuff from the[31] xchanges for one issoo, and I thawt I’d ride up to the next town on a little Jaunt, to rest my Branes which had bin severely rackt by my mental efforts (This is sorter Ironical) So I went over to the Rale Rood offiss and axed the Sooprintendent for a pars.

‘You a editer,’ he axed, evinebtly on the point of snickerin.

‘Yes, Sir,’ sez I, ‘Don’t I look poor enuff?’

‘Just about,’ sed he, ‘but our Road can’t pars you.’

‘Can’t hay.’

‘No Sir—it can’t.’

‘Becauz,’ sez I, looking him full in the face with a Eagle eye, ‘it goes so darned slow it can’t pars anybody!’ Methink I had him thar. It is the slowest Rale Road in the West. With a mortified air, he tole me to get out of his offiss. I pittid him and went.”

The essence of this excursion into the realms of the Comic Spirit is about as cheap and small a thing in essences as one is likely to come across. Mr. Ward had made or heard somebody make a punning retort of an ultra-feeble quality, and straightway he rushes off to turn it into humourous lucubration. The Americans believed it was “darned funny,” it raised “gales of laughter” among them, and they[32] shouted about its excellences till the English also began to recognise them. At best Artemus Ward is humour of the “Wot-the-orfis-boy-finks” order, and as such it has always been eschewed by persons blessed with a trifle more than the milk-maid order of intellect.

And lest I be accused of raking up what the Americans themselves choicely term “dead dog” I will ask your attention for the space of a paragraph or two to the brand of the New Humour generally consumed by the inhabitants of the United States in the present era of grace. In this connection it would be easy for one to take a distinctly bitter line; inasmuch as the books of humour as distinguished from the humourous periodicals, nowadays published in America are not really books of humour at all, but aggregations of acrid and wicked cynicism. The authors of them either do not intend to be funny or have no conception of the meaning of fun. Sourness of spirit, meanness of thought, and savageness of expression are their principal standby. In the humourous periodicals, however, you discover a well-defined intention to be funny—though the cynicism and the vitriol are not of course forgotten.

I believe that these periodicals are[33] nicely adjusted to the public requirements, for the American is not out to produce even comic papers “for his health,” and being nothing if not practical, he gives his public exactly “what they want.” Here are some samples of “exactly what they want,” published so recently as May of the present year. First as to verse:
If all the trips I’ve had at sea
Should take effect at once on me,
In one huge, nauseated spell
Gee! wouldn’t I be sick! Well, well!

But possibly the fault is mine. You see I’m English. Perhaps the above example of the New Humour is really a choice sample of the New Pathos.

Again; and this smacks of genius:
Now Birdie Gets His
Of all the things that swim or run,
Man beats in easy pace;
He gives big odds to fin and fur,
And wins in every race.
He hops into his auto-car
And handicaps the horse;
Or takes the greyhound for a try
And licks him even worse.
Perhaps the whale or shark get gay
And want a little go.
Man dives into his submarine
And does them down below.
And now the chesty feathered chap
Must close his gay bazoo,
For man puts on his flying gear
And wallops birdie, too.

As to prose, here you are:
Want Too Much

“Some time ago two surgeons took a ten-pound tumor out of Dave Saunders, an’ to-day he got a terrible big bill for the operation.”

“Is Dave goin’ to pay it?”

“No; he sez, ‘they’ve got enough out of him already.’”

Behold the tippler and mark how he tippeth in the streets. Whoso hath discolouration of the optic? Is it not the meddler? Yea. He that is a lunkhead condemneth that which he comprehendeth not.

Be thou not envious of them that have vacation in time of influenza.

I have not gone out of my way to search for these excerpts in the cheaper class of American comic publication. Nor have I been at special pains to search for blemishes through the files of the ten cent “high class journal” which is laid under contribution. In point of fact, I find them in the first number of that journal which came to my hands, namely, its latest issue obtainable[35] in London. How really foolish and vulgar these samples are! The first set of verses is about being sick; the second set is slangy, ill-expressed and contains a childish mistake in grammar; the first piece of prose is objectionable because of its reference to “a ten-pound tumor,” and the second piece is sheer banality, meaning nothing that is worth a smile.

The plain fact is that humour in America is the humour of fatty degeneration of the intellect. America’s funny man was at one time a fairly clean, healthy creature, with a droll outlook on the facts of life. That he was a trifle over-devoted to rye whiskey and effusive practical jokes, and had a tendency to rank irreverence, were among the defects of his qualities. The great American people speedily learnt to vote him slow, and into his shoes they hurried the hard-faced, terrier-toothed, cigarette-smoking, an?mic, fleering decadent. And at long and last they have set up for their humourous god the sheer hoodlum or larrikin, whose sense of what is comic is even more degraded than that of a Chinaman, and whose view of morality is the view of a naughty parrot. There can be no possible hope for a country whose risible faculties are exercised only at[36] squalid moments or excited only by squalid writing.

No matter how wealthy and hard-headed your man, and no matter how beautiful or accomplished your woman, they are spiritually and morally topsy-turvy if they laugh at the wrong things, and I maintain that the twentieth-century American is consistently laughing at the wrong things, and quite incapable of appreciating the right and proper humour even when you have explained it to him. The Scotch cannot see a joke, the Americans can see only bad jokes.

Nearly all the vilest and most offensive jokes that creep into the third-rate English comics are of American origin. The Weary Willie and Tired Tim business is purely American, so are the Buster Brown and grinning Pup futilities, so are the idiotcies associated with the patronymic Newlywed; so are the disgusting buffooneries about whiskers. The English have learnt that American canned meat is a dubious viand. The sooner they learn that the current American humour is even more noxious the better it will be for the English.

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