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American Funnymen: John R. MacArthur's Take on Thurber and Addams

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Pollux writes:

Funny men aren’t necessarily happy men.

People who invited P.G. Wodehouse to dinner parties, expecting him to spout witticisms and throw bread rolls at the waitstaff, found him to be a very shy and very quiet man.

And the waggish S. J. Perelman was, according to his biographer Dorothy Herrmann, a “contained,” “testy, easily depressed man.” As the poet Hartley Coleridge once wrote, “And laughter oft is but an art / To drown the outcry of the heart.”

In this Harper’s Magazine article, John R. MacArthur sees a gloomy side to James Thurber as well. Thurber’s lugubriousness is confirmed by testimony from Charles Van Doren, who recounts that Thurber once wept because he felt that he had been struck by blindness as punishment for lampooning “poor, weak people.” Hardly the person you want to liven up your cocktail party.

MacArthur considers Charles Addams, a man whom most associate with gloom and doom, a credible rival to Thurber as one of America’s foremost funnymen. Addams’ work was not oppressed by bitterness and coldness.

Upon visiting the Charles Addams Foundation, in Sagaponack, Long Island, MacArthur remarks that “Addams’s cartoons, displayed throughout the house among other memorabilia, were simply laugh-out-loud funny. And—odd for such overtly sinister humor—I didn’t feel bad, or mean-spirited, after I’d laughed.”

MacArthur finds more warmth in the macabre relationship between Morticia and Gomez than that between Thurber’s Mr. and Mrs. Mitty.

Indeed, Addams is underappreciated while the bitterness to Thurber’s humor has been underestimated. While Addams had his cartoon men and women exchanging potshots on relatively equal terms, Thurber’s humor is predictable in the sense that his women are always menacing, domineering figures.

I channeled this frigidity between the sexes when I created a lost Thurber cartoon on April Fool’s Day. I depicted a large, mean-looking woman about to attach horseshoes to her milquetoast spouse’s feet, which I felt represented a classic Thurber cartoon.

Do I find Addams funny? Absolutely. Like Rea Irvin, he deserves to be remembered for the full body of his work rather than only for a component of it.

Do I find Thurber funny? Yes, and he continues to inspire me and many others in different ways. I speculated, for example, if Thurber would have used an iPhone to draw his unhappy couples. What would these drawings have looked like? If I ever get an iPhone, perhaps I’ll try my hand at creating more pseudo-Thurberian work.

Our culture owes a debt of gratitude to both men. In the hallways of that eternal pantheon of American humorists, whether these hallways ring laughter or with tears, there is plenty of room for both Addams and Thurber, and room for many more humorists of the present and future.

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