by Christopher Miller



544pp/$35.00/September 2014

American Cornball
Cover by Ross MacDonald

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Humor is not universal.  What one person finds funny won't impact another person in the same way.  However, there are certain humorous ideas within a culture which are generally accepted, although these also change over time.  Christopher Miller has compiled an encyclopedia of scores of concepts which were once considered funny (and some of which still are) and explores where the humor came from and why they were thought funny in the first place.

Miller's compendium is organized as a dictionary with entries in alphabetical order, beginning with "Absent-Minded Professors" and running through "Zealots."  While zealots may not seem like an intrinsically funny topic, especially in this era of radical religion and politics, Miller makes it clear that in the case of humor, he categorizes zealots as characters who are completely focused on a goal, whether it is catching the Road Runner or stealing a picnic basket.

The entries are mixture of information, supposition, and first person description.  For all that, one of the problems with trying to define humor is that it, of necessity, removes the humorous content from the joke.  When humor of a bygone era is defined, it exacerbates the problem by making unfunny humor that wasn't necessarily funny to today's sensibilities in the first place.  To top it off, Miller's style of writing isn't light-hearted or ironic enough to fully work with these types of entries, resulting in, all too often, definitions which are ponderous.

Nevertheless, Miller does attempt to not only explain why audiences at one time found things like slipping on a banana peel or limburger cheese funny, buy also tries to find the origin of the humor based on those (and other) items.  In some cases, the cornball humor he explores continues, at least residually, the modern era.  In other cases, the humor has long since faded, either because of changes in mores (rape jokes, for instance) or because the object that led to the humor has become more or less extinct.  It is rare to see any references to bindlestiffs, for instance, and other aspects of hobo culture is also dated.

American Cornball is also heavily illustrated with cartoons, advertisements, and other artwork, often in color, that help illustrate the way humor was used at various times. In some cases, such as the entry on "Irishmen" or "Black People" the casual racism of a bygone era is clearly indicated and in many cases, the drawings serve to show just how unfunny the humor of a previous era is to modern sensibilities. 

Despite its shortcomings, American Cornball is both informative and amusing. While it tries to straddle the line between a serious look at things our ancestors, or even we ourselves, found funny at one time and the presentation of that humor in a natural light, it too often errs on the side of the serious.  Miller's task was not an easy one, and while he has clearly done his research, the manner in which he imparts his knowledge to the reader is not always done in the best possible way.

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