Roman Jokers

Illustration by John Leech from The Comic History of Rome, 1852

In 1984 the American satirist Veronica Geng was asked to introduce a reprint of Dwight Macdonald’s
Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After. Rather than writing a conventional preface, she decided to depict the authors in the anthology as characters from the Travis McGee mysteries of John D. MacDonald—or rather, from their jacket blurbs: “Cyril Connolly—whose bait box harbored a poisonous cargo”; “Robert Benchley—the Vietnam vet who drifted freely between the glittering cabanas of the Fun Coast and the oil-stained walkways of a derelict marina”; “Jane Austen—bright, petite, blonde, suntanned—she couldn’t get a license to open her health spa, but she didn’t need a license to kill.”

Why is this piece funny? The answer, according to one popular theory, is that humor is grounded in incongruity. Certainly a good part of the fun here lies in encountering familiar figures in an unfamiliar light: H.L. Mencken as ill-fated condo salesman, or Ring Lardner as “human flotsam” churned up by the “Colombia drug-smuggling underground.” And of course the whole piece rests on a basic crossing of verbal wires (what if Dwight Macdonald were John D. MacDonald?).

A rival explanation holds that laughter springs from a feeling of superiority—a “suddaine Conception of some Eminency in our selves,” as Hobbes put it, “by Comparison with the Infirmityes of others.” Geng’s squib might seem to offer less support for this theory. But look again. Obviously the piece requires some generic familiarity with hard-boiled detective novels and their blurbs. But it also helps to know something about the individual authors. For the descriptions are not as arbitrary as they may appear. “Petite, blonde” Jane Austen’s unlicensed “health spa” is Bath transported to the Gulf Coast. The real Cyril Connolly’s bait box really did harbor a poisonous cargo. Benchley was adrift in his later years, his talent drained by Hollywood (“the Fun Coast”) and the bottle (the “derelict marina”).

In Geng’s alternate reality, “Raymond Queneau” is a charming and cynical freighter captain (one can almost see the Gauloise dangling from his lower lip) who learns that “it took more than charm to commit a multiple murder that spanned an ocean.” Is this a comment on the slight but charming Exercises In Style? Or even on Geng’s own, rather Queneauvian oeuvre? Surely part of our enjoyment here derives from our hard-won membership in the Club of Those Who Get It: the old lady from Dubuque would not see the joke.

Yet another view would consider laughter as a displacement or release of emotional or psychological tension. Here it is worth glancing at Geng’s own disarming account of the piece’s origins. She was up against a deadline, and casting about for ideas. A friend had idly floated the Macdonald/MacDonald premise, which in turn had reminded her of the Gulf Coast. “My brother and I had just…

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