Charles Portis

The Real List of Adrian Messenger (if he had a sense of humor)

Here are a few–well, fifty–of my favorite writers who traffic in the craft of humor, in alphabetical order by first name: Alan Bennett, Andrew Bergman, Andy Borowitz, Art Buchwald, Billy Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman, Calvin Trillin, Carl Hiaasen, Charles Portis, Craig Wright, Dave Barry, David Ives, David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, Douglas Adams, Dr. Seuss, Elaine May, Elmore Leonard, Flannery O’Connor, George Carlin, H.L. Mencken, Ian Frazier, James Thurber, Jean Shepherd, Ken Ludwig, Kurt Vonnegut, Lewis Caroll, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, Mark Twain, Mel Brooks, Michael Frayn, Moliere, Molly Ivins, Neil Simon, Nora Ephron, O. Henry, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, Roy Blount Jr., S.J. Perelman, Stanley Elkin, Stephen Leacock, Steve Martin, T.C. Boyle, Theresa Rebeck, Walt Kelly, William Shakespeare, and Woody Allen.

What’s your list of humor writers look like?



Reflections in a Funhouse Mirror

In this post, I’d like to share examples of both exaggeration and understatement, used for comic effect. I consider the following Mencken generalization to be a thing of beauty in both simplicity and scope:

Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. (from “Holy Writ” by H. L. Mencken)

As a city reporter, James Thurber was criticized for being too wordy. In response, he filed the following story about a homicide:

Dead. That’s what the man was when they found him. (James Thurber)

Here is an example that combines both exaggeration and understatement in the same passage:

 Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty. (from The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology by P.G. Wodehouse)

Charles Portis has a cult following and I’m one of those followers. Someone once referred to the author’s fans as “Portisheads.” If you’ve never read Portis, you might want to try his novels. One reviewer said Portis creates “Some of the funniest writing ever produced anywhere.” I agree.

He was an authority on history and literature and boasted of having solved mysteries in these fields that had baffled the greatest scholars of Europe. Through Golvscuvian analysis he had been able to make positive identification of the Third Murderer in Macbeth and of the Fourth Man in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. He had found the Lost Word of Freemasonry and had uttered it more than once, into the air, the Incommunicable Word of the Cabalists, the Verbum Ineffabile. The enigmatic quatrains of Nostradamus were an open book to him. He had a pretty good idea of what the Oracle of Ammon had told Alexander.  (from Masters of Atlantis  by Charles Portis)


The Little Guy was Kinda Funny-lookin’

From the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo:

“The little guy was kinda funny-lookin’.”

“In what way?”

“I don’t know. Just funny-lookin’.”

“Can you be any more specific?”

In my next series of posts, I’d like to share what I consider to be successful examples of humorous descriptions. Here’s a descriptive passage by Charles Portis, one of America’s literary legends (imho):


In Laredo I got a six-dollar motel room that had a lot of posted rules on the door and one rubber pillow on the bed and an oil-burning heater in the wall that had left many a salesman groggy. It was the kind of place I knew well. I always try to get a room in a cheap motel with no restaurant that is near a better motel where I can eat and drink. Norma never liked this practice. She was afraid we would be caught out in the better place and humiliated before some socialites we might have just met. The socialites would spot our room key, with a chunk of wood dangling from it like a carrot, or catch us in some gaffe, and stop talking to us. This Laredo room also had a tin shower stall and one paper bath mat. (The Dog of the South by Charles Portis)

Although I love True Grit and consider it an American classic, my favorite Portis book is still The Dog of the South. (Bonus points: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I live, is a setting in the book). I picked up this particular Portis novel after reading a blurb about it by Roy Blount, Jr., who said something along the lines of: “Nobody should ever die without first reading this book.” I agree. Portis’s descriptions are a wonder to behold. And the idea of bumping into socialites in the border town of Laredo staying at a nearby motel is priceless. The Dog of the South is full of such delightful descriptions. Here’s another one:

He nodded and dozed whenever I was doing the talking. His heavy crested head would droop over and topple him forward and the angle-head flashlight on his belt would poke him in the belly and wake him. Then he would sit up and do it over again. I could see a tangle of gray hair in his long left ear. I wondered at what age that business started, the hair-in-the-ear business. I was getting on myself. The doctor had taken me for thirty. I felt in my ears and found nothing, but I knew the stuff would be sprouting there soon, perhaps in a matter of hours. I was gaining weight too. In the last few months I had begun to see my own cheeks, little pink horizons.

When writing humor, remember to have fun with your descriptions. Or, in the words of Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks film The Producers: “That’s it, baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!”