Jean Shepherd

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?



Comedy v. Tragedy, Round 2

In this example of humor through pain, Jean Shepherd recalls a family trip to the county fair.

Context: the “old man” takes his two sons on his favorite amusement park ride, a “real gut buster” called the Whirligig Rocket Whip.  Once suspended in air, the old man loses his pocket change and his favorite fountain pen (the one with his name on it). That’s when the ride starts getting serious, as described in this excerpt:

Higher and higher we flew, swooping low to scream upward again. My kid brother, chalk white, whimpered piteously. I hung onto the iron bar, certain that my last hour had arrived. My head thumped the back of the car steadily as it spun.

“Ain’t this fun, kids? Wow, what a ride!” shouted the old man, sweating profusely. He made a grab for his hat as it sailed past.

“Wave to Ma, kids! There she is!”

It was then that the operator turned the power on full. Everything that had gone before was only a warm-up.  Our necks snapped back as the Rocket Whip accelerated. I was not touching the seat at any point. Jack-knifed over the bar, I saw that one of my shoes had been wrenched off my foot. At that moment, with no warning, my kid brother let it all go. His entire day’s accumulation of goodies, now marinated and pungent, gushed out in a geyser. The car spun crazily. The air was filled with atomized spray of everything he had ingested for the past 24 hours. Down we swooped.

“My new pongee shirt!”

Soaked from head to foot, the old man struggled frantically in his seat to get out of the line of fire. It was no use. I felt it coming, too. I closed my eyes and the vacuum forces of outer space just dragged it all out of me like a suction pump.

From “County Fair,” in Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories by Jean Shepherd



Son of 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?”


Here’s a descriptive passage I like:

QT_Flannery2Mr. Shortley, without appearing to give the feat any consideration, lifted the cigarette stub with the sharp end of his tongue, drew it into his mouth, closed his lips tightly, rose, stepped out, gave his wife a good round appreciative stare, and spit the smoldering butt into the grass.

“Aw Chancey,” she said, “haw haw,” and she dug a little hole for it with her toe and covered it up. This trick of Mr. Shortley’s was actually his way of making love to her.

(From “The Displaced Person,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor)

I appreciate O’Connor’s gothic sense of humor. The button is what makes it even more humorous: to know that this is one way Mr. Shortley makes love. Did you know that O’Connor was a cartoonist for awhile, early in her career, and even submitted her cartoons for publication? Click this link for more.

And another passage from another favorite writer:

QT_WandaHickeys2I struggled frantically to my feet, spilling Diet Pepsi over the front of my brocade smoking jacket as I flailed about. There wasn’t a second to lose. Lurching forward, grasping for the knob, I fell heavily over the coffee table. On hands and knees, I scrambled forward, hoping to kill the TV set before it was too late. With a groan, I realized that once again, I had lost. The late-late-movie curse had struck again. I sat back to accept my fate. (from Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters by Jean Shepherd)

Jerry Seinfeld cites Jean Shepherd as a major influence on his style of humor. I like to read Shepherd to see how to craft humor out of the seemingly little things in life.  It certainly worked for Seinfeld. I employed his technique of the everyday in my own humorous memoir Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak.

And here’s another paragraph I like, one of many, from Shepherd’s hilarious collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash:

QT_InGod2My father loved used cars even more than he loved the White Sox, if possible. A Used-Car Nut is even more dedicated than the ordinary car worshiper. A true zealot never thinks in terms of a new model. His entire frame of reference and system of values is based on acquiring someone else’s troubles. It is a dangerous game, and the uncertainty of it appeals to the true Used-Car aficionado the same way that Three Card Faro draws on the profligate.

I know the used-car world well. In my time I’ve owned a Pinto, a Buick, and a Corvair, all used cars or what is now euphemistically referred to as pre-owed vehicles. It sounds like the fleet Christopher Columbus would have taken to the New World had his trip been sponsored by Detroit instead of Spain.