Stella Gibbons

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?



That’s Parody for the Course

In this post, I’d like to analyze the market implications of an emerging global economy, and how to invest your money wisely in these uncertain times using only a Ouija board. But that was too boring. Instead, I’m going to talk about parody and give a couple of examples.

Parody is a humorous, satirical, or burlesque imitation of a person, event, or serious work of literature designed to ridicule in nonsensical fashion or to criticize by clever duplication. The term is also used for a comic imitation of a serious poem, similar to a cartoon caricature of a person’s face. 

Here’s another way of looking at it. “Parody” is from the Greek paroidia, meaning “burlesque poem or song.” At least that’s according to eNotes Guide to Literary Terms.

“If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists,” by Woody Allen, is one of my favorite parodies. Context: Vincent van Gogh corresponded with his brother, Theo. That correspondence was eventually published and became known as the “Dear Theo” letters. Woody Allen wrote a parody of those letters based on a classic what-if setup. What “If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists?”

One brief passage:

Dear Theo,

Once again I am in need of funds. I know what a burden I must be to you, but who can I turn to? I need money for materials! I am working almost exclusively with dental floss now, improvising as I go along, and the results are exciting. God! I have not even a penny left for Novocaine! Today I pulled a tooth and had to anesthetize the patient by reading him some Dreiser. Help.


And later:

Dear Theo,

Gauguin and I had another fight and he has left for Tahiti! He was in the midst of an extraction when I disturbed him. He had his knee on QT_WithoutFeathersMr. Nat Feldman’s chest with the pliers around the man’s upper right molar. There was the usual struggle and I had the misfortune to enter and ask Gauguin if he had seen my felt hat. Distracted, Gauguin lost his grip on the tooth and Feldman took advantage of the lapse to bolt from the chair and race out of the office. Gauguin flew into a frenzy! He held my head under the X-ray machine for ten straight minutes and for several hours after I could not blink my eyes in unison. Now I am lonely.


There are many parodies available, from the wild and wacky Bored of the Rings by Harvard Lampoon to the more subtle yet still hilarious Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Another parody by another Gibbons is The Baloney Code. Written by my friend David Gibbons, a very funny writer, the book was published under the name of Davis Sweet. More recently, Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies became a best-seller.  More parodies in my next blog post.

The Little Guy was Kinda Funny-lookin’ Strikes Back

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?”


More humorous descriptions I enjoy reading:

The farm-house was a long, low building, two-storied in parts. Other parts of it were three-storied. Edward the Sixth had originally owned it in the form of a shed in which he housed his swineherds, QT_ColdComfort2but he had grown tired of it, and had it rebuilt in Sussex clay. Then he pulled it down. Elizabeth had rebuilt it, with a good many chimneys in one way and another. The Charleses had let it alone; but William and Mary had pulled it down again, and George the First had rebuilt it. George the Second, however, burned it down. George the Third added another wing. George the Fourth pulled it down again. (from the novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons)

The above passage is the author’s description of the farm, where Flora (“Robert Poste’s child”) goes to live after her parents die. Gibbons goes on to describe the farm as “crouched, like a beast about to spring” with architectural variations “like ghosts embedded in brick and stone.”

And I especially like this gem from Nora Ephron:

Oh, the necks. There are chicken necks. There are turkey gobbler necks. There are elephant necks. There are necks with wattles and necks with creases that are on the verge of becoming wattles. There are scrawny necks and fat necks, loose necks, crepey necks, banded necks, wrinkled necks, stringy necks, saggy necks, flabby necks, mottled necks. There are necks that are an amazing QT_MyNeck2combination of all of the above. According to my dermatologist, the neck starts to go at forty-three, and that’s that. You can put makeup on your face and concealer under your eyes and dye on your hair, you can shoot collagen and Botox and Restylane into your wrinkles and creases, but short of surgery, there’s not a damn thing you can do about a neck. The neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck. (from I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman by Nora Ephron).

I find the Ephron piece to be a great example of piling on details for humorous effect. The passage uses specific references, such as Botox and Restylane. It includes an epigram about lies and the truth. And it draws an analogy to a redwood tree. This piece works for many reasons, especially because it is self-effacing. If you want to win a reader’s appreciation, make fun of yourself and put that reader on your side right away.