Make no mistake, this isn’t a joke book; it’s a cultural study about things we used to find funny—things like bigamy, chamber pots (hmm…perhaps replaced by a seeming contemporary obsession with fart jokes on birthday cards?), drunks, pie fights, zealots and mermaids.
The meat of this book is less in the compilation itself than the way Miller unpacks the contexts, explains why these subjects were funny in their time, and why they fell out of favor. The result is a fascinating look at American history—the prejudices, preoccupations, and peculiarities of a nation that remains polarized between urban and rural, black and white, highborn and lowbrow.
The book includes over 100 period illustrations. It’s color throughout and one of the most handsomely designed books I’ve seen from our house this year–a thinking person’s coffee table book.
If you want to dip in, check out the author’s tumblr.
“Miller mines comic strips, cartoons, novelty postcards, joke books, Marx Brothers movies, and Three Stooges episodes to unearth obsolete, semi-forgotten, and downright embarrassing tropes of mass humor…[H]he digs into its psychological resonances: the undercurrents of violence and sadism; racial bigotry and the asymmetric war between the sexes; the conflicting impulses to both stigmatize nonconformists and upend the stuffed shirts, dowagers and cops who police conformity. Miller’s lovingly jaundiced exploration of the way America once laughed crackles with insight; the result is that rare book on humor that is as entertaining as its subject.”
— Publishers Weekly
American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny (9780062225177) by Christopher Miller. $35.00 hardcover. 9/23/14 on sale.