Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Current Reads Reviews

Here are a couple of my current reads, and I will review them now since I am on the "homestretch" of finishing them:

Jack Benny by Mary Livingstone Benny, Hillard Marks, et al. (1978). In my view, Jack Benny was the greatest comedian of all time, a man who practically invented stand-up comedy while in vaudeville and the situation comedy when he was on radio. Benny died 40 years ago tomorrow. He should be remembered--hell, lionized--today considering his huge influence on American comedy. He isn't forgotten, of course, but he isn't as celebrated as he should be.

DVDs of his television series, YouTube streams of his vintage radio programs, and books about him continue to be popular and continue to sell. The book I am currently reading about him, Jack Benny, was one of the first and one of the best to have come out since his death. It may not be the definitive biography, but it offers the perspective of many people who knew him and worked with him, including his wife, his daughter, his friends, his sister, his writers, and his fellow co-stars. You are obviously not going to get these perspectives today since virtually all of these people have since died. The book traces his early life in Waukegan, Illinois, through his vaudeville and radio years, through his years on television, to his personal appearances, and to his death. There are lots of funny and touching stories about him. Benny, of course, was the furthest thing from the character he played, but his character as the vain, stingy, perpetually 39-year-old man embodied all of humanity's flaws. People could identify with him. And of course Benny had that impeccable and unique "timing" where silence was as or even more funny than telling jokes.

Great read, great book.

Humorist Richard Armour (1906-1989) is similarly not as widely remembered as he should be. I loved his work as a kid, and now I am kind of on an "Armour kick" of getting his short volumes of twisted history tales and literary criticism as only he could do. Although he didn't originate the humorous history textbook, he was probably the best known. His 65 or so books include works such as It All Started With Europa, It All Started With Columbus, Twisted Tales of Shakespeare, and this book, It All Started With Marx, published at the height of the Cold War in 1958. You wouldn't think Armour could find humor in Russian history and in the likes of Lenin and Stalin, but only he could pull it off.

Writing the way he did was extremely difficult, but being an academic, which Armour was, helped. He always had the general facts right about history, but he would twist those facts to humorous effect. It helps when you read the books to have general background knowledge about what he is writing about in order to fully appreciate the humor. Once you get into his work, you are hooked for life. I plan to read all of his books, or at least the ones that are currently available. Never miss a chance to read him if you can find his books, which aren't that easy to get.

I have toyed with the idea of someday writing a biography of Armour but written in his style. It would be a very difficult undertaking. I can understand why he opted for short books of a hundred pages or so, including the illustrations. It's damned hard to write humor, and much harder to be successful at it.

No comments: