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Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward Hardcover – November 23, 2010

4 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

British historian Johnson (Churchill) misses the mark with this odd collection of biographical snapshots of "humorists"--the term is debatable--throughout Western history. Noting that laughter was first recorded in words in chapter 18 of the book of Genesis, Johnson divides humorists into two categories: those who create chaos for laughs and those who analyze the inherent oddness of individual personalities to find comedy. But instead of using this basic rubric--and all points of intersection--to explore the evolution of humor from the 18th century to our current one, Johnson's portraits of these so-called humorous men (Nancy Mitford is the only woman, and she shares a chapter with Noël Coward) lose any sense of a central thesis. Particularly in the cases of painters Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and Toulouse-Lautrec, Johnson's intense focus on minute details of works not reproduced in the text make his analysis difficult to grasp for readers unfamiliar with the artists' work. Chapters devoted to Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and James Thurber are among the best, and in them Johnson is able to stifle his urge to overanalyze the biographical elements and let the subjects--and their amazing comedic work--speak for themselves. (Dec.) (c)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Historian Johnson takes a serious and thoughtful look at humor, noting that laughter, when you analyze it, is no joke. He launches into an analysis of the pioneers of stand-up comedy, running gags, and one-liners from expected and unexpected sources: Shakespeare to Hogarth, Benjamin Franklin to Laurel and Hardy. He sees the genesis of comedy in either the creation of chaos (W. C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Evelyn Waugh, and James Thurber) or observations of human weirdness (Toulouse-Lautrec, George Bernard Shaw, and Damon Runyon). Chapters offer engaging sketches of the humorists and the life circumstances (some pretty dreadful) and personality quirks that drove their comic or tragicomic outlooks and works. G. K. Chesterton found great humor in the strivings of the Christian faith—and reason—to corral the human spirit, Charlie Chaplin meticulously plotted out his chaotic comic routines, and Charles Dickens reveled in verbal running gags. Other subjects of the droll, revealing profiles are Dr. Johnson, Thomas Rowlandson, Noël Coward, and Nancy Mitford. Johnson masterfully weaves a narrative line among the figures, many of whom don’t spring to mind as comic, with a deep appreciation for their wit in writing, filmmaking, painting, and living. --Vanessa Bush
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1St Edition edition (November 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061825913
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061825910
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,863,269 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
British author Mr. Johnson's longevity allowed him a personal acquaintance with several of the original humorists recounted in this delightful book. His erudite perspective allows inclusion of seminal figures such as Hogarth and Rowlandson from centuries prior to the 20th, as well. Each of the featured characters gets a chapter describing his or her (comedy is not only a man's game; Groucho Marx and W. C. Fields are joined by female wits such as Dorothy Parker and Nancy Mitford) role in the evolution of timeless amusements via stage, screen and in print.

The book's organization is ideal for the reader seeking to spend an hour or two at a sitting. The summation of each artist's era and impact is so thorough that it requires an index. At the conclusion of the book, Johnson leaves off with a helpful set of recommendations about the best reference works to consult on each of the principals. By the time a reader has reached that section, it is a sure bet that at least a few of these luminaries will capture his or her interest sufficiently to warrant deeper investigation.

The pleasure that Paul Johnson takes in his own erudition suffuses his book with a soaring sense of enjoyment that strikes a perfect note for such a treatment.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Warning! Watch your step today. It's April Fools' Day. This day of practical jokes and jokesters is celebrated in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Brazil and Canada. For book lovers in other countries, look it up on Wikipedia. And did you know that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was the most successful comic in history?

So today I bring you a very satisfying book/comedic journey from historian Paul Johnson who channels W.C. Fields: "We know what makes people laugh. We do not know why they laugh."

Johnson, with his unique style of short historical chapters, elegant writing, and deep insights, delivers a cavalcade of comedy--while spotlighting an amazing list of humorists and their secret formulas for making us laugh.

"Broadly speaking," says Johnson, "humor is a matter of chaos or character." So here's a little April Fools' Day dessert for my more discriminating readers who delight in tickling various funny bones (their own and others). Warning! If you are a public speaker and think yourself witty--think again.

LO! & LOL: ABRAHAM AND SARAH. Paul Johnson says "the Old Testament contains 26 laughs, which do not form any particular pattern or expand our knowledge of why people laugh. The first occurs in chapter 17 of the book of Genesis, and is the first time a case of laughter was recorded in words, about 1500 BC." (It's when God appeared to Abraham. "Lo! Sarah, thy wife, shall have a son!" Read Johnson or Genesis for the punch line!)

PRE-TWITTER: 1709-1784. "The sayings of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, which are memorable or at any rate remembered, amount to at least a thousand by my reckoning. The "Oxford Dictionary of Quotations" lists 276, which puts him fourth after Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Kipling."

"He would often say, Mrs.
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Format: Hardcover
Continuing in his line of successful group biographies such as "intellectuals" and "heroes," Johnson gives us a series of short bios on humorists. The book is inconsistent. The introduction is a hilarious historical background to the subject, but the chapters are rather dry. Descriptions of visual art without reproductions are difficult to make interesting, but also there are well-told anecdotes. The last chapter turns into a digression on style and language and ends with the depressing but probably accurate observation that our current culture is too awfully serious and anti-humor.
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Format: Hardcover
If not for humor, where would we be? Paul Johnson has explored the tricky realm of it and has put together a book presenting characters of humor over the centuries. While not exactly the book I had expected, the author has many entries of note.

Beginning with the English painter William Hogarth, Johnson offers up a series of writers, other artists and actual comedians to describe humor during the last three hundred years. Description is the key word here as commenting about humor and experiencing it are two very different things. It's difficult to gauge the laughs one might find in Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson or Toulouse-Lautrec without seeing their works in front of you. Johnson is better when offering up comedic lines from Benjamin Franklin, say, or Noël Coward. These read well.

One gets the impression that Paul Johnson is a very funny man and his introduction is terrific. My only wish is that the rest of the book followed suit with more humor in its content.
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Format: Paperback
"No man but a blockhead writes, except for money."
Paul Johnson quotes this aphorism of Samuel Johnson, and the book leaves one feeling that Paul Johnson lives by it. He wishes to write breezy pastiche, and has indeed found a way to be paid for it. More power to him.

Much of the humor described is public domain visual humor, but it seems neither Johnson nor his editor thought it desirable to illustrate the book. The chapter headings are not reliable indicators of the chapter's contents, which are discursive, subjective, and eclectic observations that often as not take the ostensible subject as more of a point of departure than a true "subject". The slapdash research standards suggest that Johnson wanted to get this manuscript delivered and get on to something else. For example, his chapter on Laurel and Hardy emphasizes their marital difficulties, but frankly confesses that he hasn't been able to find out whether they were married at their deaths.

All that said, I found the book entertaining and informative. Johnson has a deft and often original touch for capsulizing the wellsprings of his subjects' successes in the humor game. His verbal descriptions of visual art reveal a mind with a highly developed visual sensibility. A few more weeks of work in researching, writing, and illustrating this would have yielded an enduring critical contribution. What a pity.
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