5 Great American Humorists of the Early to Mid-20th Century

By Mark Nichol

Humor is in the eye (or, frequently, the ear) of the beholder, but if you prefer elegance in your entertainment and wish to find inspiration for your own mirthful musings, check out the works of these five twentieth-century titans of comic composition.

1. Robert Benchley
Benchley was a master of parody and surreal humor, often writing about an everyman discombobulated by the modern world. He wrote for leading magazines, then went to Hollywood, where he intended only to write but also frequently appeared on camera.

He had modest success in mostly small roles, sometimes alongside top actors but in some of their more forgettable films. (He is probably best known in this capacity as the provider of exposition in the Bob Hope–Bing Crosby classic Road to Utopia.) Benchley found more satisfaction writing and appearing in short film parodies such as the Oscar winner How to Sleep. The Best of Robert Benchley is a good introduction to his writing style.

2. Dorothy Parker
Parker, the model for every woman who dares to have a biting wit, overcame an unhappy childhood and weathered alcoholism, several suicide attempts, numerous unsuccessful marriages and affairs, and criticism of her leftist politics to become one of the great comic writers of the twentieth century.

Her short story collections include Laments for the Living and After Such Pleasures, she published poetry in volumes titled Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, and Death and Taxes, and Constant Reader contains many of the book reviews she wrote for the New Yorker. Parker later worked on stage and film scripts, including A Star Is Born, the screenplay of which was nominated for an Academy Award.

3. S. J. Perelman
This master parodist, considered the pioneering American surrealist, is noted for his wordplay, including metaphors, non sequiturs, and obscure references and terms, and is celebrated overall for his devotion to the absurd. Perhaps you need to know nothing more than that he was the screenwriter for several of the best Marx Brothers films.

His works, more accurately referred to as sketches than short stories, are collected under such titles as Acres and Pains (about the ordeal of owning a Pennsylvania farm) and Crazy Like a Fox — or go for the obvious with The Best of S. J. Perelman. His talent declined as he grew older, but his best is among the best.

4. George S. Kaufman
Kaufman’s humor wasn’t written to be read — he was a prolific playwright and sometime screenwriter — but his scripts are exemplars of writing that induces laughter. Usually in collaboration with one or more other writers — his professional partners included Edna Ferber, George and Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, and Morrie Ryskind — he wrote (and directed and produced) many enduring stage plays and musicals, though he was said to dislike the latter art form.

He shared the Pulitzer Prize for the comedy You Can’t Take It with You and the musical Of Thee I Sing! Other memorable works include Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, and The Man Who Came to Dinner (all of which, like You Can’t Take It with You, were adapted for the screen, all to great acclaim).

5. James Thurber
This American writer and cartoonist, who as a result of a childhood accident lost an eye and was nearly blind in the other, produced an impressive array of wryly amusing stories and illustrations. The book of short stories that brought him fame is called My Life and Hard Times; he also wrote some essays about language, including “The New Vocabularianism,” “The Spreading ‘You Know,’” and “What Do You Mean It Was Brillig?”

He also cowrote a stage play (later adapted into a film) called The Male Animal, and late in life appeared in the theatrical revue A Thurber Carnival, based on his stories, in a segment called “File and Forget.” He is best known for his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (loosely — and, to Thurber’s mind, poorly — adapted into a movie), about a timid daydreamer.

Thurber is the only person on this list who was not a member of the loose-knit assemblage of wits who formed the Algonquin Round Table (named after the New York City hotel they frequently dined at), whose members sometimes collaborated creatively. (He was, in fact, a critic of the group’s sometimes vicious practical jokes — and some of its members, including Dorothy Parker, later disparaged it as well.)

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4 Responses to “5 Great American Humorists of the Early to Mid-20th Century”

  • Alicevee

    How could you possibly leave out Max Schulman?? I realize your title states “five great” and everyone will have favorites but Max Schulman was a towering influence in both books and films and the creator of “Dobie Gillis”.

  • Stephen Thorn

    I’m certain everyone who reads this article will want to add their favorite humorist, so let me join the cavalcade.

    Mark Twain, O Henry (if you haven’t read “The Ransome of Red Chief” you’re poorer for the omission), and Will Rogers would all be good additions to this list.

  • Ray

    OK, while we’re at it how about the late Jean Shepard (A Christmas Story, from IN God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash) and the incredible Paul Rhymer (creator and writer of ’40s – ’50s radio show “The Vic and Sade Show).
    All of Mr. Shepards’ short stories and magazine articles were, are, and always be wonderful reading for young and old.
    Although Mr. Rhymer may be lessor known his scripts were amazing.
    Try to find a book written by his wife, Mary, “The small house halfway up the next block” with a forward by Mr. Raymond Bradbury. Mr. Bradburys forward is most telling.

  • Jon Byrne

    A laugh a day keeps the doctor away, until you keel over from laryngitis.

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