Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humor

Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humor

by Michael J. Rosen

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A salvo of hilarity from that loose canon of American humor that Mirth of a Nation editor Michael J. Rosen has culled from some 1200 pages of brilliantly original works by our best contemporary humorists. This action-packed compilation of highlights includes Bobbie Ann Mason's stint at the La Bamba hotline, David Rakoff's insights on families, Andy

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A salvo of hilarity from that loose canon of American humor that Mirth of a Nation editor Michael J. Rosen has culled from some 1200 pages of brilliantly original works by our best contemporary humorists. This action-packed compilation of highlights includes Bobbie Ann Mason's stint at the La Bamba hotline, David Rakoff's insights on families, Andy Borowitz's memoir of Emily Dickinson (basically, she was a drunken jerk), and Michael Feldman's helpful (re)locating of the Midwest.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
A creative, engaging humor collection.
Seattle Weekly
Plenty of extremely entertaining material can be found here.
Katherine A. Powers
As I read it again, now alone in my apartment, I am once more laughing uncontrollably. —Boston Globe
Richmond Times-Dispatch
The cream of the current humorist crop.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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3 MB

Read an Excerpt

“You'll Never Groom Dogs in This Town Again!”

Henry Alford

Spitting is prohibited in subway cars mainly to:

  1. encourage politeness
  2. prevent spread of disease
  3. reduce the cost of cleaning cars
  4. prevent slipping

From the Telephone Maintainer civil service testAssume that, while a [Bridge and Tunnel] Officer is collecting a toll from a motorist, the Officer sees a child tied up in the rear of the car. Of the following, the best thing for the Officer to do is to:

  1. ignore what has been seen and continue collecting tolls
  2. try to delay the car and signal for assistance
  3. reach into the car and untie the child
  4. tell the driver that he cannot use the bridge unless he unties the child

From a preparation guide for the Bridge and Tunnel Officer civil service testThe proper technique for selling floral designs involves:

  1. ignoring customers when they are waiting for service
  2. being assertive, taking no nonsense from the customer
  3. treating the customer the way you want to be treated
  4. calling the customer “honey” or “dear”

From an exam given by the Rittner's School of Floral Design in Boston, Massachusetts

In earlier, simpler times, you became established in a trade by following a steady path from apprentice to journeyman to master. You matured into a trusted artisan through a natural process, and you did not need to be worried about becoming “certified” and filling in computer-readable answer bubbles with a number-two pencil and responding “true” or “false” on a psychological test to the statement “I prefer tallwomen.” No, a blacksmith was a blacksmith because he was a blacksmith; chandlers chandled and wheelwrights wrought wheels. In today's superrationalized, postindustrial world, however, we trust numbers more than experience, so to qualify for almost any money-making endeavor, from lawyer to interior decorator to cement mason, you may be obliged to take a test. There is a Certified Picture Framers examination. There is an Aerobics Instructors test.

In an attempt to identify exactly what employers and professional organizations are looking for in their employees and members--and, incidentally, to identify exactly what work I might be suited for other than the underrationalized and basically preindustrial labor of freelance writing--I took thirty-one official or practice tests. The tests ranged from tests for bartenders, postal machine mechanics, radio announcers, and travel agents to tests for addiction specialists, geologists, foreign service officers, and FBI agents. (I did not take the exam for state troopers, however, having taken offense at some of the questions in a preparation guide for that test: “When driving a full-sized car, are you tall enough to see over the steering wheel?” “When standing next to a full-sized car, can you easily see over the top?” “Can you climb over a full-sized sedan either lengthwise or from side to side?” The writers of the test seemed to suspect me of being a dwarf.)

My results were not always encouraging; I passed only three tests.There is not yet a test for freelance writers, of course. It occurs to me that perhaps this is just as well.

So You Want to Be a Cosmetologist

In addition to a written test that includes questions on bacteriology, trichology, dermatology, and histology, aspiring cosmetologists in New York State must pass a three-hour-long practical exam. At the busy, dark premises of the Wilfred Beauty Academy at Broadway and Fifty-fourth Street, I took the first four of seven parts of the mock version of the practical exam that Wilfred students must pass before taking the state board examination.

I entered the classroom area, its air redolent with the aroma of singed hair and perfumey fluorocarbons. I joined a group of about thirty white-lab-coat-wearing students who were under the tutelage of the obdurate Ms. Valentine. A short, middle-aged Hispanic woman with full, round cheeks, Ms. Valentine has a slightly regal bearing and luxuriant blonde hair--the empress dowager of Wella Balsam. But upon introducing herself to me she explained, “They call me the Drill Sergeant.”

Pleasantries dispensed with, she reached into the three-foot-tall wooden cabinet in which wigs are dried and pulled out a male rubber mannequin head with slightly chiseled, epicene facial features. Its hair was done up in curlers and covered with a hairnet. Then, with a clamping device, Ms. Valentine used her impressive strength to briskly attach the head to the worktable closest to the wig dryer.

Ms. Valentine barked out the command to begin the first part of the exam--the “comb-out”--and then urged us to be assiduous about “relaxing the set.” Upon seeing that other students were “effilating” (teasing) their heads' hair with combs, I followed suit; but upon snagging and almost breaking one of the comb's teeth in the resultant tangle, I decided that this was not the proper avenue to hair relaxation. I recommenced with a brush. When a bell sounded at the conclusion of the twenty-five minutes, I had fashioned a sort of churning mass of blonde-ness--Gunther Goebbel-Williams after having strayed too close to an air duct. Ms. Valentine strode around the room and, jabbing her finger into some coiffures, briefly combing others, took notes. Her look of unenthused calm suggested a high level of professionalism.

For the hair-shaping phase of the exam, I was given a water sprayer, plastic clips, shears, and a female mannequin head with long, straight brown hair. Handing me an illustration of a head of hair sectioned into four quadrants and one encircling fringe, Ms. Valentine explained that I would have thirty minutes to “section, remove excess bulk, and blend.” This sounded like a tall order. Indeed, it was--I spent twenty-four minutes effecting a fringe and quadrants. During this time, Ms. Valentine slunk down the aisle four times, each time yelling a new command: “Razor!” “Blunt cutting!” “Effilating!” “Thinning shears!” This was not creating an environment in which I felt I could do my best work.

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