Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humorby Michael J. Rosen
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/em>
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.
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Read an Excerpt
Spitting is prohibited in subway cars mainly to:
- encourage politeness
- prevent spread of disease
- reduce the cost of cleaning cars
- 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:
- ignore what has been seen and continue collecting tolls
- try to delay the car and signal for assistance
- reach into the car and untie the child
- 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:
- ignoring customers when they are waiting for service
- being assertive, taking no nonsense from the customer
- treating the customer the way you want to be treated
- 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.
Meet the Author
The editor of More Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humor, Michael J. Rosen has been called the unofficial organizer of the National Humor Writer's Union, a pretty good idea for an organization that could offer all kinds of benefits to its struggling members (currently numbering more than 300 who have never been published in The New Yorker or aired on NPR). He has been called other things as well, like in third grade, and then in seventh grade especially, by certain older kids known as "hoods," who made his life miserable, specifically during gym class, lunch period and after school. Later, much later, the Washington Post called him a "fidosopher" because of his extensive publications on dogs, dog training, and dog-besotted people. The New York Times called him an example of creative philanthropy in their special "Giving" section for persuading "writers, artists, photographers and illustrators to contribute their time and talents to books" that benefit Share Our Strength's anti-hunger efforts and animal-welfare causes. As an author of a couple dozen books for children, he's been called...okay, enough with the calling business.
For nearly twenty years, he served as literary director at the Thurber House, a cultural center in the restored home of James Thurber. Garrison Keillor, bless his heart, called it (sorry) "the capital of American humor." While there, Rosen helped to create The Thurber Prize for American Humor, a national book award for humor writing, and edited four anthologies of Thurber's previously unpublished and uncollected work, most recently The Dog Department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties and Talking Poodles, happily published by HarperCollins as well.
In his capacity as editor for this biennial, Rosen reads manuscripts year round, beseeching and beleaguering the nation's most renowned and well-published authors, and fending off the rants and screeds from folks who've discovered the ease of self-publishing on the web. Last summer, Rosen edited a lovely book, 101 Damnations: The Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells; while some critics (all right, one rather outspoken friend) considered this a book of complaints, Rosen has argued that humor, like voting and picketing and returning an appliance that "worked" all of four months before requiring a repair that costs twice the purchase price, humor is about the desire for change. It's responding to the way things are compared to the way you'd like things to be. And it's a much more convivial response than pouting or cornering unsuspecting guests at dinner parties.
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