The Funny 50: A Cavalcade Of Comic Writers

Writer and comedian Andy Borowitz says he initially got into comedy for one simple reason: girls.

In addition to using his jokes to charm women, Borowitz has also written for The New Yorker and runs a satirical blog called The Borowitz Report. His latest project is The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion.

Borowitz read more than 1,000 stories before whittling his selection down to 50. Comedic writers who made the cut include Woody Allen and David Sedaris. But the book also features writers who are more famous for their serious work, like Langston Hughes and Sinclair Lewis.

"Sinclair Lewis could be funny when he wanted to be," Borowitz tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

The Lewis story he included is an excerpt from the 1922 book Babbitt, which Borowitz calls "a great satire of Midwestern, middle-class conformity."

"He takes Babbitt through his lunch hour, where he goes to his club in his Midwestern town, and it's really just a little comic masterpiece," he says.

The book also includes one of the first stories ever published by John Hughes, the director of 1980s teen comedies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The story hasn't been published since the 1970s when it first appeared in National Lampoon magazine.

"This is the one piece in the book that I think really justifies the entire purchase price of the book," he says. "It's this very surreal story of the all-American family vacation that goes awry. Now this later, of course, become the Chevy Chase Vacation movies, and it led to his amazing run of successful comedy movies."

Borowitz says being able to share long-since-forgotten stories, like the one by Hughes, was one of the best parts of editing the book.

"It's very cool to me as an anthologist to be able to unearth something like this and share it with an audience that would otherwise never see it," he says.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, host: It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Our book today comes from writer and comedian Andy Borowitz. He's a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and he's been called one of the funniest people in America. His new book is an anthology of the 50 funniest American writers. It's already a New York Times bestseller, but it's an unlikely collaboration, Borowitz says, with the Library of America.

ANDY BOROWITZ: Somehow in this process, I've convinced one of the most prestigious publishing companies in the country to produce a bathroom book.

RAZ: That was your pitch? You were like, let's do a bathroom book. I mean, this was your ambition?

BOROWITZ: It was.

RAZ: But bathroom books are like the 500 greatest golf jokes or like great facts about sports.

BOROWITZ: Exactly. You know, comedy, I think, is not the realm of snobbery. I think comedy is whatever makes you laugh.

RAZ: Borowitz has made a career out of being funny, but he initially got into comedy for one simple reason: girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOROWITZ: That is how everyone gets into comedy. Because if you are having sex in high school, then, you know, you have better things to do than to read prose comedy on Saturday nights. So it's true. I was a typical awkward, geeky, nerdy teenager. And I was under the impression that the way to appeal to women was by being funny. And the reason I came to that conclusion was that I had read the Playboy data sheets that accompanied Playboy centerfolds where the playmates sort of unburden themselves and tell the reader what are the things that are their turn-ons and turn-offs. And turn-ons, without fail, always included a sense of humor.

RAZ: So it was not a successful strategy at the time?

BOROWITZ: No. You know, in high school, girls may say that they want the guy who makes them laugh, but inevitably, they want the guy who gives wedgies to the guy who makes them laugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOROWITZ: They don't really go for the jester so much, the class clown. It takes a while for guys who are funnier, who are comedians to actually get girls. I think that happens much later. But it's good because all of that disappointment is what kind of makes us funny and gives us material.

RAZ: So this anthology, "The 50 Funniest American Writers," the first story is - actually is my favorite story.

BOROWITZ: Really?

RAZ: It's Mark Twain's piece (unintelligible) called "A Presidential Candidate." Tell me about this story. Why'd you pick it?

BOROWITZ: Well, what's shocking about this piece is how modern it is. I mean, this is like something that could have been written yesterday. And basically - and that's what's infuriating about Mark Twain as a comedy writer, which is that he did everything I'm trying to do 100 years ago.

RAZ: He's ruined it for everybody else.

BOROWITZ: No, we're just going through our phases compared to Mark Twain. It's sort of a monologue, and he says that he's decided to run for president. And he knows that the press is going to dredge up every bad skeleton in his closet, so he's going to get all the bad news out himself. And so he starts talking about how he chased a rheumatic grandfather up a tree and killed him by giving him a heart attack. And that's how it opens. And then it really just gets worse from there.

And you read this and you think: if only candidates would do this now. If only we were spared the indignity of watching Mark Sanford talk about how he wasn't really on the Appalachian Trail. But that's what's sort of awesome about starting the anthology with Mark Twain because this thing really could have been written yesterday.

RAZ: He writes: The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: The vine needed fertilizing. My aunt had to be buried.

BOROWITZ: That's Mark Twain. Yeah, it is a great - it's a great sort of opening act for the book.

RAZ: So I was surprised to see Sinclair Lewis on this list, because I thought he was as serious guy.

BOROWITZ: Yeah. Well, he was. He also wrote a really funny book, satirical book, called "Babbitt." It's just a great satire of Midwestern, middle-class conformity. He takes Babbitt through his lunch hour where he goes to his club in this Midwestern town, and it's just really a little comic masterpiece. I'm hoping that some of the more serious writers - that we think of as serious writers - who are in this book will maybe take a look at in a different way now, because we say, wait a minute, you know, Sinclair Lewis could be funny when he wanted to be.

RAZ: There's an essay by John Hughes, who is, of course, the famous director known for, you know, doing "The Breakfast Club" and...

BOROWITZ: "Home Alone."

RAZ: ..."Home Alone." He did "Home Alone"...

BOROWITZ: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

RAZ: "Ferris Bueller's" - yes, yes. He has an essay in here called "Vacation 58." I had never heard of this story before. How did you come across it?

BOROWITZ: This is, I think, the one piece in the book that I'd have to say really justifies the entire purchase price of the book if you buy it for no other reason. John Hughes started his career as an advertising copywriter, hated the job. And he wanted to get into comedy writing desperately. He basically camped out at the National Lampoon offices in New York and submitted stories to them. And the first one they published was this vacation piece, and it's a very surreal story of the all-American family vacation that goes awry.

Now, this later, of course, became the Chevy Chase vacation movies, and it led to his amazing run of successful comedy movies. What I love about the fact that this is in the book is that this has never been published since the '70s when it appeared in National Lampoon. And it's very cool for me as an anthologist to be able to unearth something like this and share it with an audience that would never otherwise see it.

RAZ: The first name of the dad in this story is Clark, of course, played by Chevy Chase in the "Vacation" movies. The first line of this story is: If dad hadn't shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: I'm speaking with Andy Borowitz. He's the editor of the new anthology, "The 50 Funniest American Writers." There's a story in here by Molly Ivins, the late Molly Ivins, one of the best known humorists of her generation. It's called "Tough as Bob War and Other Stuff."

BOROWITZ: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: Tell me about that story.

BOROWITZ: Well, this is vintage Molly Ivins. Molly Ivins, a great old dame of Texas who wrote about Texas politics the way no one else did. And she really kind of came into her own at the - towards the end of her life because she finally had a topic that was of national interest or concern, which was the presidency of George W. Bush, so she had a lot write about there. But there's a great quote from Molly Ivins, which I like to pass on, which she said: The next time I tell you that somebody from Texas should not be president of the United States, will you please listen? And as true today, I think, as it was when she said it.

RAZ: Andy, you - a lot of people listening know you from The New Yorker or go on the Borowitz Report online, but I actually had no idea - and I think I'm going to shock a lot of people - you actually created "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

BOROWITZ: That is true. That's right.

RAZ: That's really - that was you?

BOROWITZ: That was me. That was me 20 years ago. I actually followed the path that was sort of the opposite of what most the Algonquin Roundtable did. They've spent years writing for The New Yorker and then went out to Hollywood in their 40s and 50s and tried to make a quick buck. I got out of college and immediately tried to make a quick buck. And I wrote for TV and wrote for a lot of sitcoms. I started writing on the Norman Lear shows, you know, Archie Bunker's plays and things like that. And in 1990, NBC signed me to create a show for Will Smith. And I never heard of Will Smith. I never heard of the "Fresh Prince." But it was just one of those weird intersections of me and pop culture that worked out.

RAZ: Well, Andy, I just wanted to let you know that I am going to put this copy that's in my hand in my bathroom tonight. And all of our bathroom guests will be able to enjoy this (unintelligible).

BOROWITZ: Excellent.

RAZ: That's Andy Borowitz. He's a writer and comedian and the editor of the new book, "The 50 Funniest American Writers: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to the Onion." Andy, thank you so much for being here.

BOROWITZ: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.