Favorite Humorous Stories – Woody Allen

Choosing the next writer to include in this series was a no-brainer. Known to many chiefly for his legendary movies and comic routines, Woody Allen was also a master of the humorous short story. But selecting which three stories to include here was a difficult task, one that forced me to spend the better part of a morning rereading some of his story collections. Not a bad way to spend some time. No demons or dark thoughts could survive against the relentless onslaught of Woody’s absurdity.

I’ll start with “The Kugelmass Episode.” If you’ve never read the story, right off you’re wondering, Who the hell was Kugelmass and why should I care? Since you’re hooked already, I’ll tell you. Kugelmass is a professor at City College who’s unhappy with his marriage. So he seeks the services of a magician by the name of The Great Persky, who promises to bring some excitement to his life. He tells Kugelmass to climb into a cabinet where he “can meet any of the women created by the world’s best writers.” All Kugelmass has to do is choose a book and Persky promises to project him into it for however long he wishes. Choosing Madame Bovary, Kugelmass proceeds to have an passionate affair with Emma, while at the same time dismaying literary professors and students the world over who puzzle over the sudden appearance of Kugelmass as a new character in the book. I’ll stop there. You’ll just have to read the story to find out how the affair turns out.

Another of my Woody Favorites is “The Shallowest Man.” Like most of his stories, it starts in some familiar setting in Manhattan and is told in the first person by an urbane narrator who is usually well-versed in literature, art, philosophy and the latest trends in modern culture. While sitting in a delicatessen, the narrator Koppelman brings up the name of Lenny Mendel as “positively the shallowest human he’d ever come across, bar none,” and then proceeds to tell a story backing up his claim. The story is deliciously cynical, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Lenny truly deserves this title.

One of the things I most like about the story “This Nib for Hire” is the preposterous name Woody gives to one of the characters—E. Coli Biggs. It is safe to say that no other writer in literary history ever considered using E. coli for a name. The main character, Flanders Mealworm, is offered a job by film producer Biggs to write a novelization of a classic old movie starring the Three Stooges. Flanders, who considers himself  a writer of serious literature, flat out refuses, then reluctantly decides to sacrifice his integrity for promised riches. Check out the story to see how the novelization works out.

Many of Woody Allen’s stories first appeared in The New Yorker. “This Nib for Hire.” can be found in his book Mere Anarchy, while the other two are part of the collection Side Effects.

 

Favorite Humorous Stories

Picture1This was going to be a top ten list of my favorite humorous stories that have influenced me the most as a writer. But I got into a nasty argument with myself about which ones to include. Since I seldom win these arguments, I quickly conceded defeat. So I decided to write this instead as a series of installments, each focusing on one writer. That way I can live with myself and don’t have to choose just one story.

Where to begin? For me that’s easy. From early on I was always attracted to writers who could not only set me to convulsive laughter, but make me wonder how in the hell they did that. Thurber was one of my earliest heroes. For sheer range of wackiness and imagination he had few equals. And his stories still hold up well today.

Three of his stories immediately come to mind. I think my favorite is “The Night the Bed Fell,” from his autobiographical book My Life and Hard Times. I do think “autobiography” is a stretch when applied to these stories. It is hard to believe that anyone’s family members could be that crazy, or that events described by the author could have really happened that way. No matter. The stories are pure fun. In fact, they inspired me to write my novel The Family That Wasn’ta middle grade fantasy about a boy who finds his family so impossibly crazy that he writes them out of his life by imagining a new perfect family in which he suddenly finds himself living.

A close second is the story “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” from Thurber’s later book The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. I love the way this story starts, as if everything is perfectly normal in General Grant’s camp: “The morning of the ninth of April, 1865, dawned beautifully. General Meade was up with the first streaks of crimson in the eastern sky.” But history is about to be turned on its head. I wonder how many people, after reading this story, have gone to the Internet seeking information about Grant’s drinking problems. It’s a perfect little gem of alternative history as only Thurber could imagine it.

And how could I not include the much-anthologized “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” from the 1942 classic My WorldAnd Welcome To It. After seeing the preview for the latest movie version of this story, all I can say is, save yourself the agony and read the story instead. There’s a good reason it’s been published in so many collections. Not only is it laugh out loud funny, but it’s perfectly constructed in every detail and guaranteed to make a writer despair of ever being able to write a story like that. Now that’s a good role model! 

You can find all of these stories in the recent collection Writings and Drawings by James Thurber, with selections by Garrison Keillor, published in 1996 by Library of America. 

I’d love to hear comments on your favorite humorous stories.