Theory of Relativity
The following are excerpts from "The Royal We" by Steve Olson, which was published in the May 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly and, more recently, in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003. It can be read in its entirety here.

The idea that virtually anyone with a European ancestor descends from English royalty seems bizarre, but it accords perfectly with some recent research done by Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale University. The mathematics of our ancestry is exceedingly complex, because the number of our ancestors increases exponentially, not linearly. These numbers are manageable in the first few generations—two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents—but they quickly spiral out of control. Go back forty generations, or about a thousand years, and each of us theoretically has more than a trillion direct ancestors—a figure that far exceeds the total number of human beings who have ever lived.

In a 1999 paper titled "Recent Common Ancestors of All Present-Day Individuals," Chang showed how to reconcile the potentially huge number of our ancestors with the quantities of people who actually lived in the past. His model is a mathematical proof that relies on such abstractions as Poisson distributions and Markov chains, but it can readily be applied to the real world. Under the conditions laid out in his paper, the most recent common ancestor of every European today (except for recent immigrants to the Continent) was someone who lived in Europe in the surprisingly recent past—only about 600 years ago. In other words, all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400. Before that date, according to Chang's model, the number of ancestors common to all Europeans today increased, until, about a thousand years ago, a peculiar situation prevailed: 20 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless); each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today.


Chang's model has even more dramatic implications. Because people are always migrating from continent to continent, networks of descent quickly interconnect. This means that the most recent common ancestor of all six billion people on earth today probably lived just a couple of thousand years ago. And not long before that the majority of the people on the planet were the direct ancestors of everyone alive today. Confucius, Nefertiti, and just about any other ancient historical figure who was even moderately prolific must today be counted among everyone's ancestors.

Toward the end of our conversation Humphrys pointed out something I hadn't considered. The same process works going forward in time; in essence every one of us who has children and whose line does not go extinct is suspended at the center of an immense genetic hourglass. Just as we are descended from most of the people alive on the planet a few thousand years ago, several thousand years hence each of us will be an ancestor of the entire human race—or of no one at all.

Shocks, Breaks, and Gags
The following is an excerpt from this Atlantic Unbound interview with Ian Frazier.

Your writing career began at The New Yorker. How did you get started there?

When I was just graduating from college, in 1973, I didn't know what I wanted to do -- I was just going to go back to Ohio and kick back -- and I looked in The New Yorker and there was a profile of Jonathan Winters, my favorite comedian. I thought, If that's in The New Yorker, maybe I can write for them. That piece was by Bill Whitworth [later The Atlantic's editor]. He did many great profiles, and I admired them enormously. Everything else in The New Yorker was on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or something, and I didn't know anything about that at twenty-two years old. I had been on The Lampoon at Harvard, and I'd written a lot of humor pieces for them, so I just sent a whole package of stuff down to William Shawn. Then I met with the personnel director, and he said that he thought there were too many people from Harvard there. That really cut me to the quick, because I felt like I was never even really present at Harvard; I felt like a complete outsider. I thought of myself as a Midwesterner. So I went to Chicago and worked for Oui, a spinoff of Playboy, writing captions. It was not the most glorious thing I ever did in my life. Oui published what they considered sophisticated, French-type pictorials that were just extremely cheesy. It was naked guys and women at some resort in Mexico -- very wild and sybaritic. It took all my creativity. It's one of those things you think anybody could do. But anybody can't do that; it's really hard. It was just completely wrong for me, and so I split after about six weeks. But when I came back to The New Yorker, which I did the next year, and said I had been working at Playboy, that kind of surprised them. At my first meeting with Mr. Shawn he said, "So what were you writing for this magazine?" And I said, "Oh, they mainly had me doing the S&M stuff, the leather, the whips." Which wasn't even true -- I don't know why I said it, I guess I was trying to shock him. He was this extremely polite guy and said, "Oh my God!" Then they gave me a job as a "Talk of the Town" reporter, and I was there for twenty years in various capacities. I resigned in 1995. It was a great place for a long time, but it became impossible for me to stay when Tina Brown was there.

Many of your humorous essays start with some quirky thing that you've read -- a magazine mention of satanism and university presidents turns into a commencement speech gone very wrong, for instance. In general, what sorts of things spark ideas, and how do you spin the ideas out into a piece?

I just like anything that's fun to play with. Some really ridiculous thing that somebody says, or a voice that's really exciting, a voice I had never really thought of before. In Coyote v. Acme I poke fun, for instance, at Bob Hope's voice. I have every book that Bob Hope ever "wrote" -- and his voice just really got under my skin. It's such a Cold War voice -- it's like the American winner, the winner of World War Two talks like this. I loved that voice, so it was fun to do. And that's a lot of what goes into a humor piece, finding a voice that I like. The problem is, I've never found a voice that I can sustain for longer than about 2,000 words without getting sick of it. That's why I admire something like Charles Portis's True Grit -- or Huckleberry Finn -- because it is a voice all the way through, but it doesn't get tiring.

Dorothy Parker once said about humor writers, "There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it." Do you agree with her assessment? How do you think about the reader as you're writing?

I don't have a disregard for my reader in humor pieces. What I like about humor pieces is that it's such a win or lose situation. You can't say, "Well it's a wonderful piece, but I didn't laugh." If you didn't laugh, it's not a humor piece. That kind of damning criticism is not really available to the reader of a short story. They can say, "I didn't get it, I thought it was pretentious." But they can't give you that one kick in the shins that ruins everything. I think it's great that there's a kind of writing that can be destroyed with a single sentence. I just think it's more fun to do.

Nobody will really pay you to do humor pieces at any length. In my case, I don't get that many ideas in a year, so I could never really support myself at it. It's extremely perishable; many, many humor pieces depend on references that are only of the moment. Most humor has that "you had to be there" quality. Publishers don't particularly like to do collections of humor pieces, unless you're a national columnist or someone who already has a following. It approaches being the least cost-effective thing to do with your time as a writer. But I'm addicted to doing it; I just keep trying. A friend of mine said, "to write something on a piece of paper and put it in a mailbox and to have it appear in a magazine, and to have a person you don't know read the magazine and laugh until he cries -- that's a great achievement." To me that's like getting the space probe to Mars and getting it to tell us exactly what's happening. It's a hard thing to do, and yet it can't look hard, it has to look like you just tossed it off. I love to do it, but I also like to do really long and serious and painful kinds of things.

Allen's Alley
The following Woody Allen quote is from On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy by Eric Lax, which was published in 1975.

"The more I was introduced to Perelman and Robert Benchley, I got crazy about them. I think those two are the great comedy writers. I think the most you can say about many of the others is that some of them are sporadically funny. Perelman and Benchley have a much bigger armory of tricks.... Benchley and Perelman are masters of all kinds of absurdities and non sequiturs. There's a certain funniness that Perelman and Benchley have, funny in a critical, hilarious way that Jonathan Winters is. They see life differently and have more funny ideas than Thurber or Lardner or any of those people.

"Perelman is so utterly unique and complex," Woody says. "You can't be influenced a little by him. You have to go so deeply that it shows all over the place. You can't write something that's a little Perelmanesque, just like you can't play a little like Errol Garner. There are so many points that are recognizable. It's interesting in a peripheral way that I'm trying to do names more like Benchley; they have a distinctive style and are hilarious but they are less descriptive than Perelman's."

Sandy: Berger

The following is from an Ian Frazier article called "Terminal Ice," which was originally published in the October 2002 issue of Outside magazine. The article can be read in its entirety here. "Terminal Ice" is in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003, which I got for Christmas. (Thanks, Santa!)

Icebergs are pieces of freshwater ice of a certain size floating in the ocean or (rarely) a lake. They come from glaciers and other ice masses. Because of the physics of ice when it piles up on land, it spreads and flows, and as it does its advancing edge often meets a body of water. When the ice continues to flow out over the water, chunks of it break off in a process called calving. Some of the faster-moving glaciers in Greenland calve an average of two or three times a day during the warmer months. Icebergs are not the same as sea ice. Sea ice is frozen saltwater, and when natural forces break it into pieces, the larger ones are called not icebergs but ice floes. Icebergs are denser and harder than sea ice. When icebergs are driven by wind or current, sea ice parts before them them like turkey before an electric carving knife. In former times, sailing ships that got stuck in sea ice sometimes used to tie themselves to an iceberg and let it pull them through.

A piece of floating freshwater ice must be at least 50 feet long to qualify as an iceberg, according to authorities on the subject. If it's smaller -- say, about the size of a grand piano -- it's called a growler. If it's about the size of a cottage, it's a bergy bit. Crushed-up pieces of ice that result when parts of melting icebergs disintegrate and come falling down are called "slob ice" by mariners. Students of icebergs have divided them by shape into six categories: blocky, wedge, tabular, dome, pinnacle, and dry-dock. The last of these refers to icebergs with columnar sections flanking a water-level area in the middle, like high-rise apartment buildings around a swimming pool.

At the edges of Antarctica, where plains of ice spread across the ocean and float on it before breaking off, most of the icebergs are tabular -- flat on top, horizontal in configuration. In the Northern Hemisphere, because of the thickness of glacial ice and the way it calves, most icebergs are of the more dramatically shaped kinds. Tabular icebergs tend to be stable in the water, and scientists sometimes land in helicopters on the bigger ones to study them. Northern Hemisphere icebergs, with their smaller size and gothic, irregular shapes, often grow frozen seawater on the bottom, lose above-water ice structure to melting, and suddenly capsize and roll. Venturing onto such icebergs is a terrible idea.

Antarctica has about 90 percent of all the ice in the world; most of the rest of it is in Greenland. Those two places produce most of the world's icebergs -- about 100,000 a year from the first, about 10,000 to 15,000 from the other. Glaciers in Norway, Russia, and Alaska produce icebergs, too. The Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound partly because it had changed course to avoid icebergs. Scientists have not been observing icebergs long enough to say if there are substantially more of them today. They know that the total mass of ice in Greenland has decreased at an accelerated rate in recent years. In Antarctica, because of its size and other factors, scientists still don't know whether the continent as a whole is losing ice or not.


Black, Irish
In the September 2003 issue of Interview magazine, Jack Black interviewed Conan O'Brien. You can read the interview here.

An excerpt:


CONAN O'BRIEN: Two great comedy minds, finally together.

JB: Head to head. Clash of the titans, as it were.

CO: Superman and Aquaman.

JB: Who's Aquaman?

CO: I'm afraid you are.

JB: [laughs] Okay. Let me start off by apologizing. You've probably been waiting by the phone for me to call.

CO: I've been staring at my pink princess phone waiting for my nails to dry, wishing you would call. And I have a photograph of you, and it's in a heart-shaped frame by the side of my bed.

JB: [laughs] Well, let me explain. I got scared and did some last-minute cramming. I had to approach this like a hard journalist. Now. I want to ask you some things I've prepared. Awesome questions.

CO: Are these the kind like "if I lift a tree that's heavy, that means I made it?" Wait, that makes no sense. I fell apart for a second, but now I'm back.

JB: [laughs] Which brings me to my first hard-hitting question, actually. It seems to me that you are the master of self-effacement. You might even be the king. The undisputed king. But the truth is, you've got the funniest show on television [Late Night With Conan O'Brien], and I'm not just blowing smoke up your ass.

CO: Well, there is smoke up my ass, so did that come from you?

JB: Yeah, it was me. But there's also other stuff up there.

CO: There's a 1934 Lincoln penny, which is very rare.

JB: What's up with that? Why do you--

CO: --Make fun of myself? I have a theory, which is that your core sense of humor and what you think is funny is formed early on. And my sense of humor was formed when I was a mediocre athlete, not that popular with the girls, coming from a big family, just this guy who was funny with my friends. Self-effacement was actually a survival tool. So if people want me to start saying "Check this guy out!" or "Wanna see something funny? Just watch the old Cona-rama!" you'd need to get in a time machine and go back to 1978 and make me an amazing athlete and a hit with the ladies.

JB: You said you come from a big family. Do you have brothers and sisters?

CO: Yeah. Five.

JB: Were you competitive with each other?

CO: I think we were competitive about being funny. And about who could throw the spear the farthest. [Black laughs] That was something my father made us do. He was a tribal chief. I read something once that Bill Murray said, that so much of his comedy education happened at the dinner table with his brothers, and that certainly is the truth with me, too. We were sitting around and someone said something funny and it made our mother and father laugh, then someone else tried to say something funnier.

JB: I remember really wanting to be funny, and not being funny for most of my youth.

CO: Really? That's interesting because I don't think people would guess that [about you]. When did you feel like, Hey, okay, people think I'm funny now?

JB: [silence]

CO: Never did, huh? [both laugh]

Click here to read the rest.

Dead C. Scrolls

According to the new issue of The New Yorker, a collection of Graham Chapman's writing, called Back to the Trees, will be published in England next fall. This week's "Shouts and Murmurs" piece -- "An Appendectomy on the Bakerloo Line" -- is from Back to the Trees. In addition to being a pipe-smoking Python, Chapman was a fully accredited medical doctor. He died in 1989.

Here's the first part of "An Appendectomy on the Bakerloo Line":

Dear Sirs,

I’ve had letter after letter after letter since you published one particular query that asked, “What should I do about my appendix on the Bakerloo Line?” Well, “Miss N.,” I can only assume you’re talking about an acutely inflamed vermiform appendix. The answer is simply: Take it out! I’ve no wish to give glib advice. I know, there are bound to be difficulties for the inexperienced layman or -woman contemplating auto-appendectomy. One tiny hint here: have a good rummage through your handbag and make sure your Lane’s forceps are not caked with biscuit crumbs, bits of fluff, old bus tickets, etc. It could save an awful lot of fuss later on. I have set out some details that may help you in this sometimes irksome chore.

First, find yourself a Tube Map, issued free by London Transport, or go to your nearest Underground station and ask for one. Remember, the stations marked with an “O” are interchange stations. Stations marked with a star are closed on Sundays, and also remember to pick up a plastic bucket for the guts.

Click here to continue reading.


Here's Michael Palin's tribute to Chapman.


Pen-y Lane
In this Telegraph article, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane talks about his writing life. (Via Bookslut.)

An excerpt:

I tend to send my copy in on deadline, which by New Yorker standards is tacky. It has to go through three or four proofs. The fact-checkers proof; the grammarians proof. And it is amazing. Someone does go to see the film, to make sure I'm not lying. If I'm reviewing a Tim Burton film and I say that Ewan McGregor's wearing a bright blue shirt, they'll say to me, 'It's more like bright turquoise'. But you should get it right, especially if you're going to have some fun with it. Otherwise it's cheating. The New Yorker is the only place in the world where you can pull a piece to change a comma to a semi-colon. It's a haven for the pedant. I love it.

Uncle Sam and Auntie Science
The following is an excerpt from Richard Dawkins' introduction to The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003. Dawkins is the author of The Selfish Gene, and is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

For a non-American to be invited by a leading American publisher to anthologize American writings about science is an honor, the more so because American science is, by almost any index one could conjure, preeminent in the world. Whether we measure the money spent on research or count the numbers of active scientists working, or books and journal articles published, or of major prizes won, the United States leads the rest of the world by a convincing margin. My admiration for American science is so enthusiastic, so downright grateful, that I hope I may not be thought presumptuous if I sound a note of discordant warning. American science leads the world, but so does American anti-science. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in my own field of evolution.

Evolution is one of the most securely established facts in all science. The knowledge that we are cousins to apes, kangaroos, and bacteria is beyond all educated doubt: as certain as our (once doubted) knowledge that the planets orbit the sun, and that South America was once joined to Africa, and India distant from Asia. Particularly secure is the fact that life's evolution began a matter of billions of years ago. And yet, if polls are to be believed, approximately 45 percent of the population of the United States firmly believes, to the contrary, an elementary falsehood: all species separately owe their existence to "intelligent design" less than ten thousand years ago. Worse, the nature of American democratic institutions is such that this perversely ignorant half of the population (which does not, I hasten to add, include leading churchmen or leading scholars in any discipline) is in many districts strongly placed to influence local educational policy. I have met biology teachers in various states who feel physically intimidated from teaching the central theorem of their subject. Even reputable publishers have felt sufficiently threatened to censor school textbooks of biology.

That 45 percent figure really is something of a national educational disgrace. You'd have to travel right past Europe to the theocratic societies around the Middle East before you hit a comparable level of antiscientific miseducation. It is bafflingly paradoxical that the United States is by far the world's leading scientific nation while simultaneously housing the most scientifically illiterate populace outside the Third World.


Here you can listen to Dawkins on The Connection.

Here's a Scientific American article about how creationists are influencing state educational standards.

This Scientific American article is called "Fifteen Answers to Creationist Nonsense."

The answer to almost any question concerning evolution can be found here.


The Soul of Wit
In this Fresh Air interview, Mike Nichols discusses the making of Wit, an HBO film he directed starring Emma Thompson as a woman dying of ovarian cancer. He also talks about his work as half of the comedy dyad Nichols and May, and about his films, which include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate.

On this episode of Comedy College, you can listen to many classic Nichols and May sketches. (My favorite is the one with the surgeon who's in love with his nurse.) This look at Nichols and May is hosted by Steve Martin.

Speaking of Steve Martin, here's a Comedy College sampling of Martin's hilarious standup comedy.

Other episodes of Comedy College feature such people as Jack Benny, Lenny Bruce, and Bob Newhart.


Idle Reading
With 2004 looming before us like a fat moose, now is the perfect time to take a look at Python Eric Idle's "Books of the Year -- 1998":

My book of the year is

Barney's Version
Mordecai Richler
Totally hysterical. That rare bird - the really funny novel. I completely recommend it to everyone. Wonderfully honest and incorrect. Great.

My second favorite was

Peter Cook
A biography by Harry Thompson
A hilarious account of the life of the funniest man in the world. If you are at all a Peter Cook fan get it now. Not published in the States.

Here are some others I enjoyed.

The Grave of Alice B. Toklas
Otto Friedrich
Magnificent essays by the consummate master of historical writing. I just adore him and sadly learned he has died. From Mozart to the last emperor of Rome (a woman), his essays are never less than enthralling and informative.

Truman Capote
George Plimpton (editor)
An odd shape for a book - rather like a TV documentary, all talking heads, but a nevertheless revealing look at this odd but wonderful writer. Some people are bitchy and more revealing about themselves, notably Mailer and Gore Vidal, but still the sense of shock when all his New York friends dumped him, and his inability to realise it was predictable, make it both sad and interesting. What a talent he had.

Great Expectations
Charles Dickens
The movie sent me back to the book and "O" level English days. I can re-read Dickens for ever. This is surprisingly wittily written. I had forgotten how funny he is in his narrator voice. Brilliant. Classic.

The Royals
Kitty Kelley
Much more interesting than I had expected. Particularly fascinating about the young wives. Fergie comes out as a nightmare. It will probably be the last unvarnished portrait of Diana for a while. What a manipulative person. Good to remember how she preyed on other people's husbands (Will Carling etc).

Before the Deluge
Otto Friedrich
A portrait of Berlin in the 1920's. Magnificent, chilling, account of the rise of Nazism. How insignificant they were. How free Berlin was. How quickly power vacuum and deflationary economics can lead to fascism. Chilling. Brilliant. He is a great historian.

Philippe, Duc D'Orleans
Christine Pevitt
A fascinating history of the Regent of France, the nephew of Louis XIV. I had never really read the history of the Regency before (since A level). John Law and his attempt to create money. All the fabulous intrigues of the Court at Versailles, the amazing attempts at poisoning and so on. I really liked Philippe, and got an excellent picture of him from this book. Very interesting and highly readable.

The End of the World
Otto Friedrich
Re-reading bits of this excellent history of the times when people believed the world was going to end. Usually millenniums... germane for 1999 and all the millennial bullshit we can expect.

Cities of the Plain
Cormac McCarthy
And then comes the occasional book that make it all worth while. The book you dread will end because you know you won't find another that is like it for this year or many a year. This is the final act of the border trilogy. The final inexorably tragic story of the love affair of a young Texan cowboy for a Mexican whore, that has, you know it, to end tragically. But the nobility of the writing and the way he plays it out. Ah yes, the writer de nos jours. Some of these pages take your breath away, and will continue to do so long after we are dust.

Becoming Human
Ian Tattersall
Fascinating book on the evolution and human uniqueness that takes its point of departure the arrival of the extraordinarily different homo sapiens Cro-Magnon, in Europe 25 kyr's ago. Written by a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and primate behaviourist, this is not an easy read but a great and worthwhile study of our origins and our place in nature.

The Demon-Haunted World
Carl Sagan
The alas late semi-great Carl. A wonderful populariser of science, here attacking the assholes of new age beliefs and stupid twaddle. He really does demolish a lot of the unconventional wisdom which passes for the Gospel according to Shirley Maclaine.

Click here to read the rest of the list.


Book Sellers
When a biography of Peter Sellers -- Mr. Strangelove by Ed Sikov -- was published last year, Python Michael Palin reviewed it for the New York Times.

Here are all the paragraphs of the review, in order:

''How many of us really did know Peter?'' David Niven asked in his eulogy at Sellers's memorial service in 1980. Quite a challenge for would-be biographers, and though Ed Sikov's book is not the first to rise to it, the aptly titled ''Mr. Strangelove'' is the most comprehensive account of Sellers's life I've read.

I didn't know Peter Sellers well enough to be able to say that I never really knew him. Our paths crossed only once, in a television studio, when he emerged from a dressing room door as I was walking past. To my eternal embarrassment I went involuntarily into the voice of Eccles from ''The Goon Show'' -- not even one of his characters. Sellers smiled tolerantly, disappeared round the corner, and that was that. Much later I described our brief meeting to Spike Milligan. ''I met Sellers once. I passed him in a studio in North London.''

Spike winced. ''That must have been painful.''

From the age of 9 or 10, when I first became aware that the funniest voices on the radio all belonged to the same man, Peter Sellers became one of the best reasons to be young and living in England. ''The Goon Show,'' in which he and Milligan teamed up with Harry Secombe, was to comedy what Elvis Presley was to pop music -- a quantum leap forward, a permanent and irreparable rupture with a staid and conventional past and, more personally, a discovery of my own that could not be shared with anyone of an older generation. The wireless set on which I first heard the Goons was the same one on which we listened to royal funerals and Oxford and Cambridge boat races. When my father first heard the quivering voices of Minnie Bannister and Henry Crun, the shrill complaints of Bluebottle and the cathartic roars of Major Bloodnok as he dealt with the aftereffects of another strong curry, he assumed there must be something wrong with the speakers. When he discovered it was meant to sound like that, he just shook his head and left me alone.

Milligan and Sellers became my friends, or rather their characters did. They were silly and idiotic but somehow real, and I was pleased to read that Sellers felt the same thing too. ''To all of us, they absolutely lived,'' Sikov quotes him as saying. Milligan, looking back on the rich gallery of Sellers's characters, called them ''the boiler house of his talent.''

This talent took many forms, the greatest of which, for me, was his ability to invest dignity in even the most outlandish characters. Sikov uses as an example an outrageously camp character called Sir Jervis Fruit. Sellers, he writes, ''believes in Fruit. There's no contempt or derision.''

People talk with awe of the way Sellers was taken over by the characters he played. Even on the radio, Sikov writes, he physically changed as he did the different voices. This transcended mere imitation. ''You'd be in a taxi with Peter,'' one of the scriptwriters on ''The Goon Show,'' Eric Sykes, says, ''and when he would get out, he would be the taxi driver. But not only in words and voice. His whole metabolism would have changed.''

Sellers was also a master of understatement. As much as any comic actor I know, with the possible exception of John Cleese, Sellers realized how much funnier comedy can be if played not only straight but with gravity and conviction. As Sikov writes, ''He remains to this day the master of playing men who have no idea how ridiculous they are.'' He was blessed with an inexhaustible gift for mimicry, what Sikov calls his ''omnidextrous voice.'' The only accent that defeated him, apparently, was Texan.

Throughout my teens I never missed a Sellers film. His performances in ''The Ladykillers'' (1955) and ''I'm All Right, Jack'' (1959) defined good comic acting, and I had a gut feeling that whatever Sellers was doing was what I wanted to do.

I was pleased to learn that I was not the only one to be dazzled. Woody Allen, whom Sellers apparently treated highhandedly during the filming of ''What's New, Pussycat?,'' thought he had ''the funniness of genius.'' The G-word is also used by Liza Minnelli and many others. The director Peter Hall thought Sellers as good an actor as Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier, who had confidence enough in Sellers to ask him to take on King Lear. He turned it down, not thinking himself good enough.

Yet even as Sikov examines Sellers's qualities, clues to his darker side emerge. The reason he could so completely and convincingly inhabit a character was that he felt much more comfortable in someone else's world than in his own. ''I'm like a mike -- I have no set sound of my own,'' he once said. ''I pick it up from my surroundings.'' His prodigious output of 67 films in less than 30 years is interpreted by Sikov as a desperate attempt to avoid playing the one part that terrified him, Peter Sellers.

Sikov offers various reasons for Sellers's self-loathing. His father was weak and frequently absent (Milligan called him ''the original man who never was''); his mother, who at one time ate bananas underwater in a show called ''Splash Me!,'' was dominating and controlling. From Sellers's birth in 1925, she smothered him with affection, while expecting him to spend much of his childhood cooped up in dressing rooms while she pursued her stage career. He hated his appearance and once told an interviewer that ''I writhe when I see myself on the screen. . . . Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company.''

His mother gave him everything except a sense of proportion. As she spoiled him, so he in turn spoiled himself, buying and selling recklessly. If he wanted it, he had to have it, and he had to have it right away. There was no sense of restraint. Interests became manias. The same compulsive intensity that led him to the heart of the characters he played drove his private life. Gadgets, photography, women, fast cars were picked up and cast aside with equal enthusiasm. Sikov quotes Sellers's friend Jimmy Grafton as saying that all comedians are manic-depressives to some degree, but nothing in the book fully explains the flip side of Sellers's genius -- the violence and abuse directed toward his four wives and three children, the tantrums, the lashing out at good friends, the manipulative deviousness, the unreliability and the sublime selfishness that grew with his wealth and recognition.

Sikov, the author of books on Billy Wilder and American film comedy, takes care to balance the horror stories with testimony from those who loved Sellers and loved working with him, and a book that could have been sensational is fair and thorough. A few stones are left half-turned. Maurice Woodruff, the phony clairvoyant whom Sellers consulted on a daily basis for many years, seems to drop out of the story without explanation, and the account of the split-up with Liza Minnelli is tantalizingly brusque. (While I'm in quibble mode, the restaurant where the Goons and friends used to meet is spelled Tratoo, not Tratou.)

''Mr. Strangelove,'' with all its unhappy revelations, does not, for me, reduce the delight of watching and listening to Sellers's work. That it draws attention to his bad behavior is at best a clue to his talent, and at worst the price you pay for being interesting. Sikov has pulled off the difficult trick of producing both an authoritative biography and a compulsive page turner. He is careful to let his sources do most of the talking, interjecting his own pithy and relevant judgments here and there to keep the whole thing on course. That the course is a slow, remorseless slide into a brick wall is the fault of the subject rather than the author.


Click here to listen to Sellers recite the lyrics of A Hard Day's Night in the style of Olivier's Richard the Third.

Click here to listen to Sellers in a sketch called "A Right Bird." (From here.)

C.K. One
Louis C.K. is the mayor of Chuckletown. He's written for Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, Chris Rock, and Dana Carvey; he's one of the best standups in the business; and he makes hilarious films. His film Tomorrow Night is one of the funniest movies ever made. Unfortunately, it isn't available for rental or purchase in any form; Mr. C.K. says he might make a DVD of it and sell it on his website, though. I was lucky to see Tomorrow Night at a film festival.

From this page on Mr. C.K.'s website:

Back in 1998 I made my first feature film. "Tomorrow Night". This was a black and white independant film that I made myself for about 180K dollars. It was an incredibly great experience and I'll always be happy that I made at least one film completely without any interference, even though it sent me into gigantic debt. Tomorrow Night went to Sundance and many other festivals and got some very good reviews but I have not gotten a distributor thus far. I am going to try to make a DVD of Tomorrow Night to sell here myself, but we'll see. Below are some links to reviews and other Press regarding "Tomorrow Night".

My friend Claire Zulkey recently interviewed Mr. C.K. You can read the interview here.

Here's Mr. C.K.'s bio from the liner notes of his CD:

Louis C.K. is best known as a stand-up comedian and filmmaker. Most people don't know that he is accomplished in many other fields as well. For instance, Louis won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics for "Not throwing darts at seniors". Also, in the nineteen eighties, Louis was personally responsible for "All the hooplah". Perhaps Louis' greatest accomplishment was when he "Went over to that area and talked to that guy for a while" a feat that forever altered the face of something. Perhaps Louis will never be fully recognized for all he has done, but one thing is for sure.

Here's Mr. C.K.'s guide to appendix removal.

An excerpt:

2. THE HOLE: The hole is something that must be made in the body of the patient in order to gain access to the appendix. The hole may be created in one of many ways. The simplest way is to pierce the skin with a sharp or hot object, and then cut or slice away an area of skin, approximately the size of a miniature pumpkin. The skin that has been cut away can either be discarded, used to make a stylish hat or saved in a coke can to be replaced after the appendix is removed. NOTE: UPON MAKING THE HOLE, ONE MAY FIND THAT MUCH BLOOD WILL POUR FROM THE BODY. IF MORE THAN FIVE PINTS OF THIS BLOOD ESCAPES, THE PATIENT MAY BECOME “TIRED” OR “NOT ALIVE ANY LONGER”.


The Man Who Came to Dinner
The following is an excerpt from a letter S.J. Perelman wrote to his friend Leila Hadley. The letter is dated June 17, 1955.

Tonight, I'm scheduled to have dinner with Harvey Orkin, whom you may recall, and Cary Grant, whom I'm sure you do, to discuss a project for involving the latter in a TV production of Westward Ha! There isn't even the proverbial Chinaman's chance of its going through, but wild-eyed agents have set it up and I've gone too far into it to back out. I will, therefore, break off here and continue when I next get back to these unlovely precincts.

... [Cary Grant] turned out to be a very agreeable surprise, in that he was not only full of charm -- which we expected -- but was most receptive to the idea advanced by my companions. Nothing immediate, to be sure; it'll be two years before he could possibly do it, but he did tell them that if they'd show him three scripts based on Westward Ha!, satisfactory to himself, he'd throw in his lot with us. It appears he has been a loyal reader of mine for quite a while, and was as complimentary as anyone could have asked. All this is balmy for the ego but unfortunately of no emollient value to the pocket.


World Domination
Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson is the world's leading authority on ants. His book The Ants (which he wrote with Bert Hölldobler) is number twenty-seven on Modern Library's list of the hundred best nonfiction books of the twentieth century. The following is from Wilson's essay collection In Search of Nature.

At present there are about 9,500 described species of ants; this is the number so far given a scientific name. I'd venture a guess that there are in actual existence two or three times that many, and there is immense diversity within this group of hymenopterous insects. A colony of the world's smallest ant could dwell comfortably inside the braincase of the world's largest ant. One genus of ants that I've been studying, Pheidole, contains 285 named species from the New World alone. In the collection at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology I have about 600 species; in other words, some 315 are new to science. More pour in from collectors every few months.

Ants are the dominant little-sized organisms of the planet -- that is, intermediate in size between bacteria and elephants. My rough estimate is that at any given moment there are about 1015, or a million billion, ants in the world. In terms of overall biomass, measured as dry weight, they are truly formidable. For example, in forests near Manaus, in the central Brazilian Amazon, ants and termites together make up more than one-quarter of the biomass -- which includes everything from very small worms and other invertebrates to the largest mammals. Ants alone weigh four times as much as the birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals combined. This proportion of ants is approached or exceeded in most other major types of land habitat around the world. When we consider insect biomass alone, we find that the ants and termites, the most highly social of all organisms, plus the social wasps and social bees, which rival them in colonial organization, make up about 80 percent of the biomass. These insects dominate the insect world from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego and Tasmania. In fact, ants are the principal predators of small animals roughly their own size. They are the "cemetery squad," scavenging and removing the corpses of more than 90 percent of the small animals. They are movers and enrichers of the earth, more so than the earthworms. Indeed, although the social insects as a group make up only 2 percent of all of the known described species of insects in the world, they probably make up most of the biomass.


The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don't need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change. Gaia, the totality of life on Earth, would set about healing itself and return to the rich environmental states of 100,000 years ago. But if invertebrates were to disappear, it is unlikely that the human species could last more than a few months. Most of the fishes, amphibians, birds, and mammals would crash to extinction about the same time. Next would go the bulk of the flowering plants and with them the physical structure of the majority of the forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world. The soil would rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, narrowing and closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them the last remnants of the vertebrates. The remaining fungi, after enjoying a population explosion of stupendous proportions, would also perish. Within a few decades the world would return to the state of a billion years ago, composed primarily of bacteria, algae, and a few other very simple multicellular plants.


Here's how ants find food.

Laughter of the Gods
One day in 1964, Kenneth Tynan went out to lunch with Groucho Marx and S.J. Perelman. He wrote an article about it, which was published in the Observer on June 14, 1964. The following is an excerpt from that article.

I asked him [Groucho] to name the people who have made him laugh. "The funniest talkers," he says, "the funniest men around a dinnertable would be George Jessel and George Burns. The fastest men with one-line gags would be Oscar Levant and George S. Kaufman. On stage, I would pick W.C. Fields, Willie Howard, Ed Wynn, Bobby Clark and Bert Lahr. But it's hard to laugh at comedians if you're a comedian, especially if they're getting laughs." Perelman's list of great comics is the same, except that it includes Groucho.

Pass Over
Here's a vintage NBC-era Letterman Top Ten List:

Top Ten Words Used Least in the Bible

10. Perky

9. Fudge-a-licious

8. Rootin'-tootin'

7. Buttinsky

6. Schweppervescence

5. Mall Bunny

4. Gas-guzzling

3. Yankee fan

2. Boinnnng!

1. Slap-happy


History Lesson
The following is from Louis Menand's introduction to his book American Studies. Menand is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His book The Metaphysical Club won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in history. He teaches at Harvard.

The only reliable lesson the past teaches us is how locked we are in the present. People ask, Where are the great Hollywood movies, the great pop songs, the great television newsmen, the great Democratic presidents, the great public intellectuals, the Great Books?, as though these were all eternally available types. They are not. Their availability is a myth.


The impulse to hold on to the past is very strong, and it is often hard to understand why things that worked once can't continue to work. A lot of energy and imagination are consumed trying to fit old systems to new settings, though the pegs keep getting squarer and the holes keep getting rounder. In the end, the only way to make the past usable is to misinterpret it, which means, strictly speaking, to lose it.


We look backward for clues because, the future being the other side of a closed door, we have no place else to look. But even in America, where people are supposed to have no sense of history, there is a persistent reluctance to play with the cards that are on the table. We want to play with yesterday's cards, but yesterday has already unraveled past reconstructing. Today is the only day we have.


Here's Menand's hilarious review of the new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.

In this interview, Menand discusses The Metaphysical Club. (The interview is available in three formats: print, audio, and video.)

Here you can listen to Menand discuss The Metaphysical Club on The Connection.

Speaking Engagement
The BBC audio archive has some wonderful interview clips, featuring such people as Noël Coward, Vladimir Nabokov, Roald Dahl, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Speer, Mohandas Gandhi, Alfred Hitchcock, Ansel Adams, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, e.e. cummings, Joseph Heller, Ogden Nash, and many others.


George S. Kaufman wrote the following, which was published in the February 22, 1958, issue of The New Yorker.

When Your Honey's on the Telephone

Well, now, that's a nice sentimental title, isn't it? So -- are we all ready for a glowing story about this darling girl, and how she calls you up on the telephone, and an hour later, dripping darlingness, you hang up in a blaze of glucose, and your whole day is made, and everything is absolutely wonderful from then on?

All right. Now, do you want the facts? The facts are that I am very fond of honey, and I have it for breakfast now and then, and the telephone often rings while I'm eating it -- my number is quite a lot like that of Mt. Sinai Hospital, and a voice generally says, "Give me the maternity ward" -- and while I am taking the phone off the cradle, the wire dangles over the honey saucer just close enough to pick up the merest daub of honey, and from then on everything is not exactly wonderful at all. In fact, it's plain hell.

What follows is not wasteful so far as honey is concerned, because a microscopic amount of honey is enough to do it all. Once a speck of honey gets on the telephone wire, it does the work of a whole bevy of bees, if bees and bevies go together.

One morning in my early and innocent days, I made a quick effort to wipe the honey off the wire, but that was a great mistake. An infinitesimal amount of honey -- hardly any, mind you -- having thus got on my fingers, it quickly transferred itself to the telephone instrument, and from then on there was no way out. Dialling a number a few minutes later, I managed to get just the merest bit of honey -- almost none at all, really -- into most of those little dial holes, thus rendering the telephone useless for the next eight to ten years, or until they invent something to supersede the dial. Then, taking up a fork to finish my eggs, I transferred the merest molecule of honey to the fork. Picking up my coffee cup, I got a very little bit on the cup handle. At this point, I went into the bathroom and washed my hands, first getting just the smallest speck of honey on the bathroom doorknob. When I came back and took up the fork again, there was the honey, on my fingers. I now had the whole breakfast tray taken away and a new breakfast prepared, with new forks and coffee cups and everything. Then I washed my hands and started all over. But the telephone rang again -- they wanted Rupert's Brewery this time -- and I took up the receiver and there was still just the smallest amount of honey on it, and so I got it on the fork again, and when I started to drink my coffee it got on the cup handle again, so I decided there was no use eating breakfast at all that morning. So I began to get dressed, and just the smallest amount of honey got on my trouser belt, so I undressed and took a bath, and when I came out, all clean, I closed the door of the bathroom after me, and there was just this little bit of honey on the doorknob ...

Well, you get the idea. There was only one thing to do. I had the telephone taken out, and I moved to a new apartment. So nowadays, if I have honey for breakfast, I save time by just moving to a new apartment right away.

Old Rags
The following was written by Terry Teachout, of About Last Night. It's from an article he wrote in 1994 called "Profile of a Profiler," about Michael Rozek and the magazine he created.

Magazines aren't what they used to be. Most things aren't, of course, but the slow demise of the general-interest magazine is one of the saddest episodes in the decline and fall of American culture. Time was when the American magazine was a liberal-arts education all by itself--when subscriptions to a half-dozen carefully chosen publications could open a thousand magic casements of the mind. Consider, say, the list of writers who contributed regularly to the New Yorker between 1940 and 1960: James Thurber, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, John O'Hara, J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, Truman Capote, Joseph Mitchell, Whitney Balliett. . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.

Nor was the New Yorker a lone, glittering exception to the general rule. Popular magazines used to take their readers seriously, not on special occasions but as a matter of course. They sought out good writers and gave them room to talk about things that mattered. Forty-six years ago this March, Time put theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on its cover and assigned Whittaker Chambers to write the story. Today's popular magazines, by contrast, specialize in bite-sized stories about "cutting-edge" ephemera. Instant celebrities are their preferred subject matter. (One prominent New York editor recently announced his intention of hunting down "the zeitgeist of the week.") And skepticism--the corrosive kind, not the healthy kind--is the order of the day, every day. If Time and the New Yorker were the quintessential magazines of the 1940s, surely People and Vanity Fair are their contemporary counterparts.

In order to get a clearer understanding of the decadent magazine culture of the 1990s, try to imagine a publication that is the exact opposite of the "dot books" that crowd today's newsstands. What would it look like? What would it contain? To begin with, it would be plain as a post: no flashy graphics, no glossy ads, no ultramodern typefaces. It would run long articles. It would emphasize personalities but shun celebrities. It would be written in a strong yet self-effacing style that focuses attention on the subject, not the writer. It would be about values, not attitudes.

To put it another way, it would be a publication very much like Rozek's.

Click here to keep reading.


Yellow Fever
Matt Groening was on Fresh Air today.

Re: Marx

Click here to listen to Groucho's March 25, 1970, appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

Here you'll find many other audio files featuring Groucho, including segments of Groucho and Chico's radio show Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel (originally broadcast in 1933, the year of their best movie, Duck Soup). There are also Groucho interviews conducted by Bill Cosby, Steve Allen, and David Steinberg.

Here you'll find some great magazine articles (with photos) about the Marx Brothers, including a couple by Groucho himself.

The following is Robert Benchley's review of the Marx Brothers' first Broadway show, I'll Say She Is. This review was originally published in the June 5, 1924, issue of Charles Dana Gibson's Life magazine.

We are happy to announce that the laughing apparatus of this department, long suspected of being out of date and useless, is in perfect running order and can be heard any evening at the Casino Theatre during those magnificent moments when the Marx Brothers are participating in "I'll Say She Is." Not since sin laid its heavy hand on our spirit have we laughed so loud and so offensively. And as we picked ourself out of the aisle following each convulsion, there rang through our soul the joyful paean: "Grandpa can laugh again! Grandpa can laugh again!"

"I'll Say She Is" is probably one of the worst revues ever staged, from the point of view of artistic merit and general deportment. And yet when the Marx Brothers appear, it becomes one of the best. Certainly we have never enjoyed one so thoroughly since the lamented Cohan Revues, and we will go before any court and swear that two of the four Marxes are two of the funniest men in the world.

We may be doing them a disservice by boiling over about them like this, but we can't help it if we feel it, can we? Certainly the nifties of Mr. Julius Marx will bear the most captious examination, and even if one in ten is found to be phony, the other nine are worth the slight wince involved at the bad one. It is certainly worth hearing him, as Napoleon, refer to the "Marseillaise" as the "Mayonnaise," if the next second he will tell Josephine that she is as true as a three-dollar cornet. The cornet line is one of the more rational of the assortment. Many of them are quite mad and consequently much funnier to hear but impossible to retail.

There is no wincing possible at the pantomime of Mr. Arthur Marx. It is 110-proof artistry. To watch him during the deluge of knives and forks from his coat sleeve, or in the poker game (where he wets one thumb and picks the card off with the other), or -- oh, well, at any moment during the show, is to feel a glow at being alive in the same generation. We hate to be like this, for it is inevitable that we are prejudicing readers against the Marx boys by our enthusiasm, but there must be thousands of you who have seen them in vaudeville (where almost everything that is funny on our legitimate stage seems to originate) and who know that we are right.

It is too bad that with such a wealth of good material of their own our heroes should have stooped to using Walt Kuhn's "Lillies of the Field" ballet without credit. The steal is palpable and inexcusable, and all the more mysterious in view of the gigantic inventive powers of the Marxes themselves. It is as if Edison were to steal an idea for a lamp. It may turn out that the Marxes have been doing this for years, like Will Morrissey and his delightfully funny Treasurer's Report, but Mr. Kuhn certainly did it better.

One word of commendation to offset the above. In Nat Martin's jazz orchestra which enlivens the finale to "I'll Say She Is" there is no saxophone comedian. The members of the orchestra simply play the notes as written, a grateful innovation in these days when each jazz band has at least one saxophonist whose friends have evidently told him that he ought to be on the stage.

Here's Alexander Woollcott's review of I'll Say She Is.


Periodical Laffs
The following is from the New York Post. (Via Maud Newton.)

December 17, 2003 -- Graydon "Smokestack" Carter and Kurt Andersen have snagged a seven-figure deal to write about their glory days as the co-founders of Spy magazine. George Kalogerakis, who was the deputy editor at Spy at its launch, is also involved in the deal.

The book is to be called "Spy: The Funny Years," and to be published in 2005. A preemptive deal with Miramax Books was inked for what one source said was $1 million - which has to be split four ways.

The fourth "person" is the Spy estate, controlled by John (Jo) Colman, who owned Spy when it shut down in 1998.

The book will include material from the magazine's glory days, such as the hilarious "Separated at Birth" column and "The Industry," which made Spy one of the first publications to routinely pillory the bigwigs in the media and entertainment world.

Carter and Andersen first hatched the idea of the humor magazine when they were working at Time Inc. in the early 1980s.

Carter, now the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, recently signed a book deal with Farrar Straus and Giroux to pen some musings on the current political climate.

Andersen is a novelist and the host of public radio's "Studio 360" show. He recently signed up to become the editor of Colors magazine, published quarterly by fashion house Benetton.

Said Jonathan Burnham, the editor-in-chief of Miramax Books: "Spy is the funniest magazine in living memory, still hugely influential and much missed."

He said Andersen, Carter and Kalogerakis are expected to tell many of the never-before-told stories about the magazine's launch.

Prime Numbers
Here are three Letterman Top Ten Lists from back in the days when he was on NBC.

Top Ten Least Popular Supermarket Chains

10. Pick 'n' Lick

9. Larva Town

8. Food Crypt

7. Risky's

6. Price Hiker

5. Rex Reed's Grocery Rodeo

4. The Expiration Date Grab Bag

3. I'm-Not-Wearing-Pantry

2. Hitler's

1. Bag This!


Top Ten Least Exciting Superpowers for Comic Book Superheroes

10. Super spelling

9. Lightning-fast mood swings

8. Really bendy thumb

7. Unusually natural smile when posing for photographs

6. Ability to calm jittery squirrels

5. Power to shake exactly two aspirin out of a bottle

4. Ability to get tickets to Goodwill Games

3. Power to score with other superheroes' wives

2. Ability to communicate with corn

1. Magnetic colon


Top Ten Rejected Names for Kentucky Fried Chicken

10. Lifeless Bird Lumps

9. KFC and CPR

8. Hot Oily Hens

7. Greaseland

6. The You're-a-Little-Too-Late Petting Zoo

5. Heart Attack Helper

4. Jiffy Lube (already taken)

3. Home of the Soggy, Grease-Stained Bucket o' Fun

2. Food, Folks, and Fat

1. Artery Busters

Humor Risk
The following was written by E.B. White. It was published in the September 27, 1952, issue of The New Yorker.

Adlai Stevenson has been reprimanded by General Eisenhower for indulging in humor and wit, and Mr. Stevenson has very properly been warned of the consequences by his own party leaders, who are worried. Their fears are well grounded. We have had long experience with humor in the literary world, and we add our warning to the other warnings. Nothing is so suspect as humor, nothing so surely brands a work of art or politics as second-rate. It has been our sad duty on several occasions in the past to issue admonitory statements concerning the familiar American paradox that governs humor: every American, to the last man, lays claim to a "sense" of humor and guards it as his most significant spiritual trait, yet rejects humor as a contaminating element wherever found. America is a nation of comics and comedians; nevertheless, humor has no stature and is accepted only after the death of the perpetrator. Almost the only first-string American statesman who managed to combine high office with humor was Lincoln, and he was murdered finally. Churchill is, in our opinion, a man of humor, but he lives in England, where it doesn't count.

The New Yorker subscribes to a press-clipping bureau, and over the years we have examined thousands of clippings from many sources, in praise of one thing or another that has appeared in the magazine. Almost invariably, the praise begins with a qualifying remark, pointing out that the magazine is non-serious in nature and indicating that it takes a superior intelligence (the writer's) to detect truth or merit in such unlikely surroundings. If it's any comfort to Stevenson, we can assure him that in this matter of humor we have been in the same boat with him for a long time, and that the sea has been rough.

King, David
The following is from the September 7, 1998, issue of The New Yorker:

The novelist David Foster Wallace, who has taught "Carrie" and "The Stand" to undergraduates at Illinois State, applauds the stylistic clarity of the early King books. "He's one of the first people to talk about real Americans and how they live, to capture real American dialogue in all its, like, foulmouthed grandeur," Wallace says. "He has a deadly ear for the way people speak, and for the nasty little domestic shit they pull on each other. Students come to me and a lot of them have been led to believe that there's good stuff and bad stuff, literary books and popular books, stuff that's redemptive and commercial shit -- with a sharp line drawn between the two categories. It's good to show them that there's a certain amount of blurring. Surface-wise, King's work is a bit televisual, but there's really a lot going on."

Papa Christmas
The following is from the December 24, 1927, issue of The New Yorker. I found it here. Here's a Christmas story by John Cheever. And here's one by John Updike.

A Visit from Saint Nicholas
(In the Ernest Hemingway Manner)

by James Thurber

It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren't even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them.

The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn't move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.

"Father," the children said.

There was no answer. He's there, all right, they thought.

"Father," they said, and banged on their beds.

"What do you want?" I asked.

"We have visions of sugarplums," the children said.

"Go to sleep," said mamma.

"We can't sleep," said the children. They stopped talking, but I could hear them moving. They made sounds.

"Can you sleep?" asked the children.

"No," I said.

"You ought to sleep."

"I know. I ought to sleep."

"Can we have some sugarplums?"

"You can't have any sugarplums," said mamma.

"We just asked you."

There was a long silence. I could hear the children moving again.

"Is Saint Nicholas asleep?" asked the children.

"No," mamma said. "Be quiet."

"What the hell would he be asleep tonight for?" I asked.

"He might be," the children said.

"He isn't," I said.

"Let's try to sleep," said mamma.

The house became quiet once more. I could hear the rustling noises the children made when they moved in their beds.

Out on the lawn a clatter arose. I got out of bed and went to the window. I opened the shutters; then I threw up the sash. The moon shone on the snow. The moon gave the lustre of mid-day to objects in the snow. There was a miniature sleigh in the snow, and eight tiny reindeer. A little man was driving them. He was lively and quick. He whistled and shouted at the reindeer and called them by their names. Their names were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen.

He told them to dash away to the top of the porch, and then he told them to dash away to the top of the wall. They did. The sleigh was full of toys.

"Who is it?" mamma asked.

"Some guy," I said. "A little guy."

I pulled my head in out of the window and listened. I heard the reindeer on the roof. I could hear their hoofs pawing and prancing on the roof. "Shut the window," said mamma. I stood still and listened.

"What do you hear?"

"Reindeer," I said. I shut the window and walked about. It was cold. Mamma sat up in the bed and looked at me.

"How would they get on the roof?" mamma asked.

"They fly."

"Get into bed. You'll catch cold."

Mamma lay down in bed. I didn't get into bed. I kept walking around.

"What do you mean, they fly?" asked mamma.

"Just fly is all."

Mamma turned away toward the wall. She didn't say anything.

I went out into the room where the chimney was. The little man came down the chimney and stepped into the room. He was dressed all in fur. His clothes were covered with ashes and soot from the chimney. On his back was a pack like a peddler's pack. There were toys in it. His cheeks and nose were red and he had dimples. His eyes twinkled. His mouth was little, like a bow, and his beard was very white. Between his teeth was a stumpy pipe. The smoke from the pipe encircled his head in a wreath. He laughed and his belly shook. It shook like a bowl of red jelly. I laughed. He winked his eye, then he gave a twist to his head. He didn't say anything.

He turned to the chimney and filled the stockings and turned away from the chimney. Laying his finger aside his nose, he gave a nod. Then he went up the chimney. I went to the chimney and looked up. I saw him get into his sleigh. He whistled at his team and the team flew away. The team flew as lightly as thistledown. The driver called out, "Merry Christmas and good night." I went back to bed.

"What was it?" asked mamma. "Saint Nicholas?" She smiled.

"Yeah," I said.

She sighed and turned in the bed.

"I saw him," I said.


"I did see him."

"Sure you saw him." She turned farther toward the wall.

"Father," said the children.

"There you go," mamma said. "You and your flying reindeer."

"Go to sleep," I said.

"Can we see Saint Nicholas when he comes?" the children asked.

"You got to be asleep," I said. "You got to be asleep when he comes. You can't see him unless you're unconscious."

"Father knows," mamma said.

I pulled the covers over my mouth. It was warm under the covers. As I went to sleep I wondered if mamma was right.

Forecasting Aspersions
The following was written by E.B. White. It was published in the February 25, 1950, issue of The New Yorker.

The most startling news in the paper on February 13th was the weather forecast. It was "Rainy and dismal." When we read the word "dismal" in the Times, we knew that the era of pure science was drawing to a close and the day of philosophical science was at hand. (Probably in the nick of time.) Consider what had happened! A meteorologist, whose job was simply to examine the instruments in his observatory, had done a quick switch and had examined the entrails of birds. In his fumbling way he had attempted to predict the impact of the elements on the human spirit. His was a poor attempt, as it turned out, but it was an attempt. There are, of course, no evil days in nature, no dies mali, and the forecast plainly showed that the weatherman had been spending his time indoors. To the intimates of rain, no day is dismal, and a dull sky is as plausible as any other. Nevertheless, the forecast indicated that the connection had been reëstablished between nature and scientific man. Now all we need is a meteorologist who has once been soaked to the skin without ill effect. No one can write knowingly of weather who walks bent over on wet days.


School of Art Knocks
The following is an excerpt from a John Updike essay called "Lost Art," which was originally published in The New Yorker. It was included in The Best American Essays 1998.

A 1950 issue of the soon defunct magazine Flair contained, in its eccentric format, a booklet about the Harvard Lampoon, including photographs of the young, crew-cut editors, the curious mock-Flemish building, and some sample cartoons. Somewhere in the concatenation of aspirations and inadvertences that got me to Harvard, this story played a crucial part. Early in my freshman year, I carried a batch of my cartoons down to the Lampoon building, there where Mount Auburn Street meets Bow at an acute angle, an ornate little brick flatiron fronted by a tower with a sort of cartoon face and, on its hat of roof tiles, a much stolen copper ibis. In due course, some of my drawings were printed in the magazine, and I was accepted for membership. The Lampoon, I was too ignorant an outsider to realize, was a social club, with a strong flavor of Boston Brahminism and alcoholic intake; to me it was a magazine for which I wanted to work. This I was allowed to do, especially as the upperclassmen year by year graduated and the various editorial offices fell to me. Though Harvard did little to attract cartoonists, in fact there were four on the Lampoon in 1950 -- Fred Gwynne, Lew Gifford, Doug Bunce, and Charlie Robinson -- who seemed to me much my betters in skill and sophistication. Fred Gwynne, a multitalented giant who went on to become an actor, best known for Car 54, Where Are You? and The Munsters, drew with a Renaissance chiaroscuro and mastery of anatomy; Bunce had a fine line, and Gifford, who made his career in television animation, a carefree, flowing brush stroke years ahead of its time. I tried to measure up to their examples, and cartooned abundantly for the Lampoon -- over half the artwork in some of the issues was mine -- but the budding cartoonist in me, exposed to what I felt were superior talents, suffered a blight; my light verse and supposedly humorous prose felt more viable. By graduation, I had pretty well given up on becoming a cartoonist. It took too many ideas, and one walked in too many footsteps. Writing seemed, in my innocence of it, a relatively untrafficked terrain.

Comedy, Genius
Here you can listen to an interview with Paula Poundstone, and an interview with Fred Kaplan, who talks about his new biography of Mark Twain.

According to "Page Six," the fellow who made the movie The Kid Stays in the Picture, about producer Robert Evans, has decided to make a documentary about Fran Lebowitz. (Via Maud Newton.)

Here are Lebowitz's answers to Playboy's twenty questions, from 1984. (Via Maud Newton.)

An excerpt:

PLAYBOY: Which writers do you admire?

LEBOWITZ: Well, I prefer dead writers, because I don't see them at parties. Oscar Wilde, he's one of my favorites. I like Hawthorne very much. Enjoy Hawthorne even. Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Jane Austen, Henry James I admire very much. Twain I love. Twain I really love. I know he's very highly regarded, but I don't think he's taken very seriously. He wrote humorous things, and humorous writers are never taken seriously enough. In fact, they are always the most serious writers and the most serious people.

Cheever, John O'Hara -- O'Hara is really an underrated American writer. He is a much better writer than Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is a very adolescent book. In fact, I consider that book to be full of the basest sort of longing. And it's a lie. Hemingway I do not like. I'm not interested in that kind of butch statement. Faulkner I have never been able to read. And actually, I consider that a criticism of a writer, because if I can't read him, who can?

The Incomparable Maxwell

William Maxwell, who died on July 31, 2000, at the age of 91, was a fiction editor at The New Yorker for forty years. He was regarded as the best editor of short fiction in the business. He edited Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, and many other great writers. He was also a deeply respected writer himself. Alec Wilkinson, of The New Yorker, once said, "As remarkable as his stature as an editor is, I think he's a much better writer." His 1980 novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, won the American Book Award (now called the National Book Award). The following is from an article Alec Wilkinson wrote about Maxwell called "An American Original." It was published in the Dec. 27, 1999, & Jan. 3, 2000, double issue of The New Yorker.

In presenting to Maxwell in 1995 the Gold Medal for Fiction of the American Academy of Arts and Letters -- the body's highest award, which is given only every six years -- Joseph Mitchell said, "William Maxwell's principal theme, like James Joyce's, is the sadness that often exists at the heart of a family.... He is as aware as any novelist who ever lived of what human beings are capable of." Maxwell's prose is precise and understated. His stories and novels are meticulously crafted; sentences, he says, are moved around until they stick. Even so, the finished work is without any self-consciousness or sign of effort. He never strives for effect. He never performs what he used to describe scornfully to me as pirouettes on the page. Mitchell also said, "Nevertheless, in his pages one often reads with surprise descriptions and observations that seem truer and more revealing and more powerful and more memorable and more shocking than the deliberately shocking scenes and observations found in the pages of many of his contemporaries."


As for how other writers regarded his opinion, when J.D. Salinger finished writing "Catcher in the Rye," he drove to the Maxwells' house in the country and in the course of an afternoon and evening read it to them on their porch.


The following essay was originally published in 1997 in The New York Times Magazine. It was included in The Best American Essays 1998.

Nearing Ninety

by William Maxwell

Out of the corner of my eye I see my ninetieth birthday approaching. It is one year and six months away. How long after that will I be the person I am now?

I don't yet need a cane, but I have a feeling that my table manners have deteriorated. My posture is what you would expect of someone addicted to sitting in front of a typewriter, but it was always that way. "Stand up straight," my father would say to me. "You're all bent over like an old man." It didn't bother me then and it doesn't now, though I agree that an erect carriage is a pleasure to see, in someone of any age.

I have regrets but there are not very many of them and, fortunately, I forget what they are. I forget names, too, but it is not yet serious. What I am trying to remember and can't, quite often my wife will remember. And vice versa. She is in and out during the day, but I know she will be home when evening comes, and so I am never lonely. Long ago, a neighbor in the country, looking at our flower garden, said, "Children and roses reflect their care." This is true of the very old as well.

Though there have been a great many changes in the world since I came into it on August 16, 1908, I try not to deplore. It is not constructive and there is no point in discouraging the young by invidious comparisons with the way things used to be.

I am not -- I think I am not -- afraid of dying. When I was seventeen I worked on a farm in southern Wisconsin, near Portage. It was no ordinary farm and not much serious farming was done there, but it had the look of a place that had been lived in, and loved, for a good long time. I was no more energetic than most adolescents, but the family forgave my failures and shortcomings and simply took me in, let me be one of them. The farm had come down in the family through several generations, from the man who had pioneered it to a woman who was so alive that everything and everybody seemed to revolve around her personality. She lived well into her nineties and then one day told her oldest daughter that she didn't want to live anymore, that she was tired. Though I was not present but only heard about it in a letter, this remark reconciled me to my own inevitable extinction. I could believe that enough is enough. One must also, if possible, reconcile oneself to life. To horrors (the number of legless peasants in Cambodia) that if you allowed yourself to think about them more than briefly would turn your heart to stone.

Because I actively enjoy sleeping, dreams, the unexplainable dialogues that take place in my head as I am drifting off, all that, I tell myself that lying down to an afternoon nap that goes on and on through eternity is not something to be concerned about. What spoils this pleasant fancy is the recollection that when people are dead they don't read books. This I find unbearable. No Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Elizabeth Bowen, no Keats, no Rilke. One might as well be --

Before I am ready to call it quits, I would like to reread every book I have ever deeply enjoyed, beginning with Jane Austen and Isaac Babel and Sybille Bedford's The Sudden View and going through shelf after shelf of bookcases until I arrive at the autobiographies of William Butler Yeats. As it is, I read a great deal of the time. I am harder to please, though. I see flaws in masterpieces. Conrad indulging in rhetoric when he would do better to get on with it. I would read all day long and well into the night if there were no other claims on my time. Appointments with doctors, with the dentist. The monthly bank statement. Income tax returns. And because I don't want to turn into a monster, people. Afternoon tea with X, dinner with the Y's. Our social life would be a good deal more active than it is if more than half of those I care about hadn't passed over to the other side. However, I remember them. I remember them more, and more vividly, the older I get.

I did not wholly escape the amnesia that overtakes children around the age of six, but I carried along with me more of my childhood than, I think, most people do. Once, after dinner, my father hitched up the horse and took my mother and me for a sleigh ride. The winter stars were very bright. The sleigh bells made a lovely sound. I was bundled up to the nose, between my father and mother, where nothing, not even the cold, could get at me. The very perfection of happiness.

At something like the same age, I went for a ride, again with my father and mother, on a riverboat at Havana, Illinois. It was a sidewheeler and the decks were screened, I suppose as protection against the mosquitoes. Across eight decades the name of the steamboat comes back to me -- the Eastland -- bringing with it the context of disaster. A year later, at the dock in Chicago, too many of the passengers crowded on one side of the boat, waving goodbye, and it rolled over and sank. Trapped by the screens everywhere, a great many people lost their lives. The fact that I had been on this very steamboat, that I had escaped from a watery grave, I continued to remember all through my childhood.

I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living. But now it is different, I have to be careful. I can ruin a night's sleep by suddenly, in the dark, thinking about some particular time in my life. Before I can stop myself, it is as if I had driven a mineshaft down through layers and layers of the past and must explore, relive, remember, reconsider, until daylight delivers me.

I have not forgotten the pleasure, when our children were very young, of hoisting them onto my shoulders when their legs gave out. Of reading to them at bedtime. Of studying their beautiful faces. Of feeling responsible for their physical safety. But that was more than thirty years ago. I admire the way that, as adults, they have taken hold of life, and I am glad that they are not materialistic, but there is little or nothing I can do for them at this point, except write a little fable to put in their Christmas stocking. Our grandchild is too young to respond to any beguiling but his mother and father's. It will be touch and go whether I live long enough for us to enjoy being in each other's company.

"Are you writing?" people ask -- out of politeness, undoubtedly. And I say, "Nothing very much." The truth but not the whole truth -- which is that I seem to have lost touch with the place that stories and novels come from. I have no idea why.

I still like making sentences.

Every now and then, in my waking moments, and especially when I am in the country, I stand and look hard at everything.


This Fresh Air interview with Alec Wilkinson begins with a 1995 interview with Maxwell.


Here's a New York Observer article about the great John Hodgman. (Via Mike Gerber.)

An excerpt:

"He speaks in perfect sentences, and he had the dry, mature, man-in-a-smoking-jacket wit of an 80-year-old Oxford don when he was 25," said novelist Elizabeth Gilbert. "John pretends sometimes to be a cranky and grumpy person when he is actually compassionate and optimistic."

"John's events feature many of the same performers as from the hipster literary scene, but there's a much homier, warmer, more communal vibe," said writer Neal Pollack. "John is the real draw: He's a perfect host and a perfect gentleman."

"I was born at the age of about 45," Mr. Hodgman said. The only child of a businessman and a nurse in Brookline, Mass., young John had asthma and liked to watch Mary Tyler Moore and read Tintin books. "I was ruthlessly responsible and well-liked by all adults, which allowed me opportunity for subversion," he said. At Brookline High, he carried around a briefcase and co-edited a humor magazine that featured short stories about self-mutilation and X-rated comics.

At Yale, he took a class with literary critic Harold Bloom.

"As we all know, the man is a maniac," he said. "He has perhaps the largest brain on the planet.... It was really Bloom who taught me to be a comedian."

In the mid-1990's, Mr. Hodgman worked his way up to becoming a literary agent at Writers House. In 1997, George Plimpton edited a story of his for The Paris Review ("one of those life-altering moments"). In 2000, he turned most of his attention to writing, including a 13-part advice column on the McSweeney's Web site called "Ask the Former Professional Literary Agent."

Now he writes regularly for Men's Journal about booze and food, and occasionally for The New York Times Magazine. He recently sold a book, The Areas of My Expertise, which will be filled with "amazing historical true facts" (e.g., U.S. Presidents who had hooks for hands). "I would say the amount of true material is roughly zero," he added.

Here's an interview with the great man.

Here's a monologue that Mr. Hodgman presented at one of his Little Gray Book lectures.

World History

The following is from John McPhee's 1980 book Basin and Range. (Basin and Range was later republished as the first part of Annals of the Former World, for which McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999.)

Geologists will sometimes use the calendar year as a unit to represent the time scale, and in such terms the Precambrian runs from New Year's Day until well after Halloween. Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds. With your arms spread wide again to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins in the wrist, and the Permian Extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history. Geologists live with the geologic scale. Individually, they may or may not be alarmed by the rate of exploitation of the things they discover, but, like the environmentalists, they use these repetitive analogies to place the human record in perspective -- to see the Age of Reflection, the last few thousand years, as a small bright sparkle at the end of time.


The human consciousness may have begun to leap and boil some sunny day in the Pleistocene, but the race by and large has retained the essence of its animal sense of time. People think in five generations -- two ahead, two behind -- with heavy concentration on the one in the middle. Possibly that is tragic, and possibly there is no choice. The human mind may not have evolved enough to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it. At least, that is what geologists wonder sometimes, and they have imparted the questions to me. They wonder to what extent they truly sense the passage of millions of years. They wonder to what extent it is possible to absorb a set of facts and move with them, in a sensory manner, beyond the recording intellect and into the abyssal eons. Primordial inhibition may stand in the way. On the geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about. The mind blocks the information. Geologists, dealing always with deep time, find that it seeps into their beings and affects them in various ways. They see the unbelievable swiftness with which one evolving species on the earth has learned to reach into the dirt of some tropical island and fling 747s into the sky. They see the thin band in which are the all but indiscernible stratifications of Cro-Magnon, Moses, Leonardo, and now. Seeing a race unaware of its own instantaneousness in time, they can reel off all the species that have come and gone, with emphasis on those that have specialized themselves to death.