The Indispensable Humorist

REVIEW: ‘The Funny Stuff: The Official P.J. O’Rourke Quotationary and Riffapedia’

Portrait of American political satirist and journalist P. J. O'Rourke leaning on a table, 1980s. / Getty Images
February 12, 2023

The title of the present volume, The Funny Stuff, might imply the existence of other volumes of the not-funny variety, presumably by the same author, but this is not so. Some 20 other volumes of genuinely funny stuff by the late P.J. O’Rourke are, indeed, already weighing down our bookshelves.

What this new book does is build a kind of museum exhibit of O’Rourke sentences, the better to examine them up close while we note their careful construction and hell-for-leather action. As for the perky title, it’s just an opening gambit, a promise that you’ll want to pause admiringly here, there, and everywhere, maybe memorize some of the words and plagiarize them in conversation until you get too big a laugh and have to admit, yeah, I am just ripping off P.J. O’Rourke.

The Funny Stuff reminds us of O’Rourke’s amazing range for subjects and settings (cars, manners, sex, Africa, government spending, drugs and alcohol, and on and on), unusual for someone so inimitably himself on the page. The range is, I think, a happy byproduct of the author’s well-known lust for life in all forms, which helps make him one of the most companionable writers I can think of.

By the way, I recently read an essay by the theologian David Bentley Hart complaining that in the interest of simplicity modern English prose has been so denuded of character that you can hardly tell one writer from another by the sentences they write. Not so with O’Rourke and not because of any grossly indulgent flourishes. His sentences, like his point of view, were the product of a true appetite for understanding paired with a comedian’s gift for parody. And the sentences are marvels of craftsmanship. The ones that weren’t born perfect were surely raised to be perfect, turned upside-down and inside-out many times before their creator was satisfied that they weren’t getting any more logical, readable, or funny—then he hammered them shut and waterproofed them.

As a staff editor for several years at the Weekly Standard, I was always excited when it fell to me to copyedit an essay by O’Rourke—excited, at first, but then disappointed because he had left me nothing to do but check his spelling. I would query a passage or two to keep us both honest but the text already shined like polished silver. He made copyeditors superfluous. Really. He made you wonder whether bad writing wasn’t simply a jobs program for unstylish dorks who want to work in publishing.

Take from The Funny Stuff this gem of psychology and satire on what Rousseau called amour de soi: "Of course self-love cannot be displayed in full bloom without a leafy background of hatred for others."

Notice how the concept is first visualized as a kind of springtime of the self before the green metaphor is extended and inverted with the "leafy" background of other-hating misanthropy. It’s a bitter joy, this sentence, like a dram of room-temperature Scotch, served neat.

O’Rourke wrote great aphorisms, yes, but he also wrote wonderful conceits, the most famous being the one about God, Santa Claus, and our two major political parties, included in this volume but not this review because it’s too long. Instead, here is another in which O’Rourke visits the Serengeti and plays court jester to the animal kingdom.

"Thomson’s gazelles bound about with a suspicious black swipe on their sides—enough like the Nike trademark to raise questions about sponsorship. Warthogs scuttle with their tails up straight in the air, endlessly acknowledging some foul in the game of hogball. Hyenas are all over the place, nonchalant but shifty, in little groups meandering not quite aimlessly—greasers at the mall."

If his aphoristic style seems worthy of Nietzsche and his best conceits all but Swiftian in carrying their jokes a little too far for polite company (and here’s to that), then another major aspect of P.J. O’Rourke’s comic style has to be what I think of as his phony voice of authority—or maybe it’s the voice of phony authority, I’m not sure—first perfected in his book on manners and no small part of his work for National Lampoon.

The strange thing is his voice is not actually without authority, for P.J. O’Rourke was not only a talented joke writer. He was a legit student of all his subjects from automotive performance to foreign affairs to economics. On subjects he knew, he knew a lot. And on subjects he didn’t know, he was curious and wanted to learn.

Anyway, here is an example of the phony voice of authority included in The Funny Stuff: "Frequent changes of underwear and friends are marks of sophistication centuries old." (If you read this one aloud to your housemate, I recommend a mock plumy accent, but just this once. For the rest of the book, use your best cigar-chomping, middle-American voice.)

It’s a venerable old setup not unlike Ben Franklin’s great line "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days," but O’Rourke’s juxtaposition starts off with a haughty prescriptive tone. Then, in the heart of the sentence, he makes a pair of friends and dirty underwear as if the two go together like gin and vermouth and the general subject is something more like a well-stocked cupboard in a fashionable country home.

This voice owes something to a few great earlier writers, including H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and, maybe Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., whose Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table seems like an early ancestor of O’Rourke humor, including O’Rourke’s title The CEO of the Sofa, from which comes this gorgeous bit of holding forth, also included in The Funny Stuff:

"Death is a handy reminder of how many environmental problems aren’t simply problems, they’re costs. Population pressure, for example, is the cost we pay for not being dead."

It could be your economics professor’s biggest laugh line of the semester; it could also be a deft counterargument in a presidential debate. It’s absurdly good. It’s like a touchdown and a field goal happening on the same play.

Another term for this type of book is a chrestomathy, a Latinate term that Mencken himself favored and which means "useful for learning." From The Funny Stuff, we can learn many useful lessons such as, well, the humorist is no incidental player in the human pageant. He is quite important, in fact. He brings the comedy into view, by parodying us, laughing at us, pestering us, mocking us, and momentarily relieving us of the weight of our own convictions, those opinions and pretensions that seem to explain everything until the startling moment when they turn to utter nonsense. It’s humbling to confront our own pompous stupidity. Fortunately, comedy, P.J. O’Rourke, and a very small number of other funny writers make the whole thing bearable.

The Funny Stuff: The Official P.J. O’Rourke Quotationary and Riffapedia
by P.J. O’Rourke, edited by Terry McDonnell, introduction by Christopher Buckley
Atlantic Monthly Press, 264 pp., $25

David Skinner is an editor and writer who writes about language and culture and lives in Alexandria, Va.