Let me propose that American literary humor, in becoming modern, branched in two during the Great Depression. On one side are absurd, language-driven vignettes, short magazine pieces ranging from whimsical to surreal where the narrator tries to make sense of, or at least describe, a crackpot world. This strand was largely created and mainly defined by S.J. Perelman, whose comic genius engendered two of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), and a steady stream of brilliant short pieces for (mainly) The New Yorker.
The other branch trades in black comic predicaments of grotesque dysfunction: a ridiculous overabundance of misery, of mental and physical illness and often absurd violence. Laughter here is defensive: relief at seeing something so horrible happen to someone else. This strain was best, and arguably first, articulated by Nathanael West, author of the superb short novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), who was, funny enough, Perelman’s brother-in-law.
In Perelman’s camp we find his older contemporaries, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, neither of whom had the idiomatic snap, that aggrieved brilliance and fine timing, that Perelman gave the form. Woody Allen and David Sedaris are his natural heirs, along with—in the sillier episodes with his oddly-named characters—Thomas Pynchon.
West’s example, heaping outlandish misery upon uncomprehending and helpless characters, has gained more followers: among the most notable being Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 only gained wide recognition after Perelman praised it), Stanley Elkin, and David Foster Wallace.
And though West’s own work has never quite overcome the cult status given it following his untimely 1940 death, his artistry is now acknowledged, his works collected in a Library of America edition in 1997. The Day of the Locust may still be our best novel about Hollywood, made into a major 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black, and creating, in one of its characters, a hopeless dope named Homer Simpson.