We're not even halfway through yet, but we can probably all agree that 2010 is not going to go down as the funniest year of the millennium. The country is in the midst of two wars and a recession with apparent zombie-like staying power, which has rendered the national mood not only "unhappy," but "16-year-old listening to The Cure in his room with the lights out on prom night" depressed. It might not seem like the best time for a humor anthology, but if the news keeps getting worse, Americans are going to need either to laugh, or to just hide in bed until 2011. Ian Frazier's new Humor Me: An Anthology of Funny Contemporary Writing (Plus Some Great Old Stuff Too) isn't going to make you forget the state of the world, but it's cheaper than a new bed, and much more fun than another article about how melting glaciers are going to kill us all.
Frazier, a humorist best known for his essays in The New Yorker, has done a deft and surprising job in selecting the 54 pieces that make up Humor Me. Judging by his choices, Frazier's sympathies seem to lie with the absurdist, dark and almost postmodern — fiction writer George Saunders is represented by his hilarious story "Adams"; the title of one brief essay by Jake Swearingen is "How Important Moments in My Life Would Have Been Different If I Was Shot Twice in the Stomach at Close Range." (You might think this isn't exactly what it sounds like. It is.) The usual suspects (Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris, Roy Blount Jr.) aren't neglected, but the most fun contributions are from newer authors, like Padgett Powell's gleefully profane and bizarre "Scarliotti and the Sinkhole," and Ian Maxtone-Graham's equally profane 11-word essay "Fair Warning." Frazier has cast a wider net for humorous pieces than previous anthologists have, and it turns out to be a wise decision. Although Jamaica Kincaid and David Mamet might not be the first names you think of when someone mentions comedy, their short contributions are standouts, and their inclusion proves that comic writing doesn't have to be zany and punchline-oriented.
Frazier supplements the anthology with nine "great old" essays and stories, ranging from Bret Harte in 1867 to Elizabeth Bishop in 1979. It's a nice touch, and it's fun to see how well the pieces have held up. Humor Me isn't definitive, by any means, of course — its focus is chiefly on contemporary American writers, though the contributors do cover a fairly wide range of writing styles. (Like pretty much every mainstream humor anthology, Humor Me is dominated by male writers — fewer than a quarter of the contributors are women — but it's a problem, unfortunately, not unique to this book.) It doesn't have to be comprehensive to be funny, though, and on that count it succeeds remarkably well. Don't use it as a humor textbook; just enjoy the laughs next time a volcano has stranded you in an airport.