Humor

This is the 15th in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.

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Notes on an Idle Excursion
January 1878

by Mark Twain

As part of a four-installment travel series, Mark Twain shared his thoughts on the island of Bermuda.

The early twilight of a Sunday evening in Hamilton, Bermuda, is an alluring time. There is just enough of whispering breeze, fragrance of flowers, and sense of repose to raise one’s thoughts heavenward; and just enough amateur piano music to keep him reminded of the other place …

We never met a man, or woman, or child anywhere in this sunny island who seemed to be unprosperous, or discontented, or sorry about anything. This sort of monotony became very tiresome presently, and even something worse. The spectacle of an entire nation groveling in contentment is an infuriating thing …

The Bermudians are hoping soon to have telegraphic communication with the world. But even after they shall have acquired this curse it will still be a good country to go to for a vacation, for there are charming little islets scattered about the inclosed sea where one could live secure from interruption. The telegraph boy would have to come in a boat, and one could easily kill him while he was making his landing.

Vol. 41, No. 243, pp. 12–19


Der Arme Dolmetscher
July 1955

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

In 1955, Kurt Vonnegut, then a General Electric employee and an aspiring novelist, recalled an episode from his Army days.

I was astonished one day in 1944, in the midst of front-line hell-raising, to learn that I had been made interpreter, Dolmetscher if you please, for a whole battalion …

It had never entered my head that I had what it took to dolmetsch … While a student, I had learned the first stanza of Die Lorelei by rote from a college roommate, and I happened to give those lines a dogged rendition while working within earshot of the battalion commander …

Two hours later, the company clerk told me to lay down the buckets, for I was now battalion interpreter.

Orders to move up came soon after. Those in authority were too harried to hear my declarations of incompetence. “You talk Kraut good enough foah us,” said the executive officer. “Theah ain’t goin’ to be much talkin’ to Krauts where we’re goin” …

One [soldier] handed me a pamphlet purporting to make German easy for the man in the foxhole.

“Some of the first pages are missing,” the donor explained … “Used ’em for cigarette papers,” he said …

I examined each of [the pamphlet’s] precious pages in turn, delighted by the simplicity of transposing English into German. With this booklet, all I had to do was to run my finger down the left-hand column until I found the English phrase I wanted, and then rattle off the nonsense syllables printed opposite in the right-hand column. “How many grenade launchers have you?” for instance, was Vee feel grenada vairfair habben zee? Impeccable German for “Where are your tank columns?” proved to be nothing more troublesome than Vo zint cara pantzer shpitzen? I mouthed the phrases: “Where are your howitzers? How many machine guns have you? Surrender! Don’t shoot! Where have you hidden your motorcycle? Hands up! What unit are you from?”

The pamphlet came to an abrupt end, toppling my spirits from manic to depressive. [The pamphlet’s donor] had smoked up … the pamphlet’s first half, leaving me with nothing to work with but the repartee of hand-to-hand fighting …

Twenty minutes later … four Tiger tanks drove up to the front door of Headquarters, and two dozen German infantrymen dismounted to round us up with submachine guns.

“Say sumpin’,” ordered the colonel, spunky to the last.

I ran my eye down the left-hand columns of my pamphlet until I found the phrase which most fairly represented our sentiments.

“Don’t shoot,” I said.

A German tank officer swaggered in to have a look at his catch. In his hand was a pamphlet, somewhat smaller than mine.

“Where are your howitzers?” he said.

Vol. 196, No. 1, pp. 86–88


The Porcupines in the Artichokes
October 1959

by James Thurber

James Thurber offered advice to those in the unfortunate position of having to entertain writers at dinner.

I have writers the way other people have mice,” a disturbed hostess has written me. “What can I do to keep them from arguing, fighting, and throwing highball glasses after dinner? One doesn’t dare mention names, such as Herman Melville and Harold Loeb, or the fight is on. What would you suggest?”

Well, now, it isn’t easy to entertain writers and have any fun. You might begin by saying, over the first cocktail, “I don’t want any writers to be mentioned this evening.” Do not make the mistake of adding, “From Washington Irving to Jack Kerouac,” because that would instantly precipitate an argument about Washington Irving and Jack Kerouac. You might begin by saying, “The porcupines are getting our artichokes.” This could, of course, lead to literary wrangling and jangling, but everything is a calculated risk when writers are present, even “My grandfather almost married a Pawnee woman,” or “I wonder if you gentlemen would help me put the handle back on my icebox.” A writer, of course, can turn anything at all into a literary discussion, and it might be better not to say anything about anything …

My wife, during a party in August, when writers are at their worst, brought out the pencils and paper and said, “I want you all to write down the names of as many animals and birds as you can think of with a double ‘o’ in their names.” This worked fine for about half an hour, during which the literary men wrote down: moose, goose, mongoose, raccoon, baboon …

The trouble started, as my wife should have known it would, when the papers were gathered up and the scoring began …

There are always two or three writers, in this kind of game, who deliberately louse things up by taking and holding an untenable position. One of these obstinate fellows had written down pool shark, and another had come up with booze hound …

All of a moment a whooping literary argument was on. It concerned the merits and demerits of Rupert Brooke, Stephen Crane, Tennyson’s “The Brook” and Tennyson himself, Hart Crane, and Bret Harte; also The Heart of the Matter, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and The Death of the Heart, thus involving Graham Greene, Carson McCullers …

That night three highball glasses, two friendships, and a woman’s heart were broken. There is really only one safe rule for a hostess to go by. Do not ask writers to your house, especially in the summer, and in three other seasons of the year—spring, autumn, and winter.

Vol. 204, No. 4, pp. 35–37


Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father
February 1997

by Ian Frazier

In a 1997 manifesto, Ian Frazier, author and father of two, laid down the law on behalf of fathers everywhere.

Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room.

Of the hoofed animals, broiled or ground into burgers, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the cloven-hoofed animal, plain or with cheese, you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the cereal grains, of the corn and of the wheat and of the oats, and of all the cereals that are of bright color and unknown provenance you may eat, but not in the living room. Of the quiescently frozen dessert and of all frozen after-meal treats you may eat, but absolutely not in the living room. Of the juices and other beverages, yes, even of those in sippy-cups, you may drink, but not in the living room, neither may you carry such therein. Indeed, when you reach the place where the living room carpet begins, of any food or beverage there you may not eat, neither may you drink.

But if you are sick, and are lying down and watching something, then may you eat in the living room.

And if you are seated in your high chair, or in a chair such as a greater person might use, keep your legs and feet below you as they were. Neither raise up your knees, nor place your feet upon the table, for that is an abomination to me. Yes, even when you have an interesting bandage to show, your feet upon the table are an abomination, and worthy of rebuke. Drink your milk as it is given you, neither use on it any utensils, nor fork, nor knife, nor spoon, for that is not what they are for; if you will dip your blocks in the milk, and lick it off, you will be sent away. When you have drunk, let the empty cup then remain upon the table, and do not bite it upon its edge and by your teeth hold it to your face in order to make noises in it sounding like a duck; for you will be sent away …

Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.

Vol. 279, No. 2, pp. 89–90

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/05/humor/305772/