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"Ellis Parker Butler Talks on Humor" from Writer's Digest

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  • Writer's Digest (June, 1935)   "Ellis Parker Butler Talks on Humor"   By Henry Harrison. "Interviews With Notable Authors". p 11-13.  [LOCKE]

from Writer's Digest
Ellis Parker Butler Talks on Humor

Once upon a time (in the year 1905, to be exact) a gentleman named Ellis Parker Butler sent a humorous piece to Ellery Sedgwick, then editor of Leslie's Monthly. Mr. Sedgwick read the bit, changed its title from "The Dago Pig Episode" to "Pigs Is Pigs" and sent the gentleman named Ellis Parker Butler a check for $75. Following the publication of "Pigs Is Pigs," Mr. Butler's reputation was inaugurated, and the humorist gave up his editorship of and his partnership in the Decorative Furnisher, a magazine.

For the first time in his life, Ellis Parker Butler became a solicited author. He is still in that category. Incidentally, there are those who rank him in a class with Mark Twain, who, by the way, is Mr. Butler's favorite humorist.

Be that as it may, let us get to E.P.B.'s opinions of humor. They are exceedingly significant, and as such, are highly interesting.

"A 'sense of humor' and the art of creating humor are entirely different things," said Mr. Butler to me in his Flushing (Long Island) home. "They may be absolutely unrelated. The often-mentioned 'sense of humor' is merely incidental in the one who creates humor. The most successful humorist may not have it at all. If he has a 'sense of humor' in the beginning he is apt to lose it as he progresses, because he soon learns that the best humor is the result of an artful presentation of a subject rather than the result of any innately humorous quality of the subject."

"You mean that a professional humorist need have no sense of humor?"

"Exactly that. The 'sense of humor' is the ability to laugh at what others might find annoying -- to 'see the fun in things.' Some humorists may begin writing humor because they 'see the fun in things,' but I doubt if many do. We begin writing humor because we feel in ourselves -- or discover in ourselves -- the ability to make others see the fun in things. A master musician need not enjoy music; he must know how to write music others will enjoy or find interesting. A humorist need not enjoy humor; he must know how to make others laugh. Now, as the humorist progresses -- learns his art -- he discovers that it is an art. By building situation upon situation in certain ways, or by building word upon word in certain ways, he can, he finds, create a laugh producer. It becomes a serious matter with him, this trying to create the best humor he can. He has no time to bother with a 'sense of humor.' In his desire to be a great artist he may lose his 'sense of humor' entirely. The great humorist seldom laughs; he is serious. He knows the entire mechanism of humor so well that his 'sense of humor' becomes an ability to analyze; he is as little liable to laugh at funny things as a maker of fireworks is liable to exclaim when seeing a skyrocket explode. His thought is 'a good piece of work' or 'not so good!'"

"What is humor?" I asked, rather meekly, knowing that the question would be a sticker, especially to this humorist whom I had just obliged to forfeit an afternoon's nap.

Mr. Butler deliberated. "There are different answers to that," he finally replied. "Any number of definitions may be fitted to that query. Well, I should say that humor is any written or pictorial art that causes laughter. An excellent example of what is humorous in my opinion is Mark Twain's Jumping Frog. You ask me what is wit? Well, I should say that wit is mental brilliance. Wit may be natural. Humor is artificial. Humor must be wrought. It is the result of deliberation. But remember that there is that great difference between a 'sense of humor' and the actual humor. Humor must be treated by the writer before it can really be humor. Eli Perkins said that humor, in order to be considered as such, must first have the mark of the writer put upon it."

This brought me to the observation, "A humorist is born, not made." And so I inquired, "Do you believe that ability to be a humorist is born with a writer, or developed, or both, or either?"

"I have a pretty definite opinion about the matter. I believe that the real, the genuine humorist is born with the gift," answered Mr. Butler. "However, let it not be said that humor cannot be developed in a writer. It can be developed in almost anyone. Take a runner. He is usually the product of training. The same with the musician. He may have the talent, but he must be schooled in his art. And the same with the writer who is desirous of writing humor. Undoubtedly the genius is a born creature; nevertheless, one can be so trained that one's brain will function along the lines of humor."

Mr. Butler is of the belief that the best medium for the humorist today is the short story. "There is a bigger market for the humorous story," went on the leading American wit. "The narrative form is always the most popular form and for humor it is a natural vehicle. It is most effective. I don't doubt, however, that the essay will again come into vogue. It's bound to come in for its rightful share in the field of literature. As for the market for humor, it is quite extensive. There are plenty of magazines of all kinds that publish all kinds of humor. And most of them pay pretty good prices, too."

"What advice have you to give to would-be humorists?" I asked, bearing in mind the readers of the writer's digest who aspire to heights of humor.

"I'll tell you frankly," began Mr. Butler, "that I would not hesitate to advise my son to become a humorous writer. I think it is a good profession. You can and may work anywhere. Humor is easy to sell. The product is not bulky. The market is wide. Of course, it is easier for a writer when he lives in New York. Then he can query the magazines in this city on timely humorous material. A writer in California cannot very well query a New York magazine concerning material that must be written promptly and published shortly. And as much humorous material is written about current events, it therefore must necessarily be printed before the event has ceased to be current. You know some magazines have special numbers -- automobile numbers, Gerald Chapman numbers, police numbers, and the like. Suppose that one of these magazines suddenly discovers that it hasn't sufficient Gerald Chapman material to build an issue with, what is that magazine going to do? Write to a humorist out in California? Hardly. It will notify a New Yorker promptly, who will be obliged to turn the stuff out presently. But let me give the beginner one good tip. Let him develop a distinct and distinctive personality in his humorous work. As examples of distinct personalities, let me cite Will Rogers, or George Ade. The writer mustn't change his personality either. He wants to have his readers get accustomed to his one particular aspect. In that manner, the humorist who has established a personality can be solicited by a magazine that is aware of the public's like for this peculiar personality. You readily see that today much of the humorous material appearing in print is monotonously alike. There is no individuality in much of it. The humorist who wishes to impress himself upon his audience must put something in that audience's head that it won't forget. And that is his own striking personality."

"Tell me something about this originality complex," I demanded, as if I were King.

"I'll say this about those who are too original when they start," continued Mr. Butler. "It seems that too many of them flop in a short time. These overly original youngsters who blossom forth of a sudden seem to peter out just as suddenly. It is advisable to choose some great humorist for your master, to start with. Strange to say, the apparent imitator, if he has talent, presently passes the one he has imitated, because his master is by that time a back number, while his ostensible imitator carries on into a new period, I don't mean that one must slavishly imitate someone else, but all the great humorists are representative types -- the mock-egotistical, the mock-humble, the exaggerative, the playful, and so on -- and the beginner should choose one as his model, and adhere to that type until his own personality emerges. You'll find that a great many writers who started by selecting some master as their model wound up by being supremely original themselves. You'll do best by adhering a little to the kind of humor that was successful before you. To try to be extremely original at the beginning is precarious. It creates small audiences, select perhaps, but never very faithful."

"You have doubtless heard of Professor Albert Gray Shaw of New York University," I began, "who recently declared that laughter is going to die out in time, especially when we become more sophisticated, and when incongruity, one of the elements of humor, is wiped out. What have you to say about that?"

Mr. Butler was definite in his opinions. "He's talking through his hat," he replied, in allusion to Prof. Shaw. "The more sophisticated a man becomes, the finer is his ability to appreciate humor. But we are not becoming sophisticated to any such extent as you imply. There is a small group of sophisticates, just as always, but the humorist can safely ignore it, unless he wishes to make it a subject of jest. The great mass of humanity is no more sophisticated than in the day of Pharaoh or the day of Lincoln. Humor is as necessary to people as food is. As a matter of fact, isn't it true that there never was a time when humor on the stage, in newspapers, in magazines, in speeches and in books was as greatly popular as it is today? The great mass of humanity does not vary one-tenth of one per cent in sophistication from age to age. The humorist today has larger audiences and is better remunerated than ever before; there are more people."

Inasmuch as this interview must be finished in 200 additional words, let me quote the major points of Mr. Butler's observations:

"The way in which a piece of humor is written is ninety per cent of the work," he went on. "Humor and profound writings get about the same, financially speaking. The syndication of humor is a great field. For the unknown, however, there is very little chance. A newspaper wouldn't take the trouble of looking at the work of someone it hasn't heard about, especially when it has to feature the writer. But the syndicate line is going to be bigger and bigger. Don't let the beginner be discouraged in the face of reputation. A big humorist, no matter how good and prolific he is, finds it pretty difficult to turn out a good piece each week. It's a real stunt to write humor to order. Another thing for the beginner to remember: Let him not be afraid to send his material to the better magazines. Suppose he submits excellent humor to the trashy, low-brow publication. They refuse him because he is simply too good for them. It's a serious mistake to be afraid of your market. Finally, let your readers know that it's preferable to write humor than serious stuff. That's how I feel about it. The humorist is always happy when he can turn out a splendid piece of work, and, incidentally, he makes someone else happy in turn."

Mr. Harrison's next interview will be with Mr. Wm. M. Rouse on the short story.



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