Who are the greatest English-language humourists of all time?
A matter of taste. But here’s mine.
Jonathan Swift: the greatest satirist. Not just “A Modest Proposal,” maybe the greatest essay in English, but also Gulliver’s Travels. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but in the grand tradition of satire: you do not know he’s cut off your head until the next time you go to bow.
Stephen Leacock. Humour often does not wear well—mostly because it depends on the element of surprise. But Leacock wears as well as he ever did. I loved him as a kid, and read everything then. I reread some a few years ago, and it was still as good. “He flung himself on his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” He made people funny yet never stooped to making anyone a pure object of fun. As comedy traditionally does, with its grotesques. Nothing cruel, no painting anyone as only a buffoon. His characters were never two-dimensional humours; you always sympathized with them.
Buster Keaton. Overshadowed in his day by Chaplin, and even Harold Lloyd. But he has better stood the test of time. Chaplin was sometimes guilty of special pleading, of jerking tears. Keaton was Gibraltar in his integrity. If the joke did not work on its own, it did not get any help. There was a purity to it, an almost mathematical quality.
Jack Benny. I have only in lengthening years fully appreciated the greatness of his art. He could take a line that would not be funny if anyone else said it, a line that had no visible punch line, and make you laugh, just about for as long as he wanted. He could say “Well,” and it was screamingly funny. And without any obvious mugging or broad gestures. He was the master of timing. He was the master of minimalism.
It is harder to judge more recent humourists; we cannot yet tell how they will wear. Among the ultimate greats may be Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Michael Myers, John Belushi. More recent than that, it gets even trickier.
Overrated: Groucho Marx. Too easy to imitate, and he got his shtick in the first place from George S. Kaufman. Often not funny so much as obnoxious. Anyone can be obnoxious.
Mark Twain. Tiresomely predictable in his cynicism.
Mel Brooks. Too desperate for a laugh.
Lucille Ball. I could never watch her as a kid. I did not find it funny to constantly see someone messing up. It required an utter lack of sympathy with the character.