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How to be a funny writer

Welcome to Cuppyland, Warren Clements says. You can begin anywhere

Headshot of Warren Clements

It's a good thing that wit isn't solely the province of the extrovert. If it were, the world would never have heard from Will Cuppy, and it would be a poorer place. It wouldn't have The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, or How to Get from January to December, or How to Attract the Wombat.

Cuppy's books are endlessly quotable, so much so that P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote an introduction to How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, said it was tempting to fill his three allotted pages with Cuppy's own words. He offered this excerpt about the penguin, a passage that captures Cuppy's fondness for absurdity: "Penguins are dignified. To catch a penguin off its dignity might take years and would hardly be worth the trouble. ... Only the expert can tell a live penguin from a stuffed one. It is probable that most penguins are stuffed."

William Jacob Cuppy was born in Indiana in 1884, and spent 11 years as a student at the University of Chicago before prying himself loose with only an MA to show for his trouble. For the rest of his life, he lived in and around New York City, enjoying a hermetically sealed existence violated only by close relationships with a few patient friends. He slept most of the day and worked from late afternoon to dawn. His living quarters, first mainly in a cabin on Long Island and later mainly in a Greenwich Village apartment, were the dictionary definition of a fire hazard. Banks of books towered over him, and hundreds of boxes of 3-by-5 file cards containing his research on pretty well every animal that ever lived, including a smattering of humans. His friend Fred Feldkamp, who became his literary executor and stitched together the Decline and Fall and January to December books after Cuppy's death in 1949, said that "before writing a line on any topic - or even thinking about what he might write - he would read every volume and article on the subject that he could find - including, in many cases, obscure books no longer available in this country."

From 1926 until his death, Cuppy's day job was reviewing mysteries and true-crime books in a weekly column for the New York Herald Tribune. He was lucky enough to work alongside reporter Isabel Paterson, who pushed him to compile a book from articles he had written about his cabin. How to Be a Hermit; or, A Bachelor Keeps House appeared in 1929, and was reprinted six times in the first six months. Cuppy's persona was a man annoyed and perplexed by humanity and its shortcomings, but he laced his opinions with enough self-deprecation and exaggeration that the sum was charming rather than wearing.

Still, his reputation rests on his next five books, all with short, independent chapters and many amusing footnotes. How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes (1931) ranges from elephants and gnus to the Java Man and the Neanderthal Man ("there were no icemen because it was the Great Ice Age"). How to Become Extinct (1941), which he worked on for years with the tentative title The Decline and Fall of Everything, covered the turtle ("I don't like to criticize, but turtles are pretty foolish") and the garter snake (they "are crazy about sex and don't care who knows it"), and devoted a chapter to dinosaurs and woolly mammoths in order to justify the title. How to Attract the Wombat (1949) is only briefly about the wombat, a creature best avoided as an indoor pet. "You would hardly know he is there, unless you happen to hear him tearing up the floor by way of getting on with a new nesting chamber."

Feldkamp gave Cuppy's discarded title a twist for the first posthumous book, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (1950). This was my first Cuppy; I found it decades ago as a dog-eared paperback in a bookstore bin, bought it because of William Steig's illustrations, and stayed for the humour. It's the Cuppy for readers who prefer famous historical humans to non-human animals: Cleopatra, Nero, Lady Godiva, Catherine the Great. Cuppy was probably influenced by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman's 1931 classic 1066 and All That; if so, he returned the favour by writing the footnotes for the 1937 U.S. edition of their gardening book, Garden Rubbish and Other Country Bumps. But there are echoes in his writing of other voices - Stephen Leacock, James Thurber, Groucho Marx's routines - without a hint of misappropriation. "Queen Elizabeth was rather a flirt all her life. She finally developed a bad habit of boxing her partners' ears and shouting, 'God's death, I'll have thy head!' This discouraged some of her more sensitive partners."

The final Cuppy, How to Get from January to December (1951), took the form of an almanac, a convenient way to shoehorn in all those discrete cards. A "reader" asks Cuppy to settle a bet about whether Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays. Cuppy responds that you can't easily spot people who believe Bacon wrote Shakespeare. "Only an expert can tell that there is anything - uh - unusual about them - that is, in their lucid intervals. This department does not answer bets, but maybe you can read between the lines."

Welcome to Cuppyland. Begin anywhere.

Warren Clements, whose attempts at humour owe a big debt to Cuppy, is most recently the editor of Portfoolio 23: The Year's Best Canadian Editorial Cartoons.

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