In Joseph Epstein’s recent book, Essays in Biography, we find a chapter entitled “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.” It is obviously an essay devoted to the great comedian W. C. Fields. I have often wondered: What would happen to me if I did not take Field’s famous advice but instead gave the “sucker” an even break? By the logic of the argument, I suppose, it would quickly make me a “sucker” in my own right for being so dumb even to think about it. Yet if all the “suckers” in the world got an even break, how would we know about them? Would the world really be a better place if we eliminated the possibility of any of us ever being “suckers”?

Epstein has great affection for Fields. It turns out that few of the bad things that we love about the public character that Fields played in vaudeville and the movies were really true of his personal life. He liked children and ladies. He even turns out to have been a Republican, which would, by itself, probably prevent his old flicks from ever gracing the present White House cinema. Epstein’s essay is, deep down, an examination of that most mysterious of all human quandaries, namely, “Why are things funny?” What a dour and dull world it would be if they weren’t!

Whatever caused us to be, whoever made us to be what we are, must also have had a streak of joy in its being. Something like laughter cannot come from nothing. Aristotle, as one of the attributes of the rational animal, stated that man was “risibile,” that is, he was capable of laughter and, I suppose, in the gentle sense, of being laughed at and with. The inability to laugh at ourselves, at our own foibles and ultimately our sins, has always seemed to me to be rather in the order of the diabolical. Could we really imagine a world without laughter?

Epstein mentions that Fields was not actually buried under a tombstone with this famous epitaph—“On the Whole, I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia.” Whether he was or not, it remains his legacy about how mankind should look back at its life. But what if, when we read Fields’s memorable epitaph, we thought it was simply a straightforward homage to the city of his birth, a kind of Homeric nostalgia for home? We would not, in that case, laugh. We might even cry.

The fact is that we only laugh when we realize that Philadelphia at the time was, in fact, the dullest place Fields could imagine. But even that would be preferable to what might happen after death if the rumors are true. Thus you not only have to know some Fields biography to understand why this epitaph is funny, you have to know some theology and some gossip about the boring social life of Philadelphia, especially on Sundays. When we see the humor in this light, we suddenly realize that our laughter bubbles out of our peculiar position in the world as finite beings who know about their doom. I once read something about Lew Lehr or Jimmy Durante suggesting that comedians were often, in their own lives, rather sad, even tragic, almost as if to imply that if there is no sadness, there is no laughter. This combination of sadness and laughter seems trueof Fields also.

Epstein records that, in a 1940 Fields movie called The Bank Dick, which takes place in Lompoc, the local “town physician advises an emaciated patient to ‘cut out the health food for a while.’” As the patient leaves the office, for this common sense advice, the doctor gives him a bill for $10 (this was before Obamacare). When paid, the nurse will give him a receipt and “return his clothing.” Of course, if we have to “explain” why something is funny, it usually is not funny anymore, or it loses its funniness in translation. But the idea of a family doctor telling his emaciated patient to get off the health food is wit at its best. The bill for ten dollars and the return of the emaciated patient’s clothing only when paid are merely icing on the cake. The “sucker,” yet again, does not get an even break.

In recounting these scenes from small-town America, Epstein surmises that Fields is pointing to the hypocrisy in such places. Yet one might wonder whether, in teaching the folks on Main Street the sophistication that presumably exists in, say, Philadelphia, we have really done anyone a favor. I myself have always suspected that health foods, like vegetarianism, do more harm than good. But thus far I have never been paid for my advice. And I come from a small town.

Fields entered into the vaudeville circuit via his ability to juggle. He was, at first sight, rather the antithesis of the famous medieval “Juggler of God,” whose only talent was played in silence before the Lord’s Altar. Yet it is difficult to imagine that the Lord is not also amused by the W. C. Fieldses of this world. Along the way, while tossing dumbbells or cigar boxes into the air, Fields would develop a conversation with the audience. He learned what made them laugh. Fields’s sarcastic voice, his timing, was perfect for this routine. He moved into the talking movies when they come along. Fields’s family name seems to have been “Dukenfield.” Mae West starred with Fields as Flower Belle Lee in My Little Chickadee. It seems somehow more difficult to imagine Flower Belle Lee inviting a W. C. Dukenfield to “come up to see me sometime.”

In words reminiscent of Hobbes, Epstein observes that “The chief subject in Fields’s best movies is false respectability. His is a world where dysfunctionality and viciousness rule—where everyone tries to do in everyone else, and meanness and stinginess abound.” Yet it is out of this world that humor arises. If it were a perfect world, Fields would never miss a dumbbell tossed into the air, or meet a little girl who did everything she could to annoy him. There may be, after all, something to be said for the Fall of Man. Perhaps we would better say that even with the Fall, hints of joy remain lest we despair.

But what Epstein, in the end, prefers is not the “snarling” Fields, the one who is “contributing to the world’s anarchy,” but “instead—like the rest of us, if to a much higher power—a victim of it.” Yet “victim” may not be the right word either. Humor results from the fact that we are free and have to work things out by our wits against a background of sadness and tragedy, to be sure, but also against intimations of previous joy. This is what keeps coming through in our laughter.

No doubt Chesterton had it right at the end of Orthodoxy. Men have always been puzzled about why Christ is not recorded to have laughed in the New Testament. We are loathe to think that he did not have a sense of humor or that nothing funny ever happened among the apostles. The reason, Chesterton thought, that God did not reveal his “mirth” was because it was so glorious that we could not, in our present state, bear it. In the end, that may also be why we ourselves,with Fields, would rather be in Philadelphia, where glimmerings of our ultimate lot shine through the words we put on our tombstones.  

Father Schall reflects on a chapter about the great W. C. Fields and the mysterious nature of humor.