Chances are that you’ve never heard of Will Cuppy. But if you love out-of-the-ordinary humor writing, the kind that isn’t just of the “Me and My Funny Life” variety, you really should check out Cuppy’s books. With his heavily researched satirical takes on animals and historical figures, you can even learn things from his writings. You may not have known, for instance, that “Young normal tigers do not eat people. If eaten by a tiger you may rest assured he was abnormal.” Or that “Pike spawn in February, March, and April because they cannot wait until May.”
Cuppy was born in 1884 in Indiana, one of out unfunniest states. (Word has it that a trade is in the offing that would have Utah send Indiana some of its excess scenery in exchange for some low grade humor.) Overcoming this handicap, Cuppy went to the University of Chicago to be an English Major, only to be demoted soon after in WWI to American Lieutenant, possibly because the Army does not have a sense of humor. After this, he went to New York City to begin a career that eventually made him a highly acclaimed book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune, largely in the Crime and Detective fiction genre.
A shy man, Cuppy in the 1920’s escaped the constant activity of the city and took up residence in a shack on Jones Island, just off the South Shore of Long Island. Here he wrote his first book, the fittingly titled How to Be a Hermit, which was so successful it went through six printings in four months. Apparently the reclusive writer was funnier on paper however as he subsequently flopped on the lecture circuit, proving perhaps that a hermit out of his shack is like any other animal out of its natural environment. This also could be why his home away from home soon became the Bronx Zoo.
It was the zoo that soon inspired Cuppy to begin to write in the style that would make him famous – funny but factual articles about animals (and people) that were published in The New Yorker and other magazines. These would be compiled into the books, How to tell Your Friends from the Apes, How to Become Extinct, and How to Attract the Wombat. People loved them. The animals remained unimpressed.
Cuppy’s best known work, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody was published after his death. This book was the culmination of 16 years of research, and, unfortunately for the humor business, the Decline and Fall of Will Cuppy. Like so many of our great humorists it seems, he had long battled depression, and in September 1949 he took an overdose of sleeping pills and died.
In his time, Cuppy was quite famous, and greatly admired by the wags of the era, notably P.G. Wodehouse and James Thurber. The esteemed news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow would often read from his books on the air until he laughed too hard to continue. If only the news today could still be delivered in this manner, but alas, all we have now are political animals with no sense of humor. One final oddity about Cuppy is that in the last years of his life he became good friends with William Steig, an illustrator of two of his books. Steig later would create the character Shrek in a 1990’s children’s book, basing his character of a humorous hermit living in a shack on Cuppy. His home state of Indiana tried to top this tribute, but as it was Indiana, all they could come up with was a state historic marker at Cuppy’s family home, and a gravestone with the inscription, “Will J. Cuppy, American Humorist.”
Cuppy was an eminently quotable writer. Here are just a few of my favorites:
- “Never call anyone a baboon unless you are sure of your facts.”
- “To the seeing eye, life is mostly sparrows.”
- “Intelligence is the capacity to know what we are doing and instinct is just instinct. The results are about the same.”
- “Egypt has been called the “Gift of the Nile.” Once every year the river overflows its banks, depositing a layer of rich alluvial soil on the parched ground. Then it recedes and soon the whole countryside, as far as the eye can see, is covered with Egyptologists.”