In the 1920s, Franklin Pierce Adams was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. He made his name as a columnist for various newspapers where, under the simple byline F. P. A., he wrote humorous jokes and poems, often lampooning popular verse of the period. In the 1930s, he named his column “The Conning Tower”, the term used to describe the observation tower on a submarine. The idea was that from his own tower, he could make observations on the world he saw. Adams accepted submissions from readers, and he published pieces from Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Eugene O’Neill, and E.B. White.
As far as I can tell, Adams never worked for the Times. When this article was written, his columns may have appeared in the New York Evening Mail and in a feature called “The Spreading Chestnut Tree” in Everybody’s Magazine. But that didn’t prevent them from publishing this in-depth look at the up-and-coming humorist:
Last Monday, when all Manhattan Island and some other parts of the Nation were holidaying, a reporter from The Times found his way into the sanctum of America’s greatest jokee, (i.e., one to whom jokes are made.) His name is Franklin P. Adams, and he keeps the wolf away from his door by reading the jokes that are sent to Everybody’s Magazine in the hope that they will ultimately blossom on “The Spreading Chestnut Tree.” The wolf, apparently, has a sense of humor.
Jokes, a thousand strong, were heaped about Mr. Adams when the reporter entered — by appointment — for an interview on “The American Sense of Humor.”
Mr. Adams slipped a joke into Darwin’s Origin of Species, and, closing the volume with a reluctant sigh, tossed it upon a heap of humor.
Thus begins the interview, which I recommend downloading to read in its entirety. He describes jokes that he gets from prisoners and from children, the differences between jokes from men and women, and how he can tell the difference between a good joke and a bad joke.
Here he describes some of the letters included with submissions he receives:
“Another habit they have is the effort to be facetious in the letters that accompany their jokes. The most usual form is a play on the word ‘chestnut.’ Each one pulls it off as though he had lit on something brand new and very funny. ‘Here are some chestnuts that should be picked,’ ‘chestnuts ripe, but not wormy,’ are a few samples of this lame-duck humor. You can guess how an introduction of this kind keys me up with joyous expectation of the accompanying jokes.
“But in the letters that make no effort to be funny, I find some good laughs. How’s this.”
Mr. Adams fished out of his desk a painfully inscribed epistle:
Dear Sir: Inclosed you will find, under my pen name of Herr von Hornberg-Boenningheim, the MSS. of three half-dozen sets of humorous paragraphs, viz. Nos. 49 to 66 of a collection of seventy half-dozen sets, of 420 paragraphs in all. In order to make quick sales I offer these at the nominal price of $2.50 a set, or $6.50 for the three sets, if taken together. I can furnish more such sets if desired at the same merely nominal price. However, I make this offer on the stipulation that you make your decision, or choice, at once, and, in case you desire to retain them, send me the price thereof within one week’s time or otherwise return the rejected sets of humorous paragraphs at once. Hoping to hear from you within the appointed time, or perhaps receive orders for additional sets. I am yours very truly, A— T—.
“Needless to say,” continued Mr. Adams, “his entire ‘three half-dozen sets of humorous paragraphs’ did not assay 1 per cent of the unconscious humor in his letter. A mild and quite common variation of this letter is the statement, usually accompanying some very poor jokes: ‘I have lots like the inclosed and would like to become a regular contributor.’
“There are a lot of people who seem to think it necessary to call my attention to the fact that they have inclosed a joke. Here’s a sample:”
Gentlemen: As I have on hand some very good short stories, some jokes and funny sayings, I thought it best to write and explain to you that they are just the thing for The Spreading Chestnut Tree. I shall be glad to accept anything you wish to give for them. Truly, T. B.
“When I looked over his ‘jokes and funny sayings’ I agree with him that he’d be glad to accept anything I’d give for them.”
I guess when you have to go over so many joke submissions, you get bitter about comedy. Still, it’s a very interesting interview. This one is a downloader.
A MAN WHO HAS TO READ 10,000 JOKES A MONTH: “F. P. A.,” Who Also Writes Jokes Himself, Gives The Times the Confessions of a Professional Chestnut Gatherer — How He Keeps Sane by Reading Darwin. (PDF)
From February 19, 1911
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