New humor collection bristles with ha-has but there are ho-hums too; The Best of Modern Humor, edited by Mordecai Richler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 400 pp. $20.
In selecting humorists, one person's ha-ha is another person's ho-hum. Only a relatively few ha-ha humorists succeed in capturing ho-hum readers, and, when they do, it is mostly by chance.
This new collection of humor from 65 writers furnishes a fresh reminder of that truism. If a reader considers humorist Stephen Leacock, for instance, a ho-hum proposition (as this reviewer first thought), it is possible for the reader to be converted by continued reading. Sooner or later he or she, ambushed by a crazy combination of words, lies there ha-ha-ing.
H. L. Mencken doesn't fit into the Leacock category. Mencken rewards his readers with an intellectual, not an actual, smile; therefore, the chances are that if you ho-hum Mencken at the start you will ho-hum him at the finish, because he does not depend on surprises.
Intellectuals are supposed to like H.L. Mencken. But then intellectuals also seem to like P.G. Wodehouse, who simply rattles along, making his very own style of humor. With Wodehouse, one can often appreciate with outright laughter the inanity of the characters who wend and wobble through his stories.
Ring (''You know me, Al'') Lardner, slyly tugs at your feelings of superiority while he faithfully records the devastating logic of Jack, a letter-writing ballplayer of somewhat small ability.
Besides, there is always something funny about misspelled words such as ''deepo'' and ''argude.'' (Maybe not always. Emma Lazarus spelled ''tempest tossed'' as ''tempest tost'' in her sonnet, ''The New Colossus,'' inspired by the Statue of Liberty and mounted on a bronze plaque in its base, and no one laughs.)
In a compilation of humor labeled ''The Best . . .'' one will always question why some examples were put in and others left out. Groucho Marx, for instance, is a funny person, but he seems out of place in a volume of writers. He was included, apparently, for forced recognition. Even Truman Capote gives a slightly offbeat flavor.
The inclusion, in itself, of 65 selections might indicate that there would be peanut butter sandwiches on the same buffet as the caviar. Most people respond favorably to really great humorists, such as Alan Coren, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, and Leo Rosten. Yet Tom Wolfe, a great writer who is not laughing-funny , might seem a borderline case.
Probably the most unfortunate aspect of the book is extending the range of selection into gut humor: the graphically bawdy, if not pornographic, writing of Lisa Alther or even Beryl Bainbridge.
Readers of moderate taste, who expect famous editors to be more circumspect in their definition of humor, or at least to keep the Althers in a different volume from the Benchleys, might well shun the book entirely.
They might even hope for an Erma Bombeck (who wasn't selected).