“Humorist” is a profoundly dismal word, for it does not signify any deep and genuine humor so much as humorism, that profession of forced amusement around which true laughter can rarely hope to survive. Hear it and you’re likely to think of New Yorker exclamation points, Garrison Keillor columns, the nasal monotone of some refugee on npr talking about growing up in America. Comic, comedian, jester, wit—even a clown is better than a humorist.

So it should come as no surprise that of the fourteen people Paul Johnson chose to write about in Humorists, only two, James Thurber and Damon Runyan, ever had to contend with the label. Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and Toulouse-Lautrec were satirical painters and caricaturists. Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers were masterful performers. Noël Coward’s finest work (Brief Encounter, in my view) wasn’t even a comedy. G. K. Chesterton was a polemical wit; Benjamin Franklin and Charles Dickens speak for themselves; and the inclusion of Samuel Johnson might make one wonder how Mohammed and Solzhenitsyn missed the cut.

“The gallery I have assembled in this book,” Johnson writes, “is a strange collection of geniuses, worldly failures, drunks, misfits, cripples, and gifted idiots. They had in common only the desire, and the ability, to make large numbers of people laugh.” Or at least the ability to make Paul Johnson laugh. This ability ranks them higher, in his view, than the figures he has written about in previous books, such as Intellectuals and Creators. “Those who can dry our tears, and force reluctant smiles to our trembling lips, are more precious to us,” he writes, “than all the statesmen and the generals and the brainy people, even the great artists.” The more you agree with this, the more you’ll appreciate the biographical portraits in this book, which are personal both in selection and tone. Johnson celebrates his favorite funny people without aspiring to any comprehensive thesis about their art. Shunning any silly solutions to the mystery of laughter, he opts instead to shine modest light on that mystery from some of its endless angles.

Johnson draws out two broad comic categories—those of chaos and character—with room left for the comedy of contrasts (as between race, class, sex). “Humorists,” he writes, “are either chaos-creators or order-enforcers.” Yet even these soft distinctions fail to hold. W. C. Fields liked order. But his funeral involved three services (Catholic, spiritualist, crematory) along with the emergence of an illegitimate son, a tramp claiming to be an old friend, and “a blind woman who said Fields had married her under a false name in 1893 when he was only thirteen.” Charlie Chaplin’s posthumous fate—his coffin was stolen and held for ransom for 600,000 Swiss francs—seems like a walk in the park by comparison. Nuggets like these are the greatest pleasure of Humorists.

One of the more interesting themes of the book is how much joy some derived from reviewing their own work. After Oliver Hardy died in 1957, Stan Laurel spent the last years of his life watching their old films and “laughing uproariously” at his old partner’s antics. Though she makes no appearance in the book, I was reminded of Flannery O’Connor, who frequently reread her stories and laughed at them all over. Given the misery and self-hate that haunt so many comic souls, such poignant tales amount to a small mystery.

Writing about humor is almost as difficult as practicing it, and some of Johnson’s efforts fail to leave a mark. Benjamin Franklin may have been the founding father of American humor, as Johnson contends, but nothing he cites shows Franklin to be a more important comic subject than Mark Twain. It may also be true that “Dickens needed the stimulus of alcohol . . . to keep his comic and imaginative faculties in constant motion.” But so what? For real proof of the hilarity of hooch, one had better turn to the stories of P. G. Wodehouse.

Far more valuable are Johnson’s chapters on the great performers of the 1920s to 1940s. They remind us of the sheer virtuosity, thermodynamic complexity, and visual grace that once went into the now lost art of physical comedy. Chaplin and Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Fields and the brothers Marx: all were highly skilled magicians who differed from the rabbit-yanking kind in one crucial way—they actually had magic. They were funny. And the miracle of it was that they made us laugh despite their desire to do so.

Why is that desire so deeply offensive? It’s easier to be funny when you don’t care if anyone’s amused, but announce your intent and you’ll be immediately resented for it. Our contempt for the humorist who fails to make us laugh is far stronger, and more permanent, than what we feel for the poet who fails to make us cry or the know-it-all who fails to enlighten. We never forgive him. If he succeeds, we’ll thank him for now, while suspecting deep down that he’s probably not a serious person. Paul Johnson avoids this particular mystery in his brisk, largely introductory group of essays. I don’t blame him. Some truths, after all, are so deep only a joke can reach them.