Shouts & Murmurs: What If Someone From 1850 Had a Phone

The New Yorker's humor column loves this one formula

Jack Koloskus
Dan Brooks
Ha Ha Ha

Shouts & Murmurs is the short humor column that appears near the beginning of each issue of The New Yorker, plus diurnally on the web in the form of Daily Shouts. It started as the personal column of theater critic Alexander Woollcott, who wrote a page of satire, reviews, and/or gossip for every issue of the magazine between 1929 and 1934. In 1992, The New Yorker revived Shouts & Murmurs as a guest humor column, which has since featured work by Steve Martin, Paul Rudnick, Nora Ephron, and approximately one million stand-up comedians who went to Oberlin.

But you probably knew most of that already. Perhaps you have the tote bag, as I do, and if so I assume that you read Shouts & Murmurs also as I do, i.e. with the kind of persistently frustrated hope one normally reserves for the Mets or a loved one struggling with addiction. You want them to get better, and you fear they never will. Because we are of one mind on this issue, I think we can dispense with further exposition and move right along to taxonomy, which is the element of the Shouts & Murmurs reading experience that interests me here.

There are four categories of Shout. The first category is Written By a Lineal Descendant of Another New Yorker Writer, e.g. “The Trigger” by Cora Frazier, which is about a person whose trip to the firing range “triggers” different memories from her past. Get it? “Trigger” is both a part of a gun and a verb meaning “to evoke a powerful memory or emotional response,” and Cora Frazier is the daughter of 50-year New Yorker contributor Ian Frazier. This kind of Shout belongs to a larger category of cultural production that will eventually account for all paid positions in American media, and from a business standpoint offers an example of “how the sausage is made,” which is to say poorly, by people who literally cannot experience failure but are in therapy anyway. I have made my peace with this category, and it no longer concerns me.

The second category of Shout is Pro-Social Cartoon, e.g. “The Art of Living Black!” by Avy Jetter. I have no opinion about this category. Only an idiot would.

The third category of Shout is Miscellaneous, e.g. “Jeremy, the Last Man on Earth” by Sarah Aswell. This is the category that is most likely to contain something actually funny, e.g. “Jeremy, the Last Man on Earth” by Sarah Aswell, which you should read as soon as you are done reading this. Other successful examples of Miscellaneous include “Extremely Loud Doorbells” by Jack Handey and “Guy Walks Into a Bar” by Simon Rich. This category of Shout, while vanishingly small, is occasionally so funny that it keeps me reading despite all the other Shouts that are inert or, worse, actively unfunny to the point of being kind of offensive. I have included it here, in the counterintuitive second-to-last position, to show you that I am not some humorless ascetic who finds nothing funny but rather the kind of deeply humored aesthete who finds some things so funny that the other stuff — the nominal stuff, the mirthless “humor” without the limbic response stuff — becomes a frustrating parody of what I am looking for, the way tennis players are mad at pickleball. This category concerns me deeply but resists further explanation, so I will leave it now.

The final category of Shout is what I call Allusion & Nowadays. It is by far the most populous, to the point that I can imagine it becoming the only kind of Shout that exists, as one can imagine a New York City that contains only cockroaches. Examples include “Early Internet Hustles of Historical Figures,” “Benjamin Franklin’s Google Search History from June, 1752,” “Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, as E-Mailed by Your Passive-Aggressive Coworker,” “Ayn Rand Reviews Children’s Movies,” “The Last Guide to Literary Conflict You’ll Ever Need,” “Work E-Mails During an Apocalypse,” and “Phantoms and Prejudice.” These seven instances were all tweeted by the Shouts & Murmurs Twitter account in the last two months. Removing two reruns, we find that Shouts & Murmurs is publishing a new Allusion & Nowadays at the rate of 0.7143 per week.

Can you imagine how funny it would be if a person from the modern era explained our quotidian experiences to a 19th-century character?

Maybe that’s because they’re easy to write. The formula for an Allusion & Nowadays Shout is straightforward: start with a work of classic literature or a figure from history — Jane Austen novels seem to work exceptionally well, as do marquee names like Genghis Khan or founding fathers — and then imagine how they would send text messages, or build their seller page on eBay, or do any of the other Things People Do Nowadays. Ideally this thing would involve the internet, but it doesn’t have to; it can be internet-adjacent, something that might not require a smartphone but which you nonetheless learned about by looking at your phone.

“Phantoms and Prejudice” by Ginny Hogan, for example, is a whimsical exploration of how the author might explain ghosting to Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice — not the cool, 19th-century kind of ghosting, where you appear as a specter before your alcoholic wife, but the uncool, 21st-century kind, where you stop communicating with a person you were sort of dating. Hogan’s exploration of this premise is a particularly illustrative example of Allusion & Nowadays, because she lays it out explicitly:

“Indeed, I was an odd addition to the Bennet household. I’d been sent from the year 2022 to explain one simple, frustrating phenomenon to the charming Bennet girls. Lizzie had believed that she would hear from her suitor, Mr. Darcy, by now, but no message had arrived. Confusion had rippled through the household, and it was I who was to reveal what had transpired. You see, this was the eighteen-hundreds. The Bennet women didn’t yet know about…it. I took a deep breath.”

I will give you a moment to compose yourself. Can you imagine how funny it would be if a person from the modern era explained our quotidian experiences to a 19th-century character? Can your mind even compass the juxtaposition of the world of like text messages and stuff with the world of “shan’t” and dying of a bacterial infection? You don’t have to compass that shit, because it is made real for you in Shouts & Murmurs at 0.7143(x), where (x) is every week.

The Allusion & Nowadays formula is what comedy writers sometimes call a map, in which you take two concepts that are in some way analogous to each other and then map out the analogs, i.e. identify the places where one corresponds to the other. So, for example, if you are writing a Shouts called “Notes from Captain Ahab’s Therapy Zoom,” you start by thinking of what a therapist might say about the Moby Dick captain’s monomaniacal obsession with a whale, “map” that onto the conventions of 21st-century telemedicine, and write it down. That’s a joke, right there.

You do the same thing with the other elements of the book that everybody knows: he lost his leg, so maybe his therapist writes that he’s pursuing maladaptive strategies to cope with ableism; there’s the erotic chapters about squeezing whale blubber with a bunch of topless sailors, so that’s your latent homosexuality; the outbursts of rage against grim leviathans of the fathomless deep can be treated with Lexapro, et cetera. Once you have seven to ten of these, you connect them with dates and headings and therapy-speak that reminds the reader of the premise, and when you hit 750 words you’re done.

The drawback to an Allusion & Nowadays, like most maps, is that you kind of lose the element of surprise, because the whole point of an analogy is that it has its own internal logic you can use to predict the jokes. Once you get going, it kind of writes itself, which is the comedy writer’s false friend. So, 17 paragraphs into “Phantoms and Prejudice,” when the conceit has been well established, Hogan is still delivering jokes like this:

“‘I simply do not believe a gentleman would treat a gentlewoman like this. It does not seem right. It is one thing not to let a lady own land or inherit her husband’s wealth, but to stop responding to her messages?’ Lizzie asked. ‘I will not give credence to it.’”

See, she’s trying to reconcile the customs of her own time with ours, just like she has been throughout the whole humorous essay! And so the jokes become iterations rather than turns, the landmarks on the map all rendered at the same scale and, in the end, static. It is a thing you survey from above, rather than a path you follow to you-know-not-where.

That’s how I feel about the Allusion & Nowadays Shout, anyway, but clearly mine is the minority position. The editors of Shouts & Murmurs seem to love them, because the list of Allusion & Nowadays pieces they have published is growing at a prodigious rate, like Humbert Humbert’s Private Browsing Tab. And if to me the genre seems exhausted, like Hermes During His Second Week at Seamless, for them it remains evergreen, like Oscar the Grouch Trying Instagram Filters. And that strikes me as a missed opportunity, like Raskolnikov Posting to Nextdoor. Like Sinbad Using Google Maps, I have to wonder what else is out there.

Dan Brooks writes essays and fiction from Missoula, Montana.