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'FLYING' IS HUMOR ON THE WING; EMMY AWARD WINNER IGNORES RISKS AND TAKES OFF

DIARY OF A FLYING MAN
By Randy Cohen
Knopf
145 pages, $16.95

RANDY COHEN has written a funny book.
If this sounds less than remarkable, name another well-known book of essays that manages to be consistently funny. Now take away any Woody Allen anthology and try it again.

Given that context, "Diary of a Flying Man" is something to behold. Cohen, winner of three Emmy awards for writing David Letterman scripts, does what adoring critics say about secure actors. He takes chances, and when his bizarre sense of humor stretches too far, it flops. When he hits the right strain, his essays are as humorous as they are memorable, as insightful as they are entertaining.

"Mankind's oldest dream has become my reality," Cohen writes in the first sentence of the title essay. "I can fly."

Not stopping to worry about anything so mundane as credibility, Cohen dives into the musings of a flying man. This flying man is subject to visions of grandeur as well as everyday concerns.

"Home. In the mail was a summons to jury duty," he writes. "Threw it away. After all, I am the flying man."

Cohen's lines are the kind you read and want to repeat over the phone to a good friend, even though it might be about 30 minutes too late to call. With Cohen, the friend might still laugh.

"Flew to Yonah Schimmel's for delicious cherry-cheese knishes," he writes in a prosaic moment following flight. "They were all out, so I had apple."

If there is a common thread to Cohen's humor, it's putting conventional and familiar dialogue into absurd settings. What's unsettling is that this dialogue could easily pass as acceptable banter if the subject were slightly different. How far away from humor are we when we think we're being serious?

"For a little while I'll keep my day job managing the Kopy King," Cohen writes in "Small Business." "But in the mornings before work I'll write advertorials on spec while my wife, Marcie, stirring things in the kitchen, shouts encouragement through clouds of Wheatena steam."

The ambitious author's short and long-term goal: advertising voice of the cigarette lobby and ultimately the poet laureate of the tobacco industry.

Cohen is also master of the odd but laughable idea. "Radio Doctor" is a short but meaningful account of Dr. Ellen Kaplan, who fills the hours of an all-talk radio station listening to callers' symptoms and diagnosing them over the airwaves.

It wasn't always this way. Ellen Kaplan's previous gig was "What's Up Down There," the first radio call-in gynecologist. Her boss canceled that one and asked what program she'd like to do.

"Mistress Helga," she muses. "You're on the air, you miserable worm."

"Oh, Mistress Helga, I've been very bad, and I must be punished," her caller says.

"You disgust me," she says. "First turn your radio down."

Cohen also explores the growing problem of runaway moms.

"I remember coming home from practice and not smelling brownies," one son says. "I was scared."

"Everybody says, 'Don't blame yourself, Rob. You're a good husband,' " the woman's husband says. "I dunno. Maybe if I'd paid more attention to her, if I'd taken the time to say, 'Nice job waxin' the floor, hon.' If, if, if."

Once in a while, Cohen gets weird. His wit is too confusing and clever for its own good. But it always gets back on track.

Cohen, like his flying man, is versatile. He has more than one remarkable feat in him. The Flying Man loses his airborne ability but he learns a new trick -- telekinetic powers.

"So far I can't budge anything heavier than a few pounds, but still!" he writes. "After breakfast I slid the 'Sgt. Pepper' CD across the coffee table. I brace for the unimaginable metamorphosis my life is about to undergo. May I use my new power wisely!"

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