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A lament for the death of literary humor and the Book Examiner's 10 funniest books of all time

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Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. One man's tears-of-laughter, lie-on-the-floor-gasping-for-breath-funny book may leave another man as cold and unamused as Mount Everest.

We all love humorous writing. It's surprising then, that with the world thrashing about in financial troubles, wars raging, and Madonna threatening to adopt another African child (with or without the father's consent), readers aren't fleeing to the refuge of literary humor. Quite the opposite -- they're wallowing in the dark and dismal. And not even the deliciously scary darkness of writers like Stephen King. Just dark. And dismal.

Take a glance at the New York Times bestseller list for this week. The top five slots are taken up with children suffering from incurable diseases (Handle with Care), wrecked airplanes and missing secretaries (Corsair), mean law firms (The Associate), mean aliens (The Host), and mean serial killers (Run For Your Life).

Where, oh where, has all the humor gone?

Once upon a time, well-written wit was a badge that authors wore with pride. The best writers worked to make you guffaw out loud, or at the very least, smirk. Think of Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Jonathon Swift, Alexander Pope, E.B. White, James Thurber. Humor was sophisticated. No longer.

In order to be a successful humor writer today you need to either: a) only write razor-sharp sarcastic humor that relies on slicing and dicing someone else's reputation and/or belief systems, b) resign yourself to being considered a second-class writer (David Sedaris, NPR poster child, is the only one exempt from this stigma, and even he spends most of his time slicing and dicing someone), or c) write the book only as something to hawk on your highly successful prime-time comedy show.

Humor is out.  Dark is the new sophisticated. And that's a real pity. Nothing, short of hosing down Bernie Madoff, even comes close to the cathartic therapy of laughing helplessly at a funny book in such unhappy and uncertain times. Even King Solomon acknowledged the power of humor: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones."

I don't know about you, but I could use a little more medicine and a lot fewer dry bones in my books these days.

If you're having trouble finding a book worth laughing at, cast your eye over this list of 10 funniest books of all time. And feel free to set me straight about my choices in the comments.

The Book Examiner's 10 funniest books of all time (not necessarily in order)


 

1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

University humor at its spoofalicious best. James Dixon is a not- too-bright medieval history lecturer at a provincial British university. Jim knows his place in the department is in jeopardy, but every move he makes to improve himself in his ridiculously pretentious senior professor's eyes only makes matters worse -- and more hilarious for the reader. The final scene made me laugh out loud for the entire chapter. Please, please people, read this book.

2. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Ms. Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm as a spoof on the ultra-depressing, melodramatic novels of authors like Thomas Hardy. Given my choice, I'd take this spoof over Hardy every time. The story follows the modern young Flora Poste as she goes to live with relatives in the country and encounters -- and sets straight -- every stereotypical 19th century character imaginable. Even if you've never read Mr. Hardy, Cold Comfort Farm is funny; if you have read him, however, you may need to get medical assistance for an excess of mirth.

3. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor

It pains me to see that most of Mr. Keillor's popularity stems only from his radio show, "The Prairie Home Companion." Don't get me wrong, the show is great. However, Mr. Keillor's books, particularly his Lake Wobegon ones, are the best things he's ever done. The radio show pales in comparison. Lake Wobegon Days is the first of the bunch and, if you either grew up in the Midwest, grew up as a strict Christian, Catholic, or Lutheran, or grew up with old school parents (or all three), this book will make you laugh like you never have before. The 95 Theses against his parents, included as a huge footnote in the book, is solid gold, one of the funniest things I have ever been priviledged to read.

4. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

This tale of three young men (to say nothing of the dog) travelling up the Thames River despite ancy animals and murderous swans may have been the only remarkable thing Mr. Jerome ever wrote, but it is a humor masterpiece. Three Men in a Boat has influenced generations of humor writers, including Connie Willis, author of one of my favorite books of all time, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was written, in part as a tribute to Mr. Jerome.


 

5. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett

Few authors have managed to be as consistently witty and amusing over as many books as Mr. Pratchett has in his Discworld series. They are all different, and they are all -- and I mean all 37 of them -- hilarious reads. If you've never experienced the Discworld, start with the first two books, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.If you are already a Disc-head but haven't read Making Money yet, take a look at a review of it here.

6. The Queen and I by Sue Townsend

The Queen and I is a sort of alternative history tale: it imagines what life for the Royal family would be like if they were forced out of power and into a lower-class existence living in government housing. I've read this book three times and listened to the audiobook production twice (I highly recommend the Barbara Rosenblat narration; it's one of my 10 favorite audiobooks ever) and still can't wait to laugh over it again. If you have any interest in the Royal family you will get a kick out of Ms. Townsend's rendering of them living life with the little people. And don't think it's all snark either -- Ms. Townsend's ideas as to which Royals would do well in that situation and which wouldn't is part of the humor.

7. A Fine and Pleasant Misery by Patrick F. McManus

If you or any member of your family (most of these will be men of a Certain Age) have experience hunting, fishing, or camping the Old-Fashioned Way (i.e. no bathrooms, no cushy three room tents, no propane stoves, no wussy comforts of any kind) this book is an essential read. Mr. McManus details his encounters with wildlife, fires that won't start, and Sleeping Outdoors Alone with the kind of self-deprecating humor that's hard to resist. If your dad is an outdoorsy type, seriously consider getting him this book. And, if he likes it, there are several others by Mr. McManus written along the same lines.


 

8. Anything by P.G. Wodehouse

Mr. Wodehouse was nothing short of a literary humor genius. Every book Mr. Wodehouse wrote, particularly the Jeeves and Wooster series, reads like the examples you might find in a How To Write Humor section of a fiction writing instruction manual. His books are spoofy, slapstickish, and as funny now as they were decades ago. If you're interested in embarking on a Wodehouse odyssey, my advice is to begin with the first of the Jeeves and Wooster canon, The Inimitable Jeeves,  either in print or in the excellent audiobook production narrated by Jonathon Cecil. You'll be reading Mr. Wodehouse in exalted company: Daniel Radcliffe (The Boy Who Lived) and the late John Updike are among the luminaries who have counted Mr. Wodehouse's works among their favorites.

9. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams

I unabashedly love this series. I read the books and listen to the original radio broadcasts annually. Some people think the books are too spoofy and just plain dumb; I say those people don't know where their towel is. The entire series, particularly the first two books, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe demonstrate humor at its best. O.K., so if you're a science fiction fan they may be a bit more funny to you than to the average reader, but really, they are funny no matter who is reading them, and regardless of how many Pangalactic Gargleblasters you've consumed beforehand. A note to H2G2 Fans: Seen And Another Thing... yet?

10. Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language by Richard Lederer

Technically, this book isn't humor writing since its funniness factor stems, not from Mr. Lederer, but from the written goofs he has collected. Still, you've got to admit that this book makes for some of the funniest reading ever. When I first got my hands on it, I actually had to lie down on the floor I was laughing so hard. Read an excerpt from the book here, at Socrates died of an overdose of wedlock and other astonishing examples of anguished English.

Comments

  • Roestel 5 years ago

    No Confederacy of Dunces? The last funny book I read was Josh Ferris' And Then We Came to the End. But you're right, books, (and movies) have gotten dismal - if only Madonna could adopt an entire industry and nurture it back to health with her love just like she's doing with the dark continent...

  • Bob 5 years ago

    Good list, Michelle. Here are some of my favorites:

    Just about anything by Nabokov, but especially Lolita.
    Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.
    Just about anything by Umberto Eco, but especially Baudolino.
    Just about anything by Philip Roth.
    What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg
    Rally Round the Flag, Boys, by Max Shulman
    The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight by Jimmy Breslin
    The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon, not an outright kneeslapper, but plenty of humor, especially if you know some Yiddish

  • Joyce Payne 5 years ago

    Thanks Michelle for your timely observation of how few humor books are being read.My own book Relationship Blues,has foundered,though many thought it would soar.May I mail you a book or e-mail a copy to your address?

  • Randi Minetor 5 years ago

    I would have added Good Omens (Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett -- if you haven't read it, you must) to this list, but the fact that you included the Hitchhiker's Guide series tells me that you are a discerning and exceptionally clever Examiner. I'd love to come to your And Another Thing ... party or emulate whatever you do, at least. Let's figure it out!

  • Tim Cabeen (Indianapolis Theatre Examiner) 5 years ago

    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
    Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

    And anything with Calvin and Hobbes.

  • Michelle Kerns 5 years ago

    Hey Tim - that is hilarious that you mention Calvin and Hobbes: I was just reading a biography of Bill Watterson last night and was thinking, "Man, I need to get some of those Calvin and Hobbes books again." I used to own the entire collection -- where are they anyway? I think one of my sisters must have permanently borrowed them -- and loved them. I wish Mr. Watterson hadn't been so hard core on his principles (i.e. quitting before Calvin and Hobbes became too commercial), but I guess it's better than seeing the strip go downhill.

    I like Bill Bryson too, but I always spend a huge portion of his books completely annoyed at his incessant griping about commercialism, lousy architecture, fast food restaurants, etc. In a Sunburned Country, his book about Australia, is good too and has a great chapter about all of the animals -- spiders, jellyfish, etc -- that can kill you there. I read that chapter twice.

  • Tim Cabeen (Indianapolis Theatre Examiner) 5 years ago

    The thing about Calvin and Hobbes is that they will always put a smile on your face. Get laid off? Read C&H. Getting a divorce? Read C&H? Did your 401(k) lose 95% of it's value? Well, C&H is the cure.
    Bill Bryson does care about architecture, commercialism, etc., but that's what makes it funny to me. While he's late-middle aged, he has the sensibility of an old coot. He's so incredibly observant and is a die-hard researcher, as evidenced by another truly funny book of his, A Short History of Nearly Everything, as well as his phenomenal Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.
    By the way, I've not read Lucky Jim, but I will next. I'm currently reading Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979, which is also very funny.

  • Michelle Kerns 5 years ago

    Tim - for some stupid reason my eye skipped over the word "off" in the first line of your last comment so I thought you'd written: "The thing about Calvin and Hobbes is that they will always put a smile on your face. Get laid? Read C&H." I was thinking, now THAT'S a use for Calvin & Hobbes that I'd never thought of.

  • Louise 5 years ago

    It's not fiction, but he's funny. Read Dave Barry. Also, Last Call at the 7-Eleven by Kevin Cowherd. I also like the Dilbert Books.

  • Dawn 5 years ago

    I will be checking out #1 & #2 of your list right away. I would also highly recommend the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. Literal literary humor!

  • Rick 5 years ago

    I think Mark Twain needs to mentioned here, and I'll throw in Hunter S. Thompson for good measure.

    Following the Equator by Mark Twain
    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

  • Michelle Kerns 5 years ago

    Rick - You are so right about Mark Twain; my problem is that the funniest thing of his I read (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court) also had a few scenes that were so depressing they made me cry! I couldn't include anything that made me bawl, no matter how funny (although I will admit I cry pretty darn easily). I will add your suggestions to my ever-increasing list of things to read. Thanks!

  • rick 5 years ago

    Most of Twain's work is loaded with humor. Following the Equator is just my personal favorite.

  • Anonymous 5 years ago

    I saw Bloodsucking Fiends on your Twilight list and am shocked that Lamb by Christopher Moore isn't on this list! It is probably the funniest book I've ever read.

  • ann 5 years ago

    Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

  • Pebbles 4 years ago

    My absolute favorite funny author is Christopher Moore, and I think his 2 best are Lamb and Fool. Fool is a retelling of King Lear from the Fool's point of view, and Lamb is "the real story" of Jesus Christ by his best friend Biff. It may offend some, but I love the quotes Biff throws out from the Torah, "Well, it is written, two out of three ain't bad. Dalmations 9:7."

  • Lenny 4 years ago

    Can't fault the list much if it include Hitchhiker's Guide... and PG Wodehouse. I'd say, though, that Tom Holt deserves a place on this list as well for his howlarious comic-fantasy tales.

  • Dean 4 years ago

    I have aways love, Coming Attractions by Fannie Flag. I think the title was changed later to, Daisy Faye and the Miracle Man

  • Jay 4 years ago

    The funniest two writers of the last few decades have to be David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. To make things even better, they have entirely different senses of humor, so if you go back and forth from one to the other, each will, in turn, feel fresh.

    Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest are two of the books that everyone ought to read at least once.

  • AA 4 years ago

    Has anyone here read the Red Dwarf book, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers? It is my #1 favorite humor book. A great book for literary types is In Search of the World's Worst Writers by Nick Page. It compiles some of the worst writing of decades past with Mr. Page's snarky commentary.

  • GeeBee 4 years ago

    He's not too familiar to US readers, but the works of Tom Sharpe are utterly hilarious. Very dark humor, some of it political enough to have got him expelled from South Africa in its apartheid days. BBC have done a couple of his books as miniseries, "Blott on the Landscape" and "Porterhouse Blue"

  • Fred 4 years ago

    The Dortmunder books by Donald Westlake are often incredibly funny and well worth your time...

  • Aastha 4 years ago

    If you haven't read him yet, Stephen Fry is a delightful writer!

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