Funny Books?

This weekend on Twitter, I said something about blah blah blah, religion isn’t funny enough, and if I had a critique of the Bible is that it needs more jokes. And then I went on to recommend a particularly funny book about religion — Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore.

Moore is, of course, a funny motherfucker. I’ve seen him speak a few times at book signings. He took the people at one signing out for drinks. Another signing I went to as a component of my bachelor party (not kidding). He’s great. Very engaging. He will at times talk about animal penises. It’s just how he rolls.

And all his books are off-the-charts funny, at least to me. I still remember reading Practical Demonkeeping in high school and thinking that he was the horror equivalent of Douglas Adams.

I read him, Bradley Denton, Tim Sandlin, and I think — “This stuff is rolling in raw hilarity.”

Thing is, you don’t read many funny novels.

I hear the prevailing wisdom is, “It’s hard to sell a funny novel.”

Though, I suspect what that really means is, “It’s hard to write a funny novel.”

So, two questions:

First, what funny novels have you read? Why were they funny? Were they more than just funny? Did they have good characters, good story, all the things you should have in a proper tale?

Second, what’s funny? How do you write funny?

That second one’s an open-ended and perhaps unanswerable question.

But worth asking, just the same.

Take a crack it it.

See you in the comments.

75 comments

  • Rather than re-suggest items already listed above, I’ll hit you with something nobody has suggested yet: Woody Allen.

    Not a huge fan of his films, but when I was 17 somebody sat me down and made me read the collections of his short work and plays: Getting Even, Without Feathers, Side Effects and Mere Anarchy.

  • So many solid recommendations – to the Kindle!

    I devoured Jess Riley’s Driving Sideways during a series of flights and layovers, alternately snickering, giggling, snorting, and crying-from-laughter in public the entire time.

    A narrator who can be witty (whether that’s dry or absurdist or somewhere in between) while things are going to shit around hir will get me every time.

  • First full disclosure: I have never been able to get into the books of Moore. Not that he is bad (heaven forbid) but it just always feels a bit stale to me, not really engaging. The same actually goes for the much beloved Good Omens. I guess Pratchett just doesn’t do it for me.
    Funny books: often I find that the pun heavy and rather over the top strange of the Xanth books is quite good, Aspirin’s MythAdventures are much the same, if a bit less wildly based on bad puns. In both cases they have their weaknesses, but the characters feel solid and the plot makes sense. I do rate them as mostly just funny though.

    Ultimately though I will have to point to a children’s author. Ever since I was young I have loved him and all I need to get a laugh and lighten my mood is one of his novels. Though admittedly they make me hungry, given how often he describes food. And yes his work is more than funny. I find it insightful, clever, I love the plots and for the most part the characters are great as well. Who is this wonder of writing you ask? Daniel Pinkwater. Alan Mendelsohn Boy From Mars, the Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and Young Adult Novel never fail to make me laugh and forget the world for a moment. On a smaller note I also have a love of the essays of Dave Barry.

    Writing funny? That’s hard actually. I love wordplay and rapid fire wit and dry humour and those are often tricky to pull off in the written word. I guess puns can be used but are often overdone, and besides we already have two entire series of books based on the idea. There is that whole thing of setup of and reversal of expectation that underlies a lot of humor but I’m not even sure that works in written fiction. I will give an example of well written funny that I love, though, to perhaps work from.

    In the Alan Mendelsohn Boy From Mars the two main characters find that they have psychic powers that can influence the actions of people. After quickly tiring of pranks they learn from a martian biker that a translation dictionary not only contains the clues on how to use these powers but has another code that shows how to move to other dimensions. The whole thing is absurd on the face of it, especially when we learn that green chili is actually a dish from Atlantis. But these two boys just roll with it and go on a vacation to another world. In Fat Men from Space no one really questions why fat space pirates want ten thousand calorie snacks served in backpacks, they just make the snacks. Absurd situations, mostly normal characters and unusual food fixations seem to be a winning combination here.

  • I just read Warren Ellis’ novel, Crooked Little Vein, and I laughed so hard that my sphincter almost let go. His graphic novels are pretty awesome too if you like Hunter S. Thompson style absurdity.

  • I’ve read Boomsday by Christopher Buckley and thought it was hilarious. His writing is so smooth is like cutting butter (at room temperature that is.) I also like Nick Hornby. He is more subtle but his characters just have this dry sense of humor and self-deprecating qualities that can be very funny. I think you have to be extra smart to pull off funny. Right timing is a must—a quality that I’m yet to develop.

  • It’s been mentioned a few times before in previous replies but, A Confederacy Of Dunces is possibly one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It was a favorite of mine even before I moved to New Orleans three years ago. Now that I know the landscape down here, I re-read it recently and loved it even more!
    A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers is also brilliantly funny…

  • Douglas Adams is the only flat-out humor novelist that comes to mind, other than Christopher Moore. But even Moore isn’t quite the off-the-wall humor Adams was. Adams casts such a huge shadow that it almost seems to have scared writers off from doing the comedy for fear of the unavoidable comparisons. There’s quite a bit of humor in Nick Hornby’s stuff. Vonegut, of course. Not the same, though.

  • My personal favorite for humor is Terry Pratchett. He is the funniest man alive, in my opinion, and his books are awesome–excepting the first two Discworld novels, which I am not the biggest fan of…they just feel slow and flat compared to his later ones.

    TICK TOCK by Dean Koontz is a very funny book–I enjoy the rapid-fire banter of the main characters. Koontz did say he was inspired by the comedic stylings of Abbot and Costello and the Marx Brothers in that book, and it shows.

    I also have a particular soft spot in my heart for the Iron Druid Chronicles–a fairly recent series published by Kevin Hearne. Occasionally the humor feels a bit forced, like he felt that it’d been too long since he’d had a humorous bit and needed to shoehorn something in, but all in all, the observations are hilarious and the banter is great. Two ancient characters getting into a Shakespearean quote off during a high speed pursuit by an angry god on a highway? Equal parts dramatic/tense/comedic gold.

    To me, funny books are good, but if the humor is there helping enrich a fantastic plot and/or the relationships of strong, likeable characters, then I am head over heels for such books. Pratchett always delivers this, Hearne does pretty well. Adams is, of course, a classic. Gaiman does pretty well in this regard as well. I only wish I could write like these fellows.

  • Being a sick, twisted, dark bastard, I tend to gravitate toward books with protags who are sick, twisted, dark bastards, which is why I love Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. Vlad’s dialogue with his little dragon-like familiar just slays me every single time, and he’s got a really quick, rapid-fire wit. The running gags are great once you get addicted to the series (which can be read out of order without screwing anything up).

    The other sick bastard I love is Glen Cook, for his Black Company trilogies. People who surround themselves with death and destruction have to develop a gallows humor real quick. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read any of these books. They rock.

    The projects I’m working on involve some quick-witted characters (especially the pirates) but they have pretty dry humor and tend to prefer sarcasm and sly innuendos. I can’t imagine why. ;-)

    I was a lit junkie in college and loved 3 Musketeers and Catch 22, but one of the most unlikely places I found great humor was in a random bookstore treasure called “The Art of Hanging.” Yes, that’s exactly what it’s about, and the gallows humor couldn’t be any sharper…even though it actually is a very informative treatise on how England handled executions, back in the day. Gotta love a book that starts out with “Chapter One: When the Boiling Stopped”.

  • Hmm – lots to consider. I like Terry Pratchett, his Disc World series are clever. As is Jasper Fforde.
    Right now I’m more old school – reading Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, by Stephen Leacock.

  • I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be funny, but I laughed a lot while reading Lullabies for Little Criminals. It was just great. And dark. And funny. *shrugs* I may be crazy, but it comes with the territory.

  • I haven’t read anything of his in a while, Maxx Barry is quite funny. Specifically Syrup and Jennifer Government. I’m not prone to laughing out loud, but both of these had several moments where I needed to pause to laugh and earn a weird look from my wife. Well worth you time.

    What makes them funny is not the language, but the situations the characters get in and the odd ways they get out of them. It’s almost like watching a really good sit com.

  • 1) Solar by Ian McEwan
    2) Engleby by Sebastian Faulks
    3) The Bonfire Of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe
    4) American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
    5) Scoop/Black Mischief/Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
    6) Money (A Suicide Note) by Martin Amis

    Your disciples may have read all of the above, but if not they are all well worth reading. And yes, they are all FUNNY.

  • Christopher Moore truly is one of the best and is great about responding to e-mails. Lamb is what made me want to write fiction (even though it’s taken nearly 10 years from the time I read it to move from sportswriting to fiction). Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s Good Omens is one of the best novels I’ve read in a very long time and obviously, Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide is still my desert island book. Finally, Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris can write stories & essays that will have you laughing hysterically one moment and sobbing the next. Burroughs’ Dry was a great example of that.

  • Obviously you’ve all been waiting for my response, since I am the expert on humor and all things funny-related. It says so on my bidness cards.
    I guess we should separate fiction from non-fiction; some of the funniest books I’ve ever read were the textbooks for my engineering classes. Maybe you had to be there, or maybe I was really high.
    I like Hiaassen, even though he needs to change how he spells his name. I love Dorsey–I LOL all over the place reading his books.
    And I love Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. I hope to Christ they don’t fuck up the movie. Addams–of course Addams.
    The thing about humor is–you can’t try to hard. HG2G *feels* like Douglas Addams made it up entirely as he went, by the seat of pants. You can’t go back and edit and MAKE something funny. You have to start with funny, then go back and edit and make it grammatical.
    Or at least give it the allusion of grammatical.

  • Of course, Christopher Moore is amazing. I read Fool anytime I’m depressed and need to laugh so hard I nearly wet myself. I also read The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie. I was impressed. Terry Pratchett is amazing, but that really goes without saying.

  • Douglas Adams was a genius. If u havent read his Dirk Gently novels as well, you are missing some good shit. no mention of Roald Dahl… maybe not laugh out loud funny, but I think he was a master of looking at the world from the most absurd point of view.

  • I have to agree with Lynne re: Terry Pratchett. He is easily my favourite author because on top of being side-splittingly hillarious, his books have real depth. You find yourself caring about the characters and their troubles in a real way.

    If I had to pin it down to two things which make his comedy outstanding, one would be how he observes and portrays actual human behaviour and his sense of comedic timing; the jokes are always exactly where you need them to be, there’s always the right amount of space between the set up and the finish.

  • Go Lor for mentioning Christopher brookmyre. Funnier than Carl hiassen, for me, with a cracking crime story as well. Quite Ugly One Morning is one of the funniest modern books I’ve read. Pratchett, Adams and woodhouse, of course. Kerry greenwood, who writes historical and modern cosies isn’t usually laugh out loud, but very amusing.

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