A Comprehensive Guide to the Best Humor Books Ever Written
Several months ago there was a lovely post on this site touting The Ultimate Comedy Library. As a print humorist, I couldn’t help but note, tears-in-eyes, that it was mostly books by contemporary actors and standups. Not people who wasted their one and only life sitting alone in front of a computer trying to think up jokes, in the vain hope, not of fame or fortune let’s not be silly, but someday, maybe, if they’re lucky, making it onto someone’s list of… The Ultimate Comedy Library.
Now just because your dreams are microscopically small doesn’t mean you’re going to get them, and we’re all responsible for our own shitty career choices, I know that. It’s a free-ish country, and if I want to pretend it’s still 1947, that’s between me and what I laughingly call “my bank account.” But imagine if a list of “The Ultimate Standup” was limited to YouTubed readings by David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell. Funny, yes — but not the form at its fullest really, and certainly not a reflection of what’s available. Furthermore, ninety-five percent of the actors and standups just killin’ ‘em in 1947 would garner blank stares today, and rightly so. Believe it or not, 95% of today’s work is just as ephemeral, even if it’s great. Go back and read what people said about Sid Caesar.
I know: middle-aged man talks middle-aged. TL;DR: print humor is a treasure trove, and comedy fans should explore it widely and deeply, especially if they harbor ambitions in the field. The library of a comedy writer is different than that of a comedy fan. A comedy fan buys Bossypants because 30 Rock is hilarious. A comedy writer will only buy Bossypants if he/she has an interview with Little Stranger coming up. A comedy fan uses books to laugh, but a comedy writer uses them to steal. Really popular current books by mega-famous celebrities (often written by staffs and/or punched up by ghosts and book doctors) are useless in this regard. People will catch you. And if you want learn how to write for The Daily Show, you watch the show. The book’s a watering-down of the base form, which is TV.
So I wrote the editor and asked if I could write a companion list. He foolishly agreed, and I have foolishly spent the better part of two foolish days doing this. The following is a core library of print humor by people who specialized in that medium. I’m going to emphasize pre-1980 work; for the purposes of this article, contemporary humor is less interesting because, well, we’re soaking in it. So for example I list an anthology from 1985 but not the McSweeney’s collection, that one with the long title. And I’m skewing towards things more useful to people with a pre-professional, or professional, level of interest in comedy. You know, thieves.
A sensible way to start — and perhaps finish — is to browse one of these books. Each will give you lots of writers and cartoonists to investigate. The ones below are slightly better than the others, but really any anthology should acquaint you with the major names 1920-80.
Laughing Matters — Gene Shalit put together a very efficient roundup from Twain to Woody Allen. And he included cartoons, which humor anthologies seldom did before.
The Big Book of New American Humor — Don’t let the cheesy title fool you; this is an excellent companion book to the Shalit. It digs deeper and is a bit weirder, and weirdness is a big part of post-National Lampoon comic prose.
Fierce Pajamas — Of late humor on the page has shrunken to represent only the New Yorker style — a prose-only, voice-driven piece between 500-1200 words. This is a shame because the “casual” was invented when your great-grandfather was in knickers. But if you like it, it can be quite satisfying, and this collection of the best work from 1925-2000 is the motherlode. (Be sure to read the Raymond Carver parody. No reason.)
Extra Credit: A Subtreasury of American Humor — Definitely musty by now, but if one loves the classic New Yorker school, you’ll find lots of little-known gems here.
The Holy Trinity of mid-century humorists is Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and SJ Perelman. Of the three, Benchley feels the most contemporary, probably thanks to Dave Barry. Benchley’s best can be found in The Benchley Roundup; true fans can dig into his several collections of columns.
Thurber has been a staple of high school English for at least 50 years, but don’t hold that against him; I’d recommend his books My Life and Hard Times, Is Sex Necessary (co-written with E.B. White), and The Years With Ross in that order. The Library of America has a lovely edition, one every Thurber fan should have.
SJ Perelman has not aged well — his florid vocab and focus on now-ancient pop culture makes him difficult to get through. But any serious fan of humorous print should be familiar, if only to understand late-period Woody Allen. Try Most of the Most of SJ Perelman, edited by Steve Martin, another Perelman fan.
Extra Credit: Dorothy Parker didn’t write casuals, but she’s well worth reading, via The Portable Dorothy Parker.
Nearly every novel that rolls off the presses has a blurb claiming that it’s hilarious, and maybe it is to someone, but I’m restricting myself to books where laughter is the main point.
Can we just assume you’ve read Mark Twain? Good.
Kurt Vonnegut, obviously. I always feel like I’m reading the same book, but it’s a good book, so I don’t mind too much. Of his work, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle are the most wonderful, followed maybe by Breakfast of Champions; the rest come in an enjoyable heap.
Catch-22. Joseph Heller was never able to equal this, but nobody else has, either. Read it again if you read it in high school, you’ll get more out of it now.
A Confederacy of Dunces. People love this book intensely. I like it very much. Whether you join the cult or not, it’s must-reading for any fan of comic prose.
Anything PG Wodehouse ever wrote. Wodehouse’s great achievement was to create a world utterly without consequence; as such it is a very cozy, and frequently hilarious place to be. Definitely for the PBS set, but if you can establish the right frame of mind, there’s nothing better. And there’s a LOT of it.
Others: Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim is a perennial on lists like this one, so try it. I honestly don’t know what you’ll think of Portnoy’s Complaint, but I recall being amused by it when I read it in my 20s, and I can tell you that it made a hell of a stir when it came out in 1969. Some people really dig J.P. Donleavy, specifically The Ginger Man. I myself prefer Terry Southern, but I find his short stories and journalism more compelling than his novels, which feel dated and overwritten. And I feel obliged to mention Peter DeVries out of fecundity alone — but those of you who find that dusty might be more pleased with someone like Mark Leyner, Christopher Moore or Tom Perrotta. For political satire (though it sometimes feels by-the-numbers to me), Christopher Buckley is extremely smooth and able.
I personally find Hunter S. Thompson a hoot, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a must-read. Great style, and an important cultural document, too. If you like Matt Taibbi, go to the source and see what you think. I don’t agree with PJ O’Rourke politically, so a little of him goes a long way for me, but he knows his way around a travelogue. Check him out.
The first-person essay has become a bit tired, because it — like the memoir — is the only form of humor that book publishing accepts anymore (because it works so well for tie-in purposes). Obviously you should read David Sedaris. I don’t read a lot of these types of books, so I will leave it to others to guide you further. If you want this type of thing, you’re probably better off reading blogs.
For most of the last century, magazines have been where to find the best humor, be it The New Yorker, MAD, National Lampoon, Spy or The Onion. There are several worthy collections.
First, and really the cornerstone of any self-respecting humor collector’s library are the following books from The National Lampoon:
The Tenth Anniversary Anthology — A fairly representative sample of material created between 1970-80, when writers like Doug Kenney, Michael O’Donoghue, Brian McConnachie, and P.J. O’Rourke transformed American comedy. For better and worse. This material is the Rosetta Stone of contemporary humor, and you’ll hear echoes of everything that’s come since.
National Lampoon’s Encyclopedia of Humor — Edited by Michael O’Donoghue, it’s probably the clearest example of his peculiar range. All his obsessions, from Nazis to Art Deco, are clearly on display.
The 1964 High School Yearbook Parody — Edited by Doug Kenney and PJ O’Rourke, this is simply the greatest parody of the modern era. It’s tuned to the Baby Boomer generation, and that — plus the subsequent proliferation of “nostalgia” throughout our culture — might make it less astounding to you than it was to readers in 1974, but anybody sensitive to the craft of parody will see immediately its loving depth and precision.
For my money, the best collections of MAD material are the MAD about the Fifties/Sixties/Seventies. MAD suffered a marked drop-off in the Eighties which has continued today — probably because people could now do MAD-style humor in higher-paid venues like Hollywood. (This explains National Lampoon’s decline as well.)
Spy’s obsession with New York media (and New York’s obsession with itself) always rather bored me, but it was state-of-the-art as far as 80s humor was concerned, and it deserves a place in your library. Excellent writing, excellent illustration; and it’s probably the last magazine I know where the editors (Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter) are in the league of the great magazine people of the twentieth century. Check out stray issues when you can, and Spy: The Funny Years is a reasonable hardbound substitute.
I shouldn’t have to tell you to read The Onion; I have a vague, probably irrational preference for the original writers, so I’d recommend Our Dumb Century as the best example of that publication’s work. Completists can throw in Volume One of The Onion’s Finest News Reporting.
Since The Yale Record lurched to life in 1872, college humor magazines have been where new humor hits first, and there are several great collections worth having on your shelves.
College Humor, edited by Dan Carlinsky, is an admirably complete, very browsable collection of material from before the beginning to 1980 or so. A nice companion volume to that is Joey Green’s Hellbent on Insanity, which chronicles the National Lampoon-spawned college humor boom of the 1970s and 80s. Finally, perhaps the most satisfying book of them all is The Harvard Lampoon Big Book of College Life, written in 1978 at one of that institution’s high-water marks.
A Few History Books
If you’re plumbing the depths of college humor, you’re probably interested in comedy history. There’s really one book that I recommend in this regard, and it’s one on Splitsider’s earlier list: Tony Hendra’s Going Too Far. Though Hendra underemphasizes MAD, he’s absolutely magisterial when it comes to describing the changes which occurred in comedy from 1965-80. And once you understand that, what’s happened since 1980 makes a lot more sense, too. For extra credit, you can browse Saturday Night by Jeff Hill and Doug Weingrad, as well as Something Wonderful Right Away, about The Second City. And if you’re really obsessed, there are two good books about what was happening in the UK at the same time, Roger Wilmut’s From Fringe to Flying Circus and Humphrey Carpenter’s A Great Silly Grin.
The parody book is a much-abused form, and for my money (and more importantly, yours) there’s nothing more awful than a lousy parody novel. The granddaddy of them all is of course Bored of the Rings, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard’s parody of all things Tolkien, which predates National Lampoon by a year and presages all of that magazine’s excellence in the service of humor, high and low.
Long-form parody is the part of the vineyard I’ve toiled in, mostly, with a million books’-worth of success. Whether any of my personal work comes up to an “Ultimate” standard, I’d the last to know. My wife really likes Downturn Abbey, and she busts my ass regularly, so it’s probably pretty funny.
I personally love parodies by Ellis Weiner; get Doon if you can find it. His latest is Atlas Slugged Again, and I love that too. But generally? If you don’t know the name of the author, don’t buy the parody, especially if he/she isn’t a parodist (look on their “Other Books” list inside). Publishers look at parodies as a way to make a quick buck, and get non-comedy writers to crank out any old nonsense. Read parodies by people who know what they’re doing.
Many of the authors I’ve mentioned so far have had their lives preserved in ink and paper. Benchley, Parker (several times), Thurber (ditto), Perelman — all of these should be available at your local library, if not the free rack of your used bookstore. In general, I’d recommend getting to know the material first, then if you’re a true fan, reading the bio. That way you can balance the mayhem of the life (or negativity of the biographer) against the material, which is the only reason we’re talking about this person in the first place.
So I guess it’s tough to write a good biography of a funny person, but there are a few that I like. Also on the earlier Ultimate List was Dennis Perrin’s book Mr. Mike, a model of style and analysis, and is must-reading. A natural companion volume is Josh Karp’s A Futile, Stupid Gesture about the life and times of Doug Kenney. I liked Outlaw Journalist, the recent bio of Hunter Thompson. I did not like Wired, Bob Woodward’s Goldman-style takedown of John Belushi; the bio by Mrs. Belushi and Tanner Colby is on my to-read list. If you want a Goldman-takedown from the source, check out his biography of Lenny Bruce, especially if you suffer from Bruce-worship; the truth was, as ever, more complex.
Also worth a look: Pryor Convictions and American Scream, more for the seminal nature of their subjects than the brilliance of the prose. Not enough time has passed for us to put Pryor or Hicks into true historical perspective, but I’m hopeful that they will receive appropriate treatment when the time comes.
Finally, any good comedy library needs to have work by the following cartoonists:
Charles Addams; Arnold Roth; Harvey Kurtzman; Will Elder; Gahan Wilson; B. Kliban; Sam Gross; Jack Ziegler. Among the syndicated people, there is Peanuts; A History of Underground Comics; Doonesbury (I prefer pre-hiatus Trudeau); Life in Hell; Bloom County; The Far Side; Calvin and Hobbes.
Odds and Ends
Obviously I could keep this up all day, but I won’t because they’re not paying me. But before I go, I’ll list some of the more notable short-piece collections, things to round out your library nicely.
In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, by Jean Shepherd — You will recognize many of the characters here from A Christmas Story, the beloved movie cobbled from Shepherd’s books and long-running WOR radio show. Quiet, PG, nostalgic — and really funny.
Side Effects/Getting Even/Without Feathers, by Woody Allen — These collections of Woody’s magazine humor showed that the casual format wasn’t dead, it was just resting. The Woody Allen sensibility in its purest pre Soon-Yi (pre-Mia, for that matter) form.
Dating Your Mom, by Ian Frazier — All his stuff is good, but humor is a young man’s game and these pieces are just a bit more ambitious. Sandy Frazier’s been the gold standard for years.
Elementary Education, by Mark O’Donnell — Much better known for his work in drama (he won a Tony for co-writing Hairspray), Mark was an utterly unique comic voice, and this was his only collection. Comic writers flourish most when they have regular outlets for their work, and the decay of print culture after 1970 really hindered people like Mark, and other top talents.
The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman — If you’re reading this site you likely don’t need me to tell you about John’s work (he was on the other list for one thing), but I feel it’s the least I can do since he and I worked in a video store together. He’s got a very unique sensibility, one any serious comedy fan should have some familiarity with.
This, plus the earlier list, should give you a truly Ultimate Comedy Library the envy of…anyone foolish enough to envy such things. And all for less money than a sweet-ass aquarium! Please forgive any quirks — I’m just one man, and about halfway through my head started to spin (long story). Right any wrongs via the comments. I know that you will.
Michael Gerber is putting the finishing touches on a new national humor magazine, which will appear late summer/early fall 2013.