Splitsider

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

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.

Anthologies

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.

Mid-Century

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.

Novels/Novelists

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.

Journalism/First-Person

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.

Is Fran Leibowitz journalism? I’m not sure; but I am sure she’s a classic. Calvin Trillin’s solid all the way down, if a little quiet.

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.

Magazine Collections

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.

College Humor

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.

Long-Form Parody

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.

Biographies

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.

Cartoonists

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.

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  • danblondell

    My goodness, where is Don Quixote!

    • Michael Gerber

      Good call, @danblondell:disqus, should've added that one. But there are whole areas of literature that this list purposely avoids.

      Here's what I'd say if I was an undergrad and you were my professor. "There are certain books which, while funny, are so much a part of the Western Canon that restricting them to a comedy-only list like this doesn't seem quite right. Don Quixote, Shakespeare, Tom Jones, Tristam Shandy, even Alice in Wonderland–even if the humor of these works was dominant enough in their palette for them to be considered humor (which is debatable), could they reasonably shelved next to, say, Our Dumb Century? And if not, doesn't that make them primarily literature?

      "Furthermore, if we're opening the door to literature, one runs into the Harold Bloom problem: 'Oh, Proust is very witty indeed'– where the very erudition of the opinion seems to undercut the authority of the choices. All comedy may or may come from Aristophanes–Falstaff may be the greatest comic character in English–the Czech novel Good Soldier Sveik may be better than Catch-22–but these feel like Great Literature to me, not Great Comedy, and somebody who mentioned Aristophanes and not National Lampoon's High School Yearbook isn't a trustworthy guide to modern print comedy."

      In other words, total BS, because you're right about Don Q. But under all the BS is some of my thinking behind the list.

      • danblondell

        I think that's a thoughtful "total BS" reply. The difference between Don Quixote and all those other examples is it all comes from Don Quixote. It's the birth of the novel and the contains the germ of pretty much everything else you mentioned in a way that I think even Shakespeare doesn't.

        Look it's a good list ok!

        • Michael Gerber

          LOL, Dan–I was just teasing you. And I had this Paris Review issue on Humor right here…

      • Kate Powers

        Just my two cents — as the English major & roommate who wasn't consulted at all on this list — that great humor rests on an unmistakeable, unique voice that cracks jokes at regular intervals. Fiction can often make us laugh, but whenever the author is trying to bring a cast of characters of life, pull us into their world and make us experience something through those characters — then we tip over the line to great literature. Though they often make me laugh, I don't count Jane Austen, Cervantes, David Foster Wallace, George Eliot or Dickens as humorists, because humor is just one flavor on their wide, wide palettes.

  • The Broox

    Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?

    • ManfredYon

      yeah….seems odd that one was missed. It's not that its my favorite, it is though, its just…almost a cliche how popular that book is. I'd also suggest Jack Handey and John Swartzwelder but no Hitchhikers just seems like carelessness

      • Michael Gerber

        Actually it was vertigo, @ManfredYon:disqus. I'm getting over a serious illness and about halfway through, it was all mush swimming in front of my face. This is also why I forgot the immortal Don Marquis (Archy and Mehitabel) AND Will Cuppy (The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody).

        • ManfredYon

          I'm glad I was an asshole about it. Feels good.

          • Michael Gerber

            Aw, hey, don't sweat it. There was no way you could've known, and Hitchhiker's is a definite oversight.

    • Michael Gerber

      Son of a–I knew there was one. And also Terry Pratchett, while we're hitting the UK, and SF.

  • BonzoGal

    This is an excellent, excellent list. I would like to add: "I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President" by Josh Lieb, which made me, my husband, and everyone I've recommended it to laugh to the point of tears.

    • Michael Gerber

      Thanks, @bonzogal:disqus. I will check him out!

  • ChrisK

    But this is no fun at all. The whole point of a "best" list is that the reader can skim it, instantly spot twenty things that were left out, and conclude that the author smells their hands after they sneeze. Or that they're a nice person, but born yesterday. Like the last time Splitsider did this list, and every single book was written by a television actor. Damn you Michael Gerber.

    • Michael Gerber

      But @48d107540ffb7452ec47d658aae04b1d:disqus, a list like this in its know-it-ally glory, its loping distractedness and utterly uninternet-like length, suggests so many more troubling personal traits… Truly crippling ones nourished by solitude and overlooked by a brain anesthetized by words…

      Glad you liked it, hope there were a few new things on it for you.

  • http://twitter.com/apsutter2004 Appey

    Patton Oswalt's book was great and humorous. And though they aren't always funny I'd like to add the "Bathroom Reader Series." You can pick up some great anecdotes from them.

  • Shawn Westfall

    I've said this before: the late Veronica Geng's "Love Trouble" belongs on any comprehensive list of 20th Century humor. And though I'm glad that someone saw fit to include "Lucky Jim" (easily the funniest novel ever written) and P.G. Wodehouse, you really shouldn't neglect Evelyn Waugh, who was debarred by nature from writing anything that wasn't (a) humorous and (b) not worth reading.

    • Michael Gerber

      Geng's fans are many and vocal, but I always found her work–well, I have the same problems with it that I had with Shawn's version of The New Yorker, if that means anything to you. But I will seek out Love Trouble for another read, Shawn, thank you.

      You know who adored Evelyn Waugh? Doug Kenney. I've always found him a bit too uncharitable, to be frank. There's a school of English satire that strikes me as somewhat ugly; too saturated with class distinctions and donnishness, making fun of people for having mustard on their cuffs and misquoting Shakespeare. Maybe I need to read him again.

      • Shawn Westfall

        Oh, to be sure, Waugh was an unrelenting snob in real life (check out Christopher Sykes' bio for a catalogue of Waugh's frequently and inexplicably vicious behavior — and Sykes actually *liked* Waugh). But he's rather democratic about who gets done down and who gets made sport of, particularly in his early novels "Decline and Fall" and "Vile Bodies." Waugh's misanthropic lack of faith in his fellow human beings, and his unshakeable belief that we live in a world irredeemably fallen, wouldn't allow him a Romanticized view of the Modern world, which is why the innocent and guilty, low-born and high-born are treated shabbily or fortunately as needed; the idea of justice or of a "just world" was foreign to him. And this is reflected even in his essays and private correspondence (really, his letters are an object lesson in what English prose style should look and sound like). One of my favorite anecdotes has him writing to another correspondent about his "friend" Randolph Churchill (a downright awful human being if there ever was one) regarding Churchill's recent discovery that the tumor he had removed was benign. "It was a typical triumph of modern science," he wrote, "to find the one part of Randolph which was not malignant and to remove it."

  • calamari19

    Fun list, but a sausage fest to be sure. Three women in a "comprehensive" guide? No Edna St. Vincent Millay (forget her pen name for humor pieces), Franny Fern, Alice Duer Miller or Jean Webster for the earlier years? No Nora Ephron (Nora FREAKIN Ephron!) or Erma Bombeck for the more recent years? C'mon.

    • Michael Gerber

      That's a fair point, @d259c4263df8ef9df09f896ece789e67:disqus. For the 20s and 30s, I could've easily included Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos). I have dipped into Betty McDonald's The Plague and I and found it fine (40s).

      Nora Freakin' Ephron should be on this list, you're right, but I always found Erma Bombeck's rather limp, so I didn't include her. I should've put Molly Ivins on it.

  • ChrisK

    Ah, now we're having the fun I was hoping for. You forgot The Rape of the Lock and Monday the Rabbi Ate a Pickle. But here's the spookier thing. Someone did the inevitable woman count and they actually have a point. (And making the three funny women in the 20th century Fran Leibowitz, Dorothy Parker and Judy Belushi seems… I want to use the word counterintuitive, but that doesn't really cover it.) Forget Cynthia Heimel and Molly Ivins, Mary McCarthy, Merrill Markoe, Patricia Marx and the Mitfords — how do you make a list of cartoonists without Roz Chast? Are you just baiting us, Micheal Gerber?

    • Michael Gerber

      (An earlier, more elegant version of this comment got eated, so forgive me if this is clumsy.)

      Would I do that to you, @disqus_NrE3mtYNKH:disqus? I have a perverse preference in that all my mistakes are honest ones. Which I suppose in this case makes them all the more egregious.

      If you'll read down you'll see that I agree with the commenter–I missed several great female names, as well as a few male ones. That having been said, though, take the list in the spirit it was given. Good writers are often funny, and good writing always has the ring of veracity that easily slurs into satire, but to suggest that, say, Mary McCarthy is in the same section of the zoo as Robert Benchley seems like a stretch to me. YMMV, though.

      Cynthia Heimel, Molly Ivins, Patty Marx, Merrill Markoe, and Roz Chast, these are all top-rank people–several of whom I hope to have in this new magazine; but they're also people who've emerged after 1985. Even Roz, who is so classic New Yorker that she will one day be mentioned in the same breath as Thurber and Charles Addams (or whomever else you care to mention), only really took off there in the late 80s.

      What appears to be a gender bias is actually a temporal one–if you look at the writing staff for "Your Show of Shows" or The National Lampoon, there are very, very few women. Thankfully, things are getting better; one couldn't imagine early Letterman without Merrill Markoe, or 30 Rock without Tina Fey. And the two print humorists that really seem to have broken out in the last several years are Chelsea Handler and Mindy Kaling. The biggest blogs, ones like Dooce or Mimi Smartypants, are also female-written. A contemporary list of the best written humor would have many more women on it, maybe even a preponderance; it is axiomatic that more women read than men, though I don't have hard numbers on that.

      I never read any of those "[Day] the Rabbi [Did Something]" books. They're good, eh?

      • calamari19

        Good points, and folks will always point out those missed on lists like these. The lack of women in earlier years is certainly a reality, but there are also more female humorists from these years than are given credit. Alice Duer Miller was instrumental in the suffrage movement, and even advice columnists like Dorothy Dix and Beatrice Fairfax were known for their wit. Including them just involves stretching the types of humor writing that's included in these lists.

        I don't mean to harp, I really do think you have fair points and I'm glad to read this list, just want to stick up for the forgotten hilarious ladies of years past. Maybe more knowledge of them will prevent us from being subjected from yet another "Look at Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig! Women are finally getting the chance to be funny!" article.

        • Michael Gerber

          I have to type this quickly before the page reloads–it's been eaten twice before!

          Don't think you're harping at all, and I was delighted that you pointed out the oversight–you are right. I'll ask the Editor if I can stick on an addendum, just so people don't have read down into the comments.

          Being professionally funny isn't about funniness, it's about that PLUS a bunch of very specific circumstances, so many of which have to do with education, a certain amount of security, and a kind of self-confidence that seems to come naturally with privilege and almost never without it. So to me, the very by-the-numbersness of those kind of articles is a good sign, because it's demonstrating a real shift in the possibilities presented to (some) women. I have a dream that one day ANY American, regardless of race, creed, color or gender can fritter his or her precious life away doing something of questionable utility in ill-lit, B.O-smelling offices in beautiful downtown Burbank. If, you know, that's what they want to do. :-)

  • Ярослав Свиридов

    Thanks, this list is much more fun than one we saw here before. Yet it is too USA-centered. I'm not speaking of some Hungarian funny books (or in my case Russian authors). Humor is what gets lost in translation, OK, I agree, but where is Spike Milligan's novel Puckoon?

    • Michael Gerber

      Puckoon's right here on my bookshelf, glaring at me! I must take another run at it.

      Funny thing about humor in translation: certainly I expected my Harry Potter parodies to die when translated, but they did quite well across a bunch of languages. The broadness of the humor helped, and the universality of the referent, and maybe I had great translators–but it was a definite surprise. Maybe globalization is changing things a bit?

      So what are some funny Russian authors? Do tell.

      • Ярослав Свиридов

        I said humor is what gets lost in translation, bun usually it’s not humor’s fault, it’s translator’s.
        As for funny Russian autors try Sergei Dovlatov. (It’s sort of 80’s classic.) I haven’t read him in English, but I’ve heard there are some good translations of his books.

        • Michael Gerber

          Thank you! I will seek him out.

  • Joshua Sieg

    I work at a thrift store and get an incredible discount. I've bought nearly 40 comedy books in the last year and not a single one of them is on this list.

    • Michael Gerber

      Which ones, Joshua? Spill–I wanna hear.

      I don't see these books in thrift stores much; good used bookstores, yes. Thrift stores seem to be limited to quickies and bestsellers.

  • TS Idiot

    Might I add Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes, a wonderfully absurd collection of stories from just after his stand up heyday. I'd also suggest his selection of New Yorker essays Pure Drivel and his recent memoir Born Standing Up – while not particularly funny, it provides a great look into what made this true renaissance man (one of the most original stand ups ever, mega movie star, world class banjo player, playwright, owner of one of the finest collections of contemporary art on the planet, best selling author of novellas, the Great Flydini, etc). He has a singular mind and intellect.

    I second the Douglas Adams/Terry Pratchett comments – Adams is brilliant and Pratchett's oeuvre is hilarious satire of the highest order (outside of the first few Discworld books – Rincewind is easily the least of his characters imo).

    I think I'm one of the few people who doesn't love A Confederacy of Dunces – yes, it's funny in parts, especially in the beginning, but becomes repetitive and after a while just feels like a long string of fart and fat jokes.

  • http://dtkltd.tumblr.com/ DTK404

    I was hoping to see Benchley on this list and impressed to see Fierce Pajamas. Good list.

    • Michael Gerber

      Thanks, @dtk404:disqus. A classic humor list without Robert Benchley isn't worth keeping. He's the single most influential humorist–stylistically speaking–of the 20th Century; one could maybe make a case for Woody Allen, but to do a Woody-like piece well takes chops most writers don't have.

      Discursive, off-handed, conversational, a mixture of very smart and completely befuddled–I truly do not know what the internet would sound like without the things that Benchley popularized. Clearly it was all there waiting for someone to pick up, but he was the first guy really to get there in a way that's recognizable to the modern reader.

  • Mr. Wonderful

    As someone here suggests, the point of lists like this is to disagree with them, but it's hard in this case. However, one terrible omission is Flann O'Brien–TWO. Two terrible omissions are Flann O'Brien (At Swim-Two-Birds, a weird/funny modernist novel; and his collected Irish Times columns called The Best of Myles) and Stephen Potter (Gamesmanship, One-Upmanship, etc.). THREE…Amongst the terrible omissions here are such diverse elements as Flann O'Brien, Stephen Potter, and Martin Amis's Money.

    I'll come in again. Charles Portis (Masters of Atlantis, The Dog of the South). And Bruce McCall's Zany Afternoons, which I think is out of print.

  • Billy Florio

    How did you forget Anne Beatts Titters collection, Russell Bakers Book of American Humor, Hitchikers Guide and the Mirth of a Nation collections?

  • skoonix

    Funny – "LAUGHING MATTERS' is also the title of one of the best books I ever read about writing comedy by the master, Larry Gelbart. Check it out.

  • humor searcher

    how could you miss 'three man in the boat' by jerome k. jerome?

  • hologram sam

    Benchley admitted that he'd been heavily influenced by Stephen Leacock. I found a few of Leacock's books in an antiquarian bookstore. His essay on being intimidated by bank tellers is pure Benchley, before Benchley ever wrote a word. But I've always harbored a grudge against Leacock, because after I researched him, I learned he held racist views (common for his time, but Benchley never shared his views, so unforgivable nonetheless). George Ade is another writer from the early 20th century who was a major influence on Benchley. I found one of his essay collections in the same antiquarian bookstore. He actually created the template that Benchley followed.
    None of this takes anything away from my complete and utter worship of Robert Benchley as a writer, performer and human being.

  • VirgaDweller

    Good compilation here, however how can you omit Walt Kelly's "Pogo"? Kelly's political sensibilites and outrage, certainly through the McCarthy era, are a wonderful history lesson, and many of his jabs can apply to today's issues. "Dilbert" should have made the list of cartoonists, as should've Lynda Barry (Matt Groening's main influence, he claims), and (I've just spaced out on her name), the woman who did "Trots and Bonnie" (in early National Lampoon) (OMG, in one, Bonnie went to a costume party as a Tampon). Many of E.B. White's columns for Harper's (collected in "One Man's Meat,") show a wicked sense of humor. I've laughed out loud at many of Jack Smith's columns, including the collection "How to Win A Pullet Surprise," that ran in the L.A. Times. Then there's Joe Queenan's "My Goodness." Garrison Keillor can be quite funny, too.