Comic Books

In the Boston Globe (“What’s so funny?“), Alex Beam discusses the challenge of writing the comic novel:

In the immortal deathbed phrase variously attributed to actors Edwin Booth, Edmund Kean, Donald Wolfit, and others: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Comedy on the printed page may be the hardest of all. Writer Roy Blount Jr. once opined that, to succeed, good comic writing had to be funnier than it needed to be.

I agree–sustaining comedy at book length, especially in fiction–is one of the toughest challenges there is. The essay got me thinking about the funniest novels I’ve read, books that made me laugh frequently and never made me sigh from boredom. It’s a short list. The books below are the first ones that come to mind:

mineallmineMine All Mine, by Adam Davies (which, incidentally, is also on our list of the Year’s Best Crime Novels)

The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant, by Pablo Tusset

Don’t Point That Thing at Me, by Kyril Bonfiglioli

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

I know I’ll think of others, but it’s a start. What are the funniest novels you’ve read?

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

12 Comments on "Comic Books"

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  1. chrisandkristin9@comcast.net' Chris Anderson says:

    A couple that come to mind are P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by James Kirkwood, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS by Kurt Vonnegut.

  2. rolson@ala.org' Ray Olson says:

    Yeesh! There must be dozens, but for starters:

    The Truth by Terry Pratchett (I’m told–and believe–the rest of Pratchett’s Discworld yarns are prime hilarious, too)

    The Poor Mouth by Flann O’Brien (funniest book of the twentieth century, I say)

    The Search Party by George A. Birmingham (more ridiculousness from Ireland–with anarchists!)

    The Hard Life by Flann O’Brien (seeing a trend here, are we?)

    Everybody’s Favorite Duck by Gahan Wilson (parody mystery, one of my favorite sub-sub-genres)

    WLT by Garrison Keillor (still his funniest)

    The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore (another guy whose every book is a riot–often literally)

    The Fifth Policeman by Flann O’Brien

  3. ichipman@ala.org' Ian says:

    I’d lobby for Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which is not only the finest, but also the funniest novel that takes place entirely on an escalator ride from one floor to the next. Also, George MacDonald Fraser’s The Pyrates and, more recently, The Reavers are in a class of their own (that class being wooly anachronistic costume dramas heavy on hilarity).

  4. jeberle@ala.org' Jerry Eberle says:

    Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard

    Although technically his novels fit the crime genre, I always thought Elmore Leonard’s stuff was funny–and not just the dialog. Look at the basic plot for Get Shorty: a tough loan shark from Brooklyn (originally)who dreams of the movies lands in L.A. and decides that he can make films as well as anybody in the business, and how hard can it be, anyway? Funny stuff. The plot here is the setup to the joke. Of course, Leonard’s dialog is priceless, such as the scene where Chili Palmer (loan shark) discusses the proper use of “e.g.” and “i.e.” in a sentence with his new mob boss. The dialog can’t be repeated on this PG-rated site, but trust me, it’s funny–and it went unchanged directly from the page into the movie. I guess when it comes to Leonard’s stuff, Hollywood finally got it.

  5. Daniel says:

    I hate to be predictable, but:

    A Confederacy of Dunces
    Catch-22
    Broom of the System

  6. Donna Seaman says:

    And now for something completely different:

    Binnie Kirshenbaum. The Scenic Route.
    Margaret Atwood. Moral Disorder and other Stories.
    Margaret Drabble. The Sea Lady.
    Julie Hecht. Happy Trails to You.

  7. mquinn@ala.org' Mary Ellen says:

    Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street novels make me laugh. He manages to present foolish characters without being mean about them.

  8. gengberg@ala.org' Gillian says:

    I’m casting another vote for Lucky Jim. Other favorites: The Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum, The Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore (I know, not a novel, but wonderful, often comic fiction), Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

  9. gengberg@ala.org' Gillian says:

    And from the YA world:

    Two of this year’s Printz Honor Books, Nation by Terry Pratchett and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, have some brilliant, comic moments. And Feed by M.T. Anderson is a now-classic satire.

  10. ltillotson@ala.org' Laura says:

    One of my all-time favorites for funny is The Heroic Life of Al Capsella by J. Clarke. A precursor to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, you could say.

  11. Bill says:

    Another vote for Confederacy of Dunces.

    A strong vote for Richard Russo’s Straight Man, which I think is a funnier academic satire than Lucky Jim.

    And, finally, a vote for a first novel I just read a couple of months ago: Calisto, by Torsten Krol, starring a rum-swilling version of Forrest Gump (without the piety)who is desperate to fight in Iraq because he has a crush on Condie Rice and hopes to impress her.

  12. Keir says:

    Cynthia Crossen offers her thoughts on more funny books here:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124235361356322469.html

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