As one of our generation’s greatest entertainers once said, “There are certain topics that are off-limits to comedians.” He goes on to list examples like JFK, AIDS, the Holocaust, and then notes how, “The Lincoln Assassination just recently became funny. (I need to see this play like I need a hole in the head.)” He continues: “I hope to someday live in a world where a person could tell a hilarious AIDS joke. It’s one of my dreams.”
As the above monologue from The Office’s wildly uncomfortable Michael Scott reminds us, humor is subjective. The more sensitive the topic, the more humor shape-shifts between hilarity and horror. What’s funny to one reader can be offensive to the next; meanwhile, what’s crass and poorly imagined in one writer’s hands can transform to sharp wit and enlightening commentary in another’s.
With that in mind, I offer seven books whose traditionally serious subject matter had me giggling on numerous morning commutes, cry-laughing on a cross-country road trip, and howling as I read aloud yet another uproarious* passage to my husband.
*If you, like my husband, do not find the ensuing books to be the rollicking, gut-busters I did, well . . . I warned you it was all subjective.
★ The Last Testament: A Memoir by God, by David Javerbaum
As Salman Rushdie, The Onion, and everyone alive during The Crusades can attest, religion is no laughing matter. It turns out that some people have strong feelings about the details of their existence, and joking about it has, historically, had some grim results. Realizing that, with over five billion copies sold, God is the #1 best-selling author, Javerbaum works as God’s stenographer to create a hilarious addition to the Good Book. Javerbaum succeeds thanks to a “dazzling underlying knowledge of theology” that suggests he’s not an outsider merely poking fun but instead molding a character who can make you laugh as easily as he could strike you dead.
The Taliban Shuffle, by Kim Barker
War ranks pretty high on the things-that-are-terrible list, so a funny book about the Afghan War doesn’t seem possible. But set Barker’s “most American white lady story” in the thick of war, mix in a few harrowing experiences, and honest, hilarious prose ensues. Don’t believe me? The silver-screen adaptation of Barker’s memoir, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, stars Tina Fey, and the trailer gives a good sense of the book’s dark humor.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris
Going to the dentist is a harrowing gamble for most and a banal requirement for the rest. I venture that, before Sedaris’ essay, “Dentists without Borders,” from his collection Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, exactly zero people had found humor in the dental experience. But he sets the sterile stage for the absurd medical encounters we all know but understandably forget when faced with strange fingers in our mouths. Speaking of mouths, best to hear the story straight from Sedaris’. Like right now. I’ll wait.
How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran
Moran’s half-memoir, half-treatise on feminism is so funny I could just skip the annotation and leave you with snippets from the Table of Contents:
Chapter 1: I Start Bleeding!
Chapter 2: I Become Furry!
Chapter 3: I Don’t Know What To Call My Breasts!
Chapter 7: I Encounter Some Sexism!
Moran’s profane, witty, and empowering book reminds us that puberty, sexism, and most of life’s big question marks are heavy, hard experiences; however, with the right distance (like three decades) and a decent attitude, they often glimmer like comedic gold.
Dry, by Augusten Burroughs
In Running with Scissors, Burroughs got guffaws from the most disturbing, decidedly unfunny subject matter and proved that humor is sometimes the key to survival. The master of dark comedy charges on with the story of his battle against, and tenuous recovery from, alcoholism. As reviewer John Green (yes, that John Green—he used to work here) confirms, “Burroughs again displays his talent for finding hope and hard-won laughs in the nastiest of situations.”
★ The Martian, by Andy Weir
In fifth grade I read Mary Higgins Clark’s Moonlight Becomes You, which activated a fear of being mistakenly assumed dead after the protagonist finds herself buried alive. Couple everyone thinking you’re dead with a tragic accident 34.8 million miles from home, and that’s Weir’s gut-busting plot. LOL, amirite?! Through witty first-person journal entries, Weir shapes protagonist Mark Watney as much a stand-up comedian as he is an ingenious astronaut and makes everything from farming potatoes on Mars to interstellar death seem like a barrel of laughs.
Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander
So perhaps Mr. Scott was wrong after all. Religion, war, alcoholism, and sexism have all just revealed their hilarious sides thanks to authors who approach their experience with honesty, vulnerability, and perspective. With that in mind, we challenge Mr. Scott’s notion that the Holocaust is off-limits for comedy and suggest you dive into Auslander’s audaciously funny memoir. Editor Donna Seaman said this “devilishly cunning, sure-to-be controversial novel poses profound questions about meaning, justice, truth, and responsibility.” And we can’t think of a more noble mission for humor to serve.