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The Trouble with Humor

July 26, 2014
(image via Wikimedia)

Is he reading James Thurber or Dorothy Parker?  No, he’s watching a YouTube video of some guy getting kicked in the nuts.  (image via Wikimedia)

When it comes to BEST EVER books, I’m not usually hesitant. I think The Thin Man is the best mystery ever! I believe I, Robot is the best science fiction novel ever! I decided that The Outsiders is the best YA novel ever and that Uncle Shelby’s A, B, Z Book is the best children’s book ever. Readers might disagree with me (and I encourage disagreement), but at least I had criteria for what went into each genre.

Last week Publishers Weekly had some staff members (“staff”… ha ha! “members”… ha ha) devise a list of the best funny books ever. This puzzled me a little. I’m sure everybody associated with Publishers Weekly knows a lot about books. I’m not sure I trust their expertise on humor. When I think of funny, I don’t think of Publishers Weekly. Publishers Weekly is like the C-Span of publishing sites. Asking Publishers Weekly to choose the funniest book ever is like asking that boring guy from C-Span who the best comedian ever is. He might have an opinion, but I wouldn’t trust it. I could be underestimating them, however. Zeppo supposedly was the funniest of the Marx Brothers behind the scenes, so maybe the boring guy from C-Span is a laugh riot when the camera is turned off.

I’m not sure BEST EVER!!” can be applied to humorous books. Other genres have formulas, and I can judge each book by how it follows, influences, and even perfects a formula. Humor doesn’t have a formula. If anything, humor comes from the unexpected, and if I expect a book or scene to be humorous, then I might not find it as humorous. When somebody says “Read this! It’s hilarious!” or “Watch this! It’s hilarious!” it’s never as funny as when there are no expectations. Therefore, calling a book “humorous” ahead of time automatically makes it less humorous.

One “staff member” (ha ha… okay, I’m better now) from Publishers Weekly chose The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare as his funniest book. If I were snarky, I would criticize him for choosing a play instead of a book. I like Shakespeare, but I like to understand the jokes being told. Maybe at the time, The Taming of the Shrew was the funniest thing ever written/performed. There were a lot of sex jokes in it, but I don’t understand some of the 400 year-old references. I feel like a five year-old laughing because all the adults are laughing, except now I wonder how many of the adults really understand the humor.

Humor depends on mood. If I read a humorous book while I’m in the wrong mood, I won’t find it funny. Also, my biases kick in to affect my mood. For example, I’ll never laugh at a James Patterson book. James Patterson (or his co-author) has written some “humorous” books. They might be humorous books, but I wouldn’t even crack a smile because I already have my biases against James Patterson (and a little against his co-authors). Maybe James Patterson has already written or will write the funniest book ever, but I would never admit it. My bias would never let me see the humor.

For some reason, a funny book is even funnier to me while I’m on an airplane. I rarely laugh out loud when I’m reading (and I never say/write “LOL” unless I’m using “LOL” to make a point about “LOL”), but when I’m on an airplane reading a funny book, I laugh out loud a lot. Maybe it’s the legal drugs I take whenever I fly. Maybe it’s the funky airplane air. But I laugh. And I think that’s why nobody talks to me when I’m on an airplane. People don’t start conversations with middle-aged guys laughing out loud at something on the phone. That’s fine. Once my legal drugs kick in, I don’t want to talk to anybody anyway.

A couple days ago, I reread a book that made me laugh out loud the last time I was on an airplane. I don’t want to say what book it was because a bunch of people wouldn’t think this particular author is funny, and I don’t want anybody forming opinions of me based on a controversial book that is kind of polarizing. I can read polarizing stuff without being polarizing myself, and I want to keep it that way. Anyway, the book was okay, but I don’t think I should have laughed out loud. Maybe I didn’t laugh because I was reading it for the second time. Maybe it was because I wasn’t being affected by legal drugs. At any rate, that book I read was not the funniest book ever.

Cartoon books also shouldn’t count as “best ever!” unless they’re in a separate category. No author of prose should have to compete with Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side. Illustrations give an author an unfair advantage over authors who use words only. I still love The Far Side. I can read lots of comic strips, and they feel new (maybe my old man memory is getting bad), but I wouldn’t consider The Far Side compilation books to be best ever. Authors who use words only shouldn’t have their books competing with comic strip books or other books where illustrations are essential to the humor. That leaves out a lot of humor books.

James Thurber was a humorist who used illustrations, but you could read James Thurber without the illustrations and not miss much. One Publishers Weekly staff member (see? I’m okay now) included a James Thurber book (that I’ve actually read). I remember reading part of the James Thurber book in high school and I thought it was boring. Maybe I was boring. I reread the James Thurber book 10 years later and thought it was humorous, but I didn’t laugh out loud. I nodded and smiled knowingly.  I didn’t think it was the funniest book ever.


But enough about me! Just because I won’t pick a best funny book ever doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t. What books do you think are funny? What humorous books do you think AREN’T funny?  Do you really laugh out loud when you read? Does the term “staff member” ever get old?

  1. If it’s humour you’re after, it’s Wodehouse you need. I still laugh aloud the second, third, fourth re-readings.

  2. I do like Wodehouse, although I think Stephen Leacock is one of the best humor writers I’ve found. I could probably think of more if I thought about it longer.

  3. I agree that Wodehouse is great. But Douglas Adams is my favorite funny writer. Not very laugh out loud funny, just incredibly witty and clever.

  4. I think Stephen King is quite funny. I may have a warped sense of humor.

  5. I guess Shakespeare was a “safe” choice, but silly. Connie Willis has written a couple of hilarious books and short stories. Jasper Ffforde’s Thursday Next series — especially the latter books — is fall down funny. And how about Douglas Adams? Pretty funny guy, yes? There are so many. How can you make a choice like that?

    • I’m sure it was tough. But maybe they were pressured into it. I don’t know what kind of employer Publishers Weekly is. Maybe the “staff members” thought they’d get fired if they didn’t agree to think of a funny book, which might be kind of ironic, depending on how you define “irony.” Douglas Adams is a pretty good choice.

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  7. David Sedaris is pretty funny. I really liked his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” And “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt is great.

    • Angela’s Ashes? I thought Teacher Man was McCourt’s humorous book. Maybe I was/am wrong.

      • Oh lord no. Angela’s Ashes is his funniest book, and by far his best. His other other books are only okay but Ashes is so much better. And he wrote it after he retired from teaching.

  8. Jenny Lawson’s (The Blogess) book had me laughing out loud to the point people would look at me funny.

  9. Certainly, The Thin Man movie is excellent. It’s not a great murder mystery. I looked the beginning chapters of the book; it was slow but some lines appeared in the movie.
    The 1934 movie, the year Prohibition ended, has endless references to drinking. The movie also has one of my favorite lines, which might be humorous. William Powell opens the door and greets attorney, McCaulley: “Come in, come in.” Closes door, backs away. With a hand motion toward the couch, “Have a seat.” McCaulley does all that. POWELL: “What are you drinking?” McCaulley: “Nothing for me thanks.” Powell walking toward bar: “That’s a mistake.”
    Of course McCaulley as a non drinker committed the murders.
    There are ingredients to humor that cannot be explained or taught. For some writers they jump out as opportunities, but they cannot be planned or outlined. They can be recognized during editing and enhanced. What generally needs to be added are details about setting, minor story points, a character’s glance.
    Hermann Melville has some very funny stuff in his early novels, and at times in Moby Dick. The best scene goes to Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, the funeral scene.

    • You’re right. The Thin Man is funny. I think the sarcasm especially in the book was ahead of its time. I just think of it as a mystery rather than a humorous book, but you’re right in that the humor might have been better than the actual mystery. I missed the humor in Moby Dick, but I’ll blame myself for that.

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    The library in which I work did a reader poll of ‘the funniest novel ever’. Unless my memory deceives me it was Romeo and Juliet (very loose definition of ‘novel’). The results may have been skewed by the fact that staff members (and I type that without so much as a smirk) had to take turns reading it out in the library for Comic Relief (British thing). I wasn’t in that day.

    • Ha! I can’t picture any of the librarians I know doing that, reading Romeo and Juliet aloud for comic relief. Maybe if they’d had a little to drink first, but then they’d probably get fired, and I don’t think they want that. I’ll ask them what they think the funniest book is. Maybe they’ll surprise me.

  12. Douglas Adams. Terry Pratchett. Stephen Colbert. I am unaware of any funny books that weren’t funny because my mind automatically classifies them as something else. I think humor is too varied to have a top ten list, unless you identify genre, but even then it’s tricky. I like the ideas discussed in your blog and the Top Ten Funny Books Only While Flying at 33,000 feet could be a new list!

  13. Much Ado About Nothing is much funnier than The Taming of the Shrew. Of course I only saw the plays, which is probably the seventeenth century equivalent of seeing the movie. 🙂

    • Actually, considering that these are plays — that is to say, scripts — written to be performed, I would say you saw it the way the author intended you to see it. It wasn’t written to be read in a classroom. It was written to be acted. On a stage.

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