So I’ve walked out of the theater with a huge grin on my face and my cheeks sore from smiling multiple times this summer. I’ve been thinking, though, that in the same span, how many times have I closed a book feeling the same way? For some reason, coming up with a list of funny books is harder than coming up with a list of funny movies.
Maybe it’s because movies can do things books can’t: watching someone slip on a banana peel is a lot funnier than reading “He slipped on a banana peel.” And let’s face it, a comedic actor like Will Ferrell brings a lot to the table that a simple line of dialogue in a book just can’t. But there are tons of funny books out there! I thought it’d be fun to classify some of my favorites to get the list going. (For the purposes of this post, I’m going to keep it limited to fiction.) Here’s what I came up with:
The Laugh Out Loud: This is the book that makes you squeal, howl, and guffaw with laughter. For me, it’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris. This is one of my favorite books of the last few years. It’s an office comedy – similar to The Office or Office Space – but it’s narrated by the collective employees (the first line is “We were fractious and overpaid.”). The best part comes in the middle when Ferris deftly steers the novel from simple farce to something deeper.
The So-Funny-It’s-Good-For-You: A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole – a classic! Amazon describes it as “a tragicomic tale” but I think it’s intelligent, comedic fiction at its finest. I could have read about Ignatius J. Reilly for another few hundred pages. It won the Pulitzer, too. So it’s funny AND important.
The Low-Brow: Philip Roth’s PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT has so many funny things going on at once: the overbearing mother; the shiksa girlfriend; the illicit acts with frozen meat; and, despite itself, the great one-liner at the end.
The Crime Comedy: Don Winslow is one of the most criminally unknown authors writing today. His novel, THE DAWN PATROL, is about a surf bum/private eye who is getting ready for the perfect wave when he’s hired to find a missing girl. It’s worth reading for the names alone: Boone Daniels is the PI and his surfing buddies are Dave the Love God, Hang Twelve, Johnny Banzai, Sunny Day, and High Tide. It’s not really a laugh-out loud kind of book, but I definitely read the whole thing with a smile on my face.
The Adventure Comedy: THE HOTHOUSE FLOWER AND THE NINE PLANTS OF DESIRE by Margot Berwin is a debut novel about a disaffected single woman who gets wrapped up in the exotic world of rare plants. Think Carrie Bradshaw meets Indiana Jones. It’s goofy and sometimes silly, but it’s a total hoot and perfect for the beach.
In the end, it’s probably not fair to compare the visceral experience of watching a movie to the intellectual experience of reading a book. For all of those books above, I find myself saying, “This book is funny and…” Poignant, clever, gross, sad, silly, etc. In other words: a movie can be just four dudes with a hangover; a book has to be a lot more.
(I’m sure I missed many many funny novels so please comment and let me know!)
*ZACHARY WAGMAN has been an editor at Vintage Books since 2006. Before that, he was an assistant at Knopf. Before that, he went to NYU and before that he grew up in New Jersey.*