Monday, November 23, 2009

Bringin' the Funny: Characters, Plot and Writing

For the past few days, I've been chuckling my way through Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You. I'm almost finished, so I'll post a thought or two later this week, but suffice it to say, the novel is fantastic. And its zaniness, "Oh, snap"py dialogue, and overall hilarity have gotten me thinking about some of the funniest books I've ever read — among which, this book certainly takes its place.

A good funny book for me has to include most of the following: silly, but not over the top, set-piece scenes; a witty, seamless blend of the high- and low-brow; some degree of satire or parody; and liberal use of sarcasm and/or irony. (Side note: Great Simpsons quote — Comic Book Guy: "A sarcasm detector? That's a real useful device.) Rarely does any book include all of these elements, because if it did, it'd be a spaghetti-thrown-at-the-wall, choice-less mess. So, allow me to explain what I think to be the three different categories of "funny" novel.

1) Funny characters: Character-driven novels are my favorites! I love "watching" bumbling, silly characters who can't seem to get out of their own ways engage in all sorts of misadventures. In these novels, the plot and writing have to have some semblance of funny, but it all hinges on the one or two main characters committing acts of dumbassery and nonsense. The best example I've come across is Switters, Tom Robbins' depraved CIA agent in Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. Switters, a lothario in every sense of the word (he even seduces a nun!) travels the globe, hilariously expounding on everything from technology to religion to linguistics to the evils of advertising. I wouldn't necessarily want to have a beer with Switters, but I'd definitely pay to see his stand-up comedy routine! Another, perhaps more familiar, character is Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius, an overweight sometimes-hot dog vendor who lives with his mother, spends several hundred humorous pages navigating his way through the various absurdities of life in New Orleans. Purpose for earlier Comic Book guy quote: Doesn't Ignatius Reilly have to be the basis for the Comic Book Guy character on The Simpsons???

2) Funny plot: Here I'm thinking about books that are funny on a scene-by-scene basis, or novels themselves that are framed around a ridiculous and/or hilarious premise. This is probably the most common type of funny novel. Most representative of this type, and probably most widely read, is Joseph Heller's classic war satire Catch-22. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaugherhouse-Five is another classic that fits this bill. I loved both of these novels! Though a bit more obscure, since it's one of his lesser known novels, Richard Russo's Straight Man is an absolutely hysterical skewering of academia. Have you heard that old joke: Why are arguments in academia so fierce?  Because there's nothing at stake. (Hmm...that probably translates better verbally.) Anyway, Straight Man also includes one of the funniest scenes I've ever read — involving the main character, a professor at a small college in Pennsylvania donning a fake nose and glasses, and threatening on live TV to murder one duck per day from the university's pond until he gets his budget.

3) Funny writing: These novels make you laugh on a line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, whether or not the plot even hangs together or the characters are the least bit memorable. The conversation starts and stops here with David Foster Wallace. Yes, Infinite Jest, is difficult, disturbing and sad, but the novel also includes some of the best funny writing ever included between two covers. I'm also a huge fan of DFW's essay collections — his writing on everything from the Adult Video News Awards to his experiences on a cruise are the standard by which all sarcastic, high-brow/low-brow-blend writing should be judged. I still get a little misty eyed thinking about the fact that he's no longer with us.... Anyway, in this category, I'd also toss in Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The blend of Spanish and English euphemisms and deeply funny dialogue make this book as memorable as it is fun to read.

(I suppose I could add a fourth category: Unintentionally funny. This would include general writing, scenes, or entire novels that are so stupidly awful they're funny. Hello, Dan Brown!)

I'm sure there are hundreds and hundreds more examples, so what am I missing here? What are your favorite funny novels?


  1. Slaughterhouse Five is in my TBR pile - glad it made your list! When I think of funny books the ones that immediately pop into my brain are the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard or often while reading!

  2. Hands down: Lamb by Christopher Moore.

  3. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.
    Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

  4. Ah, good call on Then We Came To The End - loved that book. It's like the literary version of the movie Office Space.

    Homebetweenthepages, fictionfanatic - thanks for the recommendations! Added both to my amazon wishlist. Lamb is one people keep telling me I'd love, just haven't gotten to it yet...

  5. I'd have to list PG Wodehouse & Flann O'Brien as my favourite funny writers. Also Vonnegut, but he has such depth and wisdom as well.

    On a sad note, I only just found out that David Foster Wallace was dead. Shit!

  6. What about Funny Comedy Books? They fail to have plots usually. For instance, all George Carlin books together make up my favorite funny books. :)

    P.S. I am awarding you the Honest Scrap Award (check it out on my blog tomorrow afternoon for details). :)

  7. I've had many a laugh while reading Christopher Moore's books. I haven't had a chance to read Lamb yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed A Dirty Job and Fluke, Or Why the Winges Whale Sings. The first is one of my favorites!

    I definitely need more humor books in my life. I'll have to check some of these out. :)

  8. Lamb has to be the best, no doubt about it. I just finished a very funny and sad book by late night host Craig Ferguson titled Between the Bridge and a river. It is very well written and had me not only laughing out loud but reading parts to my son. I only hope he writes another such novel.

  9. The funniest book I have ever read was "Women are Crazy Men are Stupid" by Howard J Morris, and Jenny Lee. SERIOUSLY funny stuff. Like LAUGH OUT LOUD funny. Especially if you're married, and crazy or stupid... or both. A MUST read.

    I am going to look up Craig Ferguson's book another commented mentioned. I am actually watching him right now as I type this! I LOVE him!

  10. Thanks for all the suggestions - I am looking forward to reading some of these!! I've been meaning to get into Jonathan Tropper's new book, too!!

    Thanks for the comment on my blog! I'm enjoying popping over here and seeing what's on your mind! =)

  11. I have to say Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster really made me laugh. It is not a novel, but The Funny Thing Is... by Ellen DeGeneres was pretty hysterical. I just realized I really need to read more books with humor in them...hmm..