Funniest Book Ever?

By Mark Alpert

My son is home from college for the summer, and my daughter is finishing up her senior year of high school, so it’s a special time for the Alpert household. We were all watching the Raptors-Warriors game tonight, along with three of my daughter’s friends, and in between the amazing displays of basketball virtuosity, we started telling jokes. And that got me thinking about how difficult it is to write a funny novel.

You know what they say: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.” That’s especially true for novels. Think how difficult it must be to keep a humorous voice or situation going for hundreds of pages. It’s like doing a standup routine that lasts for 16 hours. (If you read at a rate of twenty-five pages per hour, then a 400-page novel is equivalent to a 16-hour routine.)

Here’s a rough indicator of the difficulty: When was the last time you laughed out loud while reading a novel? It’s happened to me only a few dozen times over a whole LIFETIME of reading. But those occasions were memorable. I’ll try to recall them as best as I can. (I can’t check the exact wording of the funny books right now because most of our novels are in the living room, and several teenagers are sleeping in there.)

The funniest novel ever written (in my opinion): A Confederacy of Dunces. The book’s hero, Ignatius Reilly, is so absurdly grotesque and brilliant. One moment he’s yelling at his mother to leave his bedroom so he can masturbate, the next moment he’s musing about the Mississippi River and railing at his nemesis, “that dreary fraud, Mark Twain.” He gets a job selling footlong hot dogs from a cart in the French Quarter (while dressed in a pirate’s costume) but he eats the hot dogs instead of selling them, and when his employer docks his pay he tries to negotiate a better price for the wieners he’s eaten (“I am, after all, your best customer.”) I know plenty of people who hate this book because Ignatius is so cheerfully repulsive. But I love it.

Second funniest novel: Portnoy’s Complaint. This book has plenty of masturbation jokes too (and why are they so amusing? Has anyone ever studied this?) but in my opinion the best bits are the descriptions of the narrator’s father, the hard-working beaten-down insurance salesman who suffers from chronic constipation. He’s jealous of his teenage son because he’s spending so much time in the bathroom (the father wrongly assumes that the boy is moving his bowels). “If only I could do my business like that!” the old man cries. “I’d do it in Macy’s windows!” To which his wife responds, “Macy’s doesn’t need your business.”

On the opposite end of the humor spectrum, I also have a great fondness for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels. And Kurt Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle. (“Ah, God, what an ugly city Ilium is! ‘Ah, God,’ says Bokonon, ‘what an ugly city every city is!'”)

What about you? Have you ever dared to write a novel that’s laugh-out-loud funny?

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

16 thoughts on “Funniest Book Ever?

  1. Great topic. Lately I’ve heard a few comedians discuss how Confederacy is their favorite novel.

    I’m a funny person. I’m quick witted, the life of the party even. When I tell people I write, they always say, “I bet your work is hilarious.” They assume I’d naturally write humor. But I don’t because, as you note, it’s very difficult!

    For me, Charles Bukowski’s books are hilarious. Post Office and Pulp both had me laughing. His protagonist is a scumbag degenerate, and his observations are delightful. It’s also refreshing to reap something irteverant in our overly PC era.

  2. Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Spider-man often cracks me up.

  3. I laughed out loud during Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. “Face it, girls. I’m older, and I have more insurance.” Cracks me up just thinking about it.

  4. I was at sea on a navy ship reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame one night in an office space where I was the assistant to the 6th Fleet Operations Officer (an 06). He was deep in conversation with an 05 staff adjunct about impending fleet matters when I came to the passage where deaf Quasimodo was brought to trial before a deaf judge in a court assembled on a Paris street corner. The interrogation of Quasimodo by the judge caused me to burst into laughter so vigorous tears came to my eyes, and briefly drained considerable gravity from the military conversation. Both of the officers were also avid readers and didn’t hold my outburst against me.

  5. I love A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck. Bub, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis is a classic as is The Great Brain series by John D Fiztgerald. None of these are thrillers or adult books, but they are a lot of fun to read.
    I wrote a humorous book called The Miserable Life of Bernie LeBaron that some readers have told me made them laugh out loud. To date, it is my favorite of all the books I have written. Books that make me laugh, even, or maybe especially, when they deal with difficult or dark subjects will always find a way onto my “to be read again” list.

  6. When I started writing, I would try to copy the conversations and dialogue I had with my friends. So… since I was in high school, what we said we found super funny. Needless to say, 1. the dialogue did nothing to move the story forward and 2. out of context, the humor sounded horrible and outright outlandish.

  7. Two of my favorite humorous books: The Princess Bride by William Goldman. (Who doesn’t laugh all the way through that one?) And the James Herriot series, All Creatures Great and Small. (That one has reduced me to laughing to the point of not being able to breathe.)

    I tried writing a cozy, humorous, mystery. I did manage some funny dialog and scenes, but for a thriller writer, I found it very difficult to keep bodies from showing up, which cuts down on the humor somewhat, even though it was only one body (and he deserved what he got).

  8. Like you say, it’s difficult to write humor. The key is capturing dialogue of funny stuff people say, and the setting in which they say it. This reminds me of my father’s wise saying: When someone said to him, I have a real funny joke to tell you, he’d say, I’ll be the judge of that. ,,,btw,,,, No one writes funnier than David Sedaris and Carl Hiaasen, and James Hall’s Gone Wild is a hoot.

  9. Some of the narrative and dialogue in Jason Fforde’s first “Nursery Crimes Division” mystery novel, THE BIG OVER EASY, will make you that annoying person who has to read parts aloud to anyone around you. My favorite was when he described a cat as so lazy that he’d starve to death if he didn’t sleep under the baby’s high chair with his mouth open. FForde has the dry British wit and bonkers ideas of a more literary Douglas Adams. “Nursery Crimes” is set in a world where nursery rhyme characters exist with humans, and the human detective hero must solve the murder of Humpty Dumpty. FForde’s “Thursday Next” series is about a female spy who must enter literary classics to stop evil people from ruining and changing the plot by killing characters, etc. The first one involves JANE EYRE.

  10. Comedy writing is hard. Nearly all comedy out there is glorified sketch comedy, whether on the page or screen. And, IMO, much of it seems forced and unfunny. It’s rare that I see or read anything that is a complete story AND funny from start to finish.

    Let me define what I mean by complete. I mean something that is funny from start to finish, where the entire story idea is humorous, and not something that just relies on sketch set pieces to hold it together.

    Carl Hiassen is the one current author that springs to mind that writes this way. Gawd, I wish I could write anything as funny as he does. Absurd stories, off kilter characters, and everybody behaving logically to them. Nobody is trying to be funny or silly. They just are to everybody outside that world. I wish Douglas Adams hadn’t died so young. Vogon poetry, anyone?

    It’s just so hard. Try writing, say, a ten page short story at full pitch hilarity. You’ll probably fail. Imagine doing that for 300+ pages.

    Same with the screen. Writing a Bringing up Baby or His Girl Friday is tough. It’s hard to sustain.

    Sketch comedy does have it’s place. If someone out there is looking to laugh this afternoon I recommend watching the SNL Ms. Rafferty sketches. They are a brilliant example of using a near identical concept and script and tweaking it every so slightly for new situations and having it be just as funny each and every time. Warning: you might want to pee before watching these.

    • *have it’s place* Groan. Can’t believe I made this mistake. Should be *have its place*. I shall self flagellate now.

  11. I laugh quite a bit reading Carl Hiaasen’s stuff.
    .
    I once came up with an idea for a humorous book wherein the hero has to transport the corpse of a Chinese gangster from LA to Cleveland in an old ice cream truck. I had my plot points pretty well pegged. The more I wrote the less funny it grew. I can be funny sometimes, but it’s always spontaneous. Planning it out is, I believe, beyond my ability.

  12. The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek
    The Cathedral Folk by Nikolai Leskov
    Everything by Nikolai Gogol
    Chameleon and other early short stories by Chekhov
    Nervous People and Other Satires by Mikhail Zoshchenko
    Childhood Memories by Ion Creangă
    Generation P by Victor Pelevin

  13. CATCH-22 pops to mind, but i don’t think I’ve ever read a fumier book than Joseph Wambaugh’s class, THE CHOIRBOYS. Laugh out loud funny in several places, though the the ending is heartbreaking.

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