Funny Fiction – An un-Bleak List

Starting at 12 years old, I began reading Mad magazine.  Every issue had the “What, Me Worry?” kid, Alfred E. Neuman, on the cover with his gap-toothed smile.  Every issue of Mad magazine contained “assorted rubbish from the usual gang of idiots”, which was the publishers’ slogan.  There were other humor magazines such as “Crack’d”, “Sick”, and “Panic”, but Mad was always consistently the funniest.  I was so dedicated to Mad, I’m sure the magazine shaped my entire attitude toward life.  They still sell Mad magazine but most places that sell magazines are way too respectable and reputable to carry something so smart, creative, and anarchic as Mad magazine.

Today, we also do have “The Onion”, a fake newspaper with outrageous headlines like “Pepsi to Cease Advertising”.  Most of the articles in The Onion are more relevant than those in the real newspapers.  I’ve noticed that after the first few humorous pages, “The Onion” has some of the best reviews anywhere.

After college I mostly switched to humorous novels instead of humor magazines.

Kimbofo at  Reading Matters recently listed the ten bleakest novels ever.  Most of these novels were very dark.  Now, as an antidote, I will print my personal list in no particular order of the funniest novels ever.

  • Lucky Jim  by Kingsley Amis      an English college riot
  • Confederacy of Dunces  by John Kennedy Toole     Masterpiece of “slob” literature
  • Catch-22 by  Joseph Heller      Military forces awry
  • Gulliver’s Travels  by Jonathan Swift    Travel to some very unusual places
  • At Swim-Two-Birds  by Flann O’Brian     A wild Irish tale
  • Candide  by Voltaire     an eternal French optimist
  • Don Quixote  by Miguel de Cervantes    “a hopeless romantic” or “romantic and hopeless”?
  • Cold Comfort Farm  by Stella Gibbons    Way down on the farm
  • The Good Soldier Schweik  by Jaroslav Hasek   the funny side of World War I
  • The Groves of Academe  by Mary McCarthy     Why is college so funny?
  • Pictures from an Institution  by Randall Jarrell    Is humor academic?
  • Oblomov  by Ivan Goncharov   a lazy Russian aristocrat
  • Scoop  by Evelyn Waugh      outlandish African news reporting
  • Firmin – Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife  by Sam Savage     autobiography of a literary rat
  • The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz  by Mordecai Richler    Young man on the make in Montreal

As you can see, no writer appears on this list twice.  Which writer came closest to appearing twice?  It probably would be Evelyn Waugh whose “The Loved One” is a fall-down hilarious putdown of the funeral business.  Honorable mention also goes to Peter De Vries who wrote many humorous novels including  “The Tunnel of Love” and *The Tents of Wickedness”.

I’m sure there are some great humorous novels I’ve missed.  I want to know what I’ve missed. What humorous novels should I also include?

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35 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent idea for a list! I used to love Mad magazine too. The best bit was folding the cover to create a new picture — remember that?

    I’ve only read Scoop off this list and agree that it’s very funny.

    I dont seem to read very many funny books, but I do recall laughing a lot at Time After Time by Molly Keane when I read it earlier this year.

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  2. Kimbofo, they have Mad magazine in England? Molly Keane – yes I’ve read “Time After Time” and “Good Behavior” both of which were excellent. For some reason at the time I didn’t classify them as just humorous novels probably because there was so much more to those novels than that.

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  3. No, this was when I was growing up in Australia. My Dad used to get it! He was a primary school teacher, so maybe it was classified as research, as all the kids were so into Mad magazine at the time (mid-1970s to early 1980s).

    I agree, Time After Time does have a lot more themes running through it; it’s quite dark and disturbing in places but I remember laughing a lot at the wickedness in some of the character’s behaviour.

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  4. Yes, I will add Molly Keane to my list when I print a follow-up list of glaring omissions to the original list. Another author I totally missed – Vladimir Nabokov – whose “Pale Fire” and “Pnin” surely should be on the list.

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  5. I always had a conflict about actually doing the Fold-In on the back cover of the Mad magazine. I didn’t want to bend up the new magazine, but I also wanted to see what it folded into. I would always try to figure out what the resulting picture would be and what the printing on the bottom of the page would say, without folding it.

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  6. Great post Tony, I shamefully havent read a single one of these books but I do have three of them on my TBR pile. Catch 22 is one I have been meaning to read for years and years and Scoop is one that I have been meaning to read for months and months. How do we end up never getting round to certain books?

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  7. Savidgereads, Thanks for stopping by. I have just been scanning the books on The Readers Table at Savidge Reads ( http://savidgereads.wordpress.com/savidge-reads-top-reads/ ), some fine books there. including “Rebecca”, “Brideshead Revisited”, and “On Chesil Beach”. Also very nice the way you present your site.

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  8. Tony,

    Enjoyed the post. There are some books I have been meaning to read and some I would have let pass by. Candide and Catch-22 are two of my all-time favorites.

    I was going to suggest Nabokov, but see you already remembered him without my help.

    Mark Twain is also essential, I think. My own pick would be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court a ready and willing alternate.

    Finally, I would add Vonnegut as an all-time great humorous author, though I would be more willing to make allowances for individual taste on this one. My own favorite is Cat’s Cradle, but Slaughterhouse-Five is more widely regarded as his best.

    Great list. Thanks!

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    • Kerry, happy you enjoyed my list. If there were one book from the list that I would recommend for everyone to read it would be “Don Quixote”. I know, 900+ pages, but it is light as a souffle’, and the latest translation is superb. This story of the Spanish knight Don Quixote through the eyes of his faithful servant Sancho Panza will leave a smile on your face for at least several years. Kurt Vonnegut – I liked some of his work including both of the books you mention, “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse Five”, but absolutely hated “Breakfast of Champions”. Mark Twain, yes, I love “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”, But there are some books I feel that transcend humor, and these are two. I definitely will put Mark Twain on my list of glaring omissions from my first list. You hinted at a few you would not have included; that keeps me very curious. .

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  9. Well, I could not fairly include books I have not read. By that, I mean that I do not disagree with any of your selections.

    I have been meaning to read Lucky Jim, At Swim Two Birds, and The Good Soldier Schweik, for instance. Firmin, on the other hand, has been given new life by you. You are a reminder and further example of the fact that I only know of people who rave about it. There must be something to that.

    Cold Comfort Farm is completely new to me. It sounds intriguing.

    By the way, I did not like Breakfast of Champions very much at all either, but, in my opinion, Timequake was his poorest effort. His best might actually be the short story Harrison Bergeron.

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    • Kerry,

      It’s good you mentioned “At Swim-Two-Birds”, because that is one of those novels, once you have read it, you will think you will never read anything better. At least that is what I thought at the time. From your blog entries, I can tell you have read enough different kinds of novels that you could appreciate one in heavy Irish dialect.

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  10. Posted by whisperinggums on October 24, 2009 at 11:29 PM

    What a great idea – an unbleak list. I’ve only read a few – Gullivers travels, At Swim Two Birds, and Candide. I should read Catch-22 – indeed I’ve started it! And I have read some Mordecai Richler short stories which I enjoyed. What can I add? Hmmm….Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is illuminated starts off funny but that doesn’t last! But, really, I haven’t read much that’s rollicking…that’s a bit sad isn’t it?

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    • Finally, someone who has read “At Swim-Two-Birds”! If it wasn’t for “Don Quixote”, that would probably be my selection for the most humorous novel ever. See my comment regarding “The Spare Room” by Helen Garner at your other post. I read “Everything is Illuminated”, and it didn’t quite do it for me either.

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  11. Posted by whisperinggums on October 25, 2009 at 3:34 AM

    LOL I haven’t read Don Quixote (I know, I know, slap my wrists) but At Swim Two Birds – which I only read a year or so ago is an astonishing romp isn’t it. You can’t help laughing…

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    • Don Quixote is 950 pages. The new translation is divided into two books, so that allowed me to count it as two books. It’s lighter than air and is so funny it is a breeze to read. The new translation, about 2004 or 2005, is perfect.

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  12. Nice idea! I’ve only read one of these books (Cold Comfort Farm) in its entirety, but I agree that it is very funny. I’ve also read parts of Gulliver’s Travels and remember getting some chuckles out of it.

    When I think of comic novels, my mind immediately goes to PG Wodehouse. His Jeeves and Wooster books belong on any best comic novels list. Also, Three Men and a Boat by Jerome Jerome.

    I had the same dilemma you did about those Mad magazine fold-outs. I’d always try to gently bend the two sides together without making a crease. I hated having a magazine with a creased back cover.

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  13. I agree with the nomination of Cat’s Cradle. In a similar vein, Tom Robbins can be funny, esp. in Another Roadside Attraction. I haven’t read Scoop yet, but Waugh’s Vile Bodies is laugh-out-loud. One I haven’t read yet but have heard good things about is Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Another one I haven’t read (but should mention since I’m Canadian) is Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Thomas Bernhard is often depressing, but there’s also some humour in his work. And I’ve heard that Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities is humorous, too.

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    • I know I did read “Diary of a Nobody” a long time ago, but don’t remember even if I liked it or not. I might give it another try. Stephen Leacock is a writer whose name I’ve encountered frequently as one of the classic Canadian writers, but haven’t read. For several years, Robertson Davies was my favorite writer in the whole world, and “Fifth Business” was my favorite book. Tom Robbins, I’ve tried but have not succeeded to read. It’s funny, I’ve read a lot of Thomas Bernhard, but haven’t considered him a humorous writer. “A Man without Qualities” is one of my favorite books of all time. Thanks for stopping by.

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  14. Posted by whisperinggums on October 30, 2009 at 10:18 AM

    Ah, I just remembered one I haven’t read for a long time – George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a nobody. I really should read it again.

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    • Yes, I distinctly remember reading “Diary of a Nobody”, but don’t remember my reaction to it at all. It’s interesting that it is written by two authors, that doesn’t happen very often.

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      • Posted by whisperinggums on October 31, 2009 at 1:11 AM

        In my other (one of them anyhow) life I do some Wikipedia editing. A couple of years ago I created the Category “Literary collaborations”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Literary_collaborations It’s interesting just how many there are…and I suspect there are many more out there that haven’t been captured yet.

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        • I can see collaborations for non-fiction, but not so much for fiction. Besides “Diary of a Nobody”, what other fiction is written by more than one writer?

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          • Hi Sue,
            i was looking at the list of literary collaborations. The one I found most interesting was the Goncourt brothers. They were not science fiction but novelists in the traditional sense. they did not write separately until one died at the age of 40. They wrote 6 novels together. Not much else on the list would be literature.

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            • Posted by whisperinggums on November 1, 2009 at 9:46 PM

              Hi Tony, I think you were replying to me not Kerry. The confusions of online communication eh? Oh yes, I do agree that few would be described as capital L literature. I guess I was responding to your thought that most were not fiction. It seems that a great majority of them are what I would call genre books ie fantasy and sci-fi. One collaboration that would be regarded as literature though is M. Barnard Eldershaw. Their first novel, A house is built, was an award winner in its time and is still regarded as part of the cannon of Aussie Literature. Louise Erdrich and her then husband Michael Dorris were also collaborators though only The crown of Columbus carries both their names.

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              • Hi WhisperingGums,
                Yes, you’re right, I royally(?) , mixed up the names there, sorry about that. Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris were from my current home city here in Minneapolis. Sad story when Michael Dorris committed suicide. I’ve read a lot of Louise Erdrich, and she is a fine writer. Interesting about that writer you mention, M. Barnard Eldershaw, being actually a collaboration. That would be the way to do it, come up with one name to use. I did a little detective work and learned that one of the two writers that were M.Barnard Eldershaw was Marjorie Barnard who is one of the short story writers you mentioned earlier. I also found out that the Minneapolis library has “The Persimmon Tree and other stories”, so I requested it.

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          • Posted by whisperinggums on October 31, 2009 at 6:19 AM

            Hi Tony … I think nearly all of titles in that Wikipedia list are fiction. All the titles in that list starting with B and C are fiction, for example. A lot of the fictional collaborations tend to be fantasy or science fiction, which is interesting eh.

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  15. Here’s another reputedly funny, co-authored work of fiction (that I haven’t read): Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery & James Schuyler.

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    • Praymont, I had not heard of “Nest of Ninnies”. I like novels written by poets, didn’t know that John Ashbery had ever written a novel. I visited your site, Philosophy, Lit, etc. –
      http://praymont.blogspot.com/
      I like its combination of philosophy and literature.

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      • Thanks, Tony. I’ve seen some witty snippets from the Ashbery book, but I’ve no idea how it works as a novel. Ashbery and Schuyler began writing it as a game — one would contribute a line, then the other would add the next line, and so on with no overall plan for the book.

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  16. Posted by whisperinggums on November 2, 2009 at 12:19 AM

    Good for you Tony – I mean re ordering the book (not your mixing up the names!! LOL. It’s hard keeping everything straight in this online world isn’t it?) Anyhow, let me know what you think when you’ve read the short stories. They are very much of their time and yet have a timelessness too I think. (I should have told you that about M Barnard Eldershaw.). Yes, that was sad about Dorris. I read and quite enjoyed the Columbus book but it hasn’t really stuck. I have an Erdrich next to my bed (and have had it there for years – The bingo palace – must get to it!)

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  17. I just saw this list of the ‘funniest works of fiction’, which was compiled by the Dalkey Archive Press and posted on Roger Boylan’s blog at:

    http://www.rogerboylan.com/the-snug/just-for-laughs

    It includes three books by Flann O’Brien.

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    • Hi Praymont,
      An interesting list. There are several books on there that I’ve read but didn’t think were all that humorous at the time. For example, Kafka’s “The Trial” – great novel, but I would never have included it on a list of humorous books. “Ulysees” was definitely humorous in places, but there was so much more to it than that.

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  18. I just read through the more recent comments and wanted to note that I was happy to see someone mention Tom Robbins. I really enjoyed his Jitterbug Perfume which I thought was quite funny. I had less success with another of his books, the title escapes me at the moment. So, maybe it has to be the right match of reader and novel in the case of Tom Robbins. Or I happened to pick the best of the bunch, though I know Jitterbug Perfume is not his most highly regarded work.

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