In January, February, and March, the Friday Book Club is looking at books by humorists. In honor of this, I give you Gateway Drugs: The Humor Edition!
Humor is personal and everyone likes something different. These humorists made some kind of lasting mark on literature with their humor writing.
I’m splitting this into three sections: The Classics, Those Wacky Brits, and The Crazy Americans. I have read things by authors from other countries, but it suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t read much humor writing by authors from Africa, South America, Australia, or Asia. If you have a favorite humorist, please share in the comments, especially if they are from one of the parts of the world I’ve neglected. Some of this neglect is because in general I’m just not as well-read when it comes to places other than Northern America and the British Isles and some may be because humor is difficult to translate. I’m not specifically listing Shakespeare’s comedies because you all know he’s funny, right? RIGHT?
Really, to try to keep the focus on novels is silly. Humor writing blurs all over the place – people read the plays, they act out scenes from novels, stand up comedians write down their sketches, and let’s not forget the joys of humorous poetry. In addition, some of the best humor is often found embedded in other genres. Joss Whedon is particularly famous for blending humor, drama, and horror. But I’m sticking to humorous novels here with one exception purely to narrow the field – which is huge. These aren’t necessarily my favorites so much as they are a small sample of selections that I think have had a big influence on genre.
Lysistrata, by Aristophanes
Our one play on the list, this is one of the earliest “battle of the sexes” stories and one of the earliest works in which humor is used to make a serious point. In this play, originally performed in 411BC in Greece, them women of Greece refuse to have sex with their husbands until their husbands end the Peloponnesian War. This play is poignant, funny, and gleefully risqué in it’s wordplay. Sample line: How true the saying: ‘Tis impossible to live with the baggages, impossible to live without ’em.”
The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes
Influential, funny, and sad, this is sometimes considered to be the first novel ever written (certainly it’s one of the earliest and most influential novels). Everyone interprets is differently but everyone agrees this novel is touching and important. Sample line: “Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”
Candide, by Voltaire
Why, hello, satire. This novel of snark and sarcasm follows the misadventures of Candide, an optimist who ends up having all kinds of terrible things happen to him until he becomes a pragmatist. Voltaire uses allegory to take on the establishment, much like Jonathon Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels, another incredibly influential humor novel (although modern readers tend to take it more as straight fantasy and miss the jokes). Sample line: “Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.”
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
The most influential romantic comedy since Shakespeare, Jane Austen launched a genre that remains beloved today. Sample line: ““For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Those Wacky Brits
The pinnacle of British humor is surely Monty Python’s Flying Circus. As far as modern novels go, I give you:
The Jeeves stories and novels, by P.G. Wodehouse
The stories of aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, give us some of the funniest wordplay and metaphors, and some of the craziest slapstick comedy, ever. Also, they permanently defined two archetypes – the twit of nobel birth and the servant with the level head who solves all problems. A whole parade of capable butlers followed in Jeeves wake (my personal favorites being Alfred, from Batman, and J.A.R.V.I.S., from Iron Man, but the list is not limited to science fiction and fantasy). And Wodehouse’s use of metaphor, simile and pun has never quite been matched although many have tried! Sample line: “The voice of love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number”.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
I’m not sure how to define the influence of the Hitchhiker books expect to say that I simply can’t imagine books without this series. Its wacky, bizarre, sardonic look at life influenced, well, everybody. Sample line, ““For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”
The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett created the sprawling, loosely connected series of books based in the fantasy Discworld universe. Each book is a satire of a different topic. For example, one of my favorite of his books, Maskerade, is a parody of Phantom of the Opera that turns into a loving deconstruction of the insane world of theater. His wordplay has influenced writers both in and out of science fiction and fantasy genre. For instance, Jennifer Crusie, who is best known for contemporary romance, cites him as an influence). Sample line: “But that was just it – hate was exactly the right word. Hate is a force of attraction. Hate is just love with its back turned.”
Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding
Love it or hate it, Bridget Jone’s Diary sparked a new genre, rather insultingly nicknamed “ChickLit”. This modern take on Pride and Prejudice launched a new genre and a million conversations about modern women. Sample line: “I looked at him nonplussed. I realized that I have spent so many years being on a diet that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness. Have reached point where believe nutritional idea is to eat nothing at all, and that the only reason people eat is because they are so greedy they cannot stop themselves from breaking out and ruining their diets.”
Those Crazy Americans
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Mark Twain had a glorious literary career during which he made fun of pretty much everybody. His book Tom Sawyer painted a picture of growing up in small town, pre-Civil War America that very much defined the ways people picture that period of time and way of life. But nowhere was he more scathing or his legacy more controversial and enduring than in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which a runaway outcast boy travels down the Mississipi River with a runaway slave. Sample line: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”
Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
This dark satire shows that war is not only cruel but also ridiculous. If you are a fan of films like M.A.S.H. and the literary works of Kurt Vonnegut, you owe a shootout to Catch-22. It also coined the phrase “Catch 22”), as seen in this sample quote: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown
Rubyfruit Jungle is a ground-breaking coming of age story (published in 1973) about a lesbian girl’s transition from being a child in the South to an aspiring author in the big city. It’s explicit and ribald and launched so many coming of age stories that people sometimes criticize the book for being cliche, forgetting that this book originated the elements that became cliche later on. It’s not unlike a lesbian Sex in the City. Sample line: “Whoever heard of a neurotic frog? Where do humans get off thinking they’re the pinnacle of evolution?”