Irish comedians' favourite funny novels
Looking for an amusing read? Ask comic geniuses Kevin McAleer, Tara Flynn, Maeve Higgins, Arthur Mathews, Kevin and Anne Gildea, Owen O’Neill and Ian McPherson
I have always loved funny novels. If the Famous Five, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators were my gateway drugs to thrillers, detective stories and mystery novels, then the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge and the Just William stories by Richmal Crompton led me to Evelyn Waugh, Martin Amis, David Lodge and Tom Sharpe – his Apartheid-era South African novels Indecent Exposure and Riotous Assembly are outrageously funny, or they were to me when I was a teenager.
The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller stick in my mind as comedic greats of my youth. More recently, I have loved Me Cheeta by James Lever, Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Love Nina and Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe.
The inventive genius of Flann O’Brien and the effortless wit of Oscar Wilde are two world-famous poles of great Irish comic writing, but a little-known gem that I read more than once as a teenager is No Time for Work, about a determinedly idle schoolteacher, by George Ryan, who was for 44 years The Irish Times bridge correspondent. There are some great comic scenes too in Lead Us Into Temptation by Breandán Ó hEithir, originally published in Irish as Lig Sinn i gCathú, the first and possibly only Irish-language book ever to top Ireland’s hardback bestseller list. The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy was great fun as were The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthasar B and The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman. More recently, I loved Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney is also shot through with dark humour.
However, I haven’t read a really funny novel in a while, so I asked a gaggle of Irish comedians to recommend their favourite comic novels and share their thoughts on the difference between successful stand-up and comic writing.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Stand-up comedy when it’s done well, which it rarely is, tells some truth about the times we are living in. The same goes for great comic novels, through their fiction we see what’s actually real. Catch-22 is a heart-wrenchingly hilarious depiction of the futility of war and At Swim-Two-Birds dives us a demented glimpse at the state of Irish culture. I was gifted my copy of Cold Comfort Farm by the Australian comedy writer Nick Coyle. I trust his taste when it comes to what is funny but for some reason the novel lay unread on my bookshelf for a year. I think the setting, rural England, and the main character, Flora Poste, a sort of brisk know it all, put me off. Then, on a plane to somewhere, I really got into it. I found myself laughing hard at many parts, shaking my head in recognition at others, and feeling very warmed by the sweet humanity of the writing by the time I’d finished the book. Stella Gibbons’ writing is clever and funny in such an offhand and light of touch way, it is a joy to read. The plot is quite simple, Flora moves to the countryside to live with her rough cousins, the Starkadders, and tries to effect change on them, to organize their lives and generally make everything more pleasant. Meanwhile there’s a domineering aunt, the brilliantly named Ada Doom, who serves as a brilliant foil to our heroine. I love that the lead character is a young woman, as was the author when she wrote it. Her tone is subversive, mocking the rustic romance novels with thoughtful young men at the centre, a huge trope at the time of publication in 1932. To be great, a comic novel must have great jokes, strong characters, some politics, however opaque, and a lot of heart. Otherwise it won’t hit home, or stay there with you, the way Cold Comfort Farm does.
Zany Afternoons by Bruce McCall
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Someone gave me a copy of Zany Afternoons by Bruce McCall 30 years ago and it’s still my favourite funny book. McCall is a (quite brilliant) illustrator and writer who’s had his worked published regularly in the New Yorker, National Lampoon and Esquire. This is a compilation of some of his best work. It’s largely parodies of car advertisements, travel brochures, postcards etc. One of my favourite pieces is a “brochure” for The Tyrannic ocean liner: “She is so safe, she carries no insurance”; “The ship’s daily newspaper has a larger circulation that the Bombay Times”. It would be my Desert Island Discs book – and no one’s ever selected a picture book to take away with them on that mythical island.
I read Portnoy’s Complaint about 10 years ago, and it’s certainly the funniest novel I’ve read. It’s quite rude, but if you do that kind of stuff, you have to go completely over the top and take no prisoners. Philip Roth goes all the way. Laugh out loud funny. I literally laughed out loud when I was reading it in France.
Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
Murphy by Samuel Beckett
How the Dead Live by Will Self
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
I haven’t read many novels, comic or not- you’re more likely to find me curled up with a good haiku. I did enjoy Spike Milligan’s Puckoon as a teenager, and the follow-up Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall, with its pithy prologue: “After Puckoon I swore I would never write another novel. This is it...” In college a lot of people were into Flann O’Brien, but I struggled to get on board. I always seemed to be reading him on a smoky Dublin-Derry bus, which probably didn’t help. Maybe I should try again without the smoke.
Saul Bellow makes me laugh out loud, but his novels are so much more than comic. I suppose the best laughs take you by surprise, and come in a wider context of great writing on the human condition. Compassion is a key element. I can’t think of much stand-up comedy where the writing would work in a purely written form- Stewart Lee springs to mind, but nobody else. My top five:
Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow; Murphy, Samuel Beckett; How the Dead Live, Will Self; Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol; I’ve run out.
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
How can any discussion of comic novels – or even of comedy in general – not mention The Third Policeman at least once? (I’ll bet everyone picks it.) There’s a sad sort of symmetry, given the plot and sixth sense style reveal, that it wasn’t published till shortly after Flann O’Brien’s death, having failed to find a publisher while he lived. True, it can be tricky, with its mix of dark comedy and philosophical exploration. But it’s become one of his most enduring and beloved texts. What’s not to love about thievery, murderous intent, bicycles, a talking soul, a strange police station, bicycles, an incredible cast of are-they-or-aren’t-they? characters, life, death, good, evil and bicycles? And, of course, beautiful turns of phrase. I can’t think of many Irish comedians doing interesting work who haven’t been influenced by their love of this novel. A London-based comedian I know recently said to me, “To my shame, I’ve only read one Flann O’Brien book. But in my defence, it was The Third Policeman. That’s alright, isn’t it?” It is, my friend. It is.
Soaked in Seaweed by tephen Leacock
The Serial by Cyra McFadden
When The Professor Got Stuck In The Snow by Dan Rhodes
When I was about 10 I read Stephen Leacock’s Soaked in Seaweed. It’s one of his Nonsense Novels. I found it very funny, but what I particularly remember is thinking “At last! Somebody out there understands me.” Wodehouse and Flann O’Brien followed, the latter for his masterpiece, The Third Policeman. I’ve read several funny books since then, and what they all have in common is the writer’s individual tone. Try The Serial by Cyra McFadden, about West Coast America in the ’70s, or I’m Alice, I Think by Susan Juby. The most recent novel I’ve read with the ability to make me splatter the far wall with hot chocolate is When The Professor Got Stuck In The Snow by Dan Rhodes.
The term “The Comic Novel” places the dead hand of respectability on, well, the comic novel. The above-mentioned are funny books. You may not agree with me. Go ahead. I’ll defend to the death your right to be wrong. But on to standup. Great art form. I did it for a number of years. I then switched to the written word. I deal with the switch in my current one-man show, The Everlasting Book Tour. My sole tweet on the subject reflects the level of hysteria which greeted it on its Irish debut: Ten days after my Listowel triumph @writersweek and still being mobbed by ecstatic female fans. In Glasgow! Now down to my underpants.
On the slightly less positive side I haven’t managed to crack the bestseller list yet, but here’s the opening paragraph of my first novel, Deep Probings.
“It is not for me to draw parallels between my own life and that of Christ. But ponder this: I entered public life in millennial times. I wrote my masterpiece in a two hour burst after a twenty nine year gestation period. And true, Christ was crucified while I was merely held on remand, but I’m willing to bet he experienced similar difficulties getting the Bible published. This is the trouble with genius. When the film rights are eventually sold it can often be up to two thousand years too late for the author to cash in.”
I sometimes feel I may, subconsciously, have been referring to myself. So why do I do it? Simple. I write so that I’ll have something funny to read when I grow old. On! On!
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
The first favourite comic novel that comes to mind is Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons. It’s a while since I read it, but I recall being blown away by how sharp and contemporary Gibbons’ comedy writing felt. For a novel published in 1932 – a parody, apparently, of pastoral romantic pot-boilers popular at the time – it’s timelessly funny.
More of this time – I loved Ireland’s Favourite Failure, the last novel published by Ireland’s top comedy curmudgeon Karl MacDermott (currently writer-in-residence in his home). Framed as a series of articles by the protagonist, written for the fictional Galway literary magazine, The Corrib Swan Quarterly, I read it aloud to my fellow Nualas driving back from gigs, and we laughed the length and breath of Ireland. Right now I’m in love with the latest Ross O’Carroll-Kelly – Game of Throw-ins. The passage where Ross is confused, mid-match, about the line-out codes the captain has assigned is one of the funniest things I’ve come across in print.
I’ve published one comic novel myself, Deadlines & Dickheads (O’Brien Press) – an unfortunate funny-peculiar thing about it being the title. When doing promotional radio interviews, producers asked me not to mention it (some promotion!) for fear of listener offence. I didn’t chose it, but neither did I come up with anything better. Lesson number one for any author, put as much effort into the title as you have into writing the blithering thing.
Writing stand-up compared to comic novels? Stand-up starts with nubs of observation and other information, whittled into their pithiest, funniest expression woven into some manner of a presentable “stage set”, rewritten and adjusted according to audience response – an ad hoc and evolving process. In my work with The Nualas that element is combined with comic song – the challenge there to come up with a comic arc, wherein each line is funny, building to a satisfying whole, encapsulated, ideally, in a final summarising gag. We bin about three songs for every one that makes it into our final stage-show sets. But all those elements of material – they’re short!
The big difference with novel writing is, obviously, just that - bigness. A novel, woah, that mass of prose, of character, narrative, style and notions, watching it morph on your computer in ways you didn’t expect, editing those 150,000 words you spent the last six months writing down to the five you still find funny, starting all over again, staring down the screen until the proverbial drops of blood form on your forehead – all on your own-e-oh at your little desk, just you and your tiny head, in a constant conversation comprised of a single question: What the feck am I doing?
Personally, coming from stage comedy, I find sustained narrative structure the toughie - the overall “story” bit. “We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world” goes the cliche. “But the world doesn’t make sense... and we’re bombarded with ‘stories’ 24/7, everywhere, anyway, these days and fat help they all are, as we still accelerate towards imminent environmental Armageddon,” I think every time I sit down to write that difficult second comic novel.
Which reminds me of my final favourite “comic” novel, the hilariously-nihilistic Atomised by Michel Houellebecq. I love that book: less laugh-out-loud funny, more snigger-in-the-dark-night-of-your-soul ha-ha. Bleak as bejaney, but hey, as they say, funny cause it’s true.
Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills
Deadlines and Dickheads by Anne Gildea
Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Voldine
Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills is a very funny book. The humour derives from a deadpan style that gradually builds up to generate laugh-out-loud moments. I once gave a copy to a person and they didn’t get the humour of the tone so found it to be a straight story. If you don’t read the tone in a certain way there is no humour. There are no gags or set pieces. There was one incident in the book that for me punctured the tone and spoilt it slightly. Writing any book is a tightrope walk of keeping the tone balanced but particularly in comic fiction, like in stand-up comedy - there are no gradients: it’s either laugh or not laugh – On or Off – it’s a binary appreciation society.
Anne Gildea’s (relation) novel Deadlines and Dickheads is a very, very funny novel trapped in a horrible pink cover with a bad name. The comedy is of a contemporary observational type and has many hilarious setpieces – one in particular that involves a three-way interaction of characters.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland is a beautiful template for a three-way interaction scene. Here the crazy logic accepted as reality provides the comedy and the sleepy mouse is a gem of a character.
In stand-up comedy the comedy unit can be a gag or a short bit or a longer story layered of mini bits...with a novel, to carry the distance there needs to be a larger architectural skeleton – a storyline or a strong central character – to sustain interest to the end.
In Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Voldine there are seven stories that are very funny but the middle one is deliberately hilarious – some of the funniest stuff I’ve read in a while. With the aim of the book there is a reason for this but a slight part of its hilarious impact is the unexpectedness of the hilarity when contrasted to the preceding stories. Often the funniest things anyone will experience are accidental comic moments in real life.
A novel allows shades of light and dark...laughter can be held back to punctuate longer moments of exposition or passages of other tonal quality.
In stand-up you’ve got to have a laugh quotient that is higher....there is more immediate pressure. With a novel you can explore different ways of generating the golden grail of the laugh-out-loud moment. And the even goldener grail of belly laughs and empathy.
There are many other books that I have laughed out loud at. So many that one day I hope to write a big article about them.
Kevin Gildea is a comedian, writer and reviewer who is currently inserting a last laugh-out-loud moment into his nearly finished novel Audience
Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I’m not sure about “funny” but Charles Bukowski made me laugh a lot. My favourite book of his is Tales of Ordinary Madness. A book of short stories, some of which are only five pages long. Bukowski is low-life literature at its very best. His honesty is what hooked me and the fact that most of the time he’s not trying to be funny at all. I love that kind of humour. His passion is extreme, he’s tender and vicious and malignant, sometimes in the same sentence. He has titles like Great Poets die in steaming pots of shit, Rape! Rape! and Notes from a potential suicide. He loathed pretension and fought against it in his writing all of his life.
A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the funniest book I’ve ever read. John Kennedy Toole killed himself in 1969 when he was 32 and the book wasn’t published until 1980. His mother found it in a cupboard.
The main character, Ignatius J Reilly, has been described as a modern day Don Quixote which is an accurate description but I thought he came across more like Oliver Hardy. He’s in revolt against the modern world. Doesn’t understand it. He’s a social misfit who always says the wrong thing, a walking catastrophe dressed in tweed even on the hottest day. It is set in New Orleans and is peppered with some weird and wonderful characters who Ignatius meets along the way. Darlene, a stripper in the Night of Joy Bar, who trains a cockatoo to take her clothes off. George, a juvenile delinquent. who says he’s an orphan but sells porn to school children.
All human life is there. This book was a big influence on me.