Funnily enough, when the world is going to hell in a tumbril, the last thing I want to read are Ten Terrifying Tomes about the End Times. I want a list of books that are guaranteed to distract and entertain me, that will raise my spirits and put a smile back on my face, that might even make me laugh out loud.
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.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane 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 (the outrageous memoir by the real star of the Tarzan franchise), 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, Problems by Jade Sharma and A Fraction Of The Whole by Steve Toltz.
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 too. More recently, I loved Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney and Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen are also shot through with dark humour. The Road to Notown and Getting Used to Not Being Remarkable by Michael Foley are two other dark gems from the North.
Below, a range of writers share their favourites.
The first really funny books I read were Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, with their gleefully anarchic child’s world in which adults feature only as the butt of the jokes. They are still marvellous, even if you are not 10 years old.
The Miller’s Tale from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a tonic for the filthy-minded. It has sex, religion, (literal) arse-kissing, fart jokes and (aptly for these times) a screamingly funny burlesque of apocalyptic dread. I also like it because the impoverished intellectual gets the girl, an outcome that shows there is some justice in the world.
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a real hoot, a devastatingly clever parody of Gothic fiction. Austen’s eye for folly is unerring but she is never misanthropic – witheringly sceptical without being corrosively cynical. A modern companion to it is Caroline Blackwood’s hilariously creepy Great Granny Webster and the same antic spirit is abroad in Molly Keane’s glorious Good Behaviour. Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper is a delightful reminder of the comic joy that can be squeezed out of ordinary life, even amid dark events.
But if you really want to get lost in crazy parallel universes, the two great fictional worlds are Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (the first two parts are the most immediately amusing) and Flann O’Brien’s incomparable At Swim-Two-Birds, a cornucopia of exuberant parodies, sly Dublin wit, Rabelaisian jokes and (barely) controlled madness.
Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is Three Years in Hell: The Brexit Chronicles
For warm belly laughs, you need Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where ridiculous set-pieces featuring literature’s most lovable rogues flow into sharp observations on everything from social class to effective government. You don’t have to begin at the beginning. Start with Pratchett’s wonderful witches in Equal Rites, or meet the extremely colourful cast of the City Watch in Guards! Guards! My own favourite is the divisive Monstrous Regiment. This standalone Discworld novel may seem like a slight, frivolous thing, but between the puns and silliness there’s deeper reflections on religion, war, gender and duty.
For readers who’ve already been to Ankh-Morpork and back again, I recommend Mark Dunn’s Ibid. A tale told entirely in footnotes for a biography the author’s agent destroyed by dropping in the bath demands a little effort, but this hilarious oddity is well worth your energy. This is (most of) the story of Jonathan Blashette, an unlucky-in-love, three-legged circus performer turned deodorant baron, and there is so much fun to be had making sense of Dunn’s daft but beautifully-written asides.
Lisa McInerney’s latest novel is The Blood Miracles
Comedy is a serious business. Sparkling, mordant and hilarious novels about death and life (and death in life) include Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, Nicola Barker’s fatally good Darkmans and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. There’s wisdom, madness and hilarity, in the short stories of Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Kevin Barry and June Caldwell.
The idea of classics as unfunny “duty reads” is easily dispelled by the comedic wonders of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinke – and, yes, Jane Austen is funny as well as witty.
Ishmael Reed’s antic, anarchic novels, Mumbo Jumbo and The Terrible Twos, are a tremendous tonic and forebears to Paul Beatty’s sharp and witty satire The Sellout. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s wild and witchy Lolly Willowes and Barbara Comyns’s macabre Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead are comedic complements to one another. Two underrated, and very funny novels, are Donald Antrim’s acute and strange The Hundred Brothers and Anthony Cronin’s sharp tale of exile and bohemia, The Life of Riley. The Parts by Keith Ridgway is a superb, multi-voiced portrait of Dublin, and its sadness is shot through with irresistible dark comedy. I have just read Eley Williams’s forthcoming novel The Liar’s Dictionary, a singular, hilarious, word-drunk novel, which I suspect will be seen in the future as a classic comic novel.
David Hayden is author of Darker with the Lights On
As a young girl, perhaps between 10 and 12, I was mildly obsessed with the film Sister Act 2, which was a blend of my two interests at the time: theatre and Mass. It stars Whoopi Goldberg as a fake nun on the run who is always pulling at her nun costume as if to indicate it’s too hot and tight for a cool customer such as her, Whoopi Goldberg. When I served Mass I felt the same about my robes – this exaggerated discomfort, pulling theatrically at the neck while also trying to look pious.
I spent a long time trying to figure out what I liked about Sister Act 2 (good energy, nice songs, Whoopi Goldberg) and what I didn’t like about Mass (boring). Eventually I figured out what I didn’t like about Mass was the total absence of silliness. How could we take ourselves so seriously when we were all essentially in fancy dress performing elaborate dances? Sister Act 2 informed every single thought I had about religion until I was 28 and read Patricia Lockwood’s comic memoir Priestdaddy.
Priestdaddy is somehow both outrageous and highly sensitive; both recklessly funny and deeply serious. I would argue that no writer alive (with the exception of maybe Donald Antrim) can build, sentence-by-sentence, to a punchline like Lockwood. And she loves language. Not in the dull, reverential way that some writers love language. She wants to play with it. What I’m saying is – she’s very silly. I believe silliness to be an underrated quality.
Encountering Priestdaddy is the only time in my adult life that I recreated the incredible feeling of watching Sister Act 2. Lockwood definitely would, if it was required, shrug off her religious robes and perform a bad rap. When I read Priestdaddy in public I was laughing so hard that someone, quite politely, asked me to shut up.
Nicole Flattery is author of Show Them A Good Time
Alan Bennett has been funny for a long time, though he would probably deny it. He has had a celebrated career as a playwright and screenwriter, but it is in his diaries that we get a sense of what his humour must be like to live with. Like this from Writing Home: “11 December : New York. I am having supper at The Odeon when word goes round the tables that John Lennon has been shot. ‘This country of ours,’ sighs my waiter. ‘May I tell you the specials?’”
Nora Chassler is the best writer you’ve never heard of. Madame Bildungsroman’s Optimistic Worldview is a collection of tweet-size conversation fragments with a papier-mâché dummy of an old woman. Helpful advice for writers too: “A newly-adored writer is a fun house mirror for readers’ projections; a writer for whom it’s old hat is a corpse strapped into a roller coaster.”
Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo (translated by Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey) is the zesty story of a young film extra in Beijing trying to find her feet: “Heavenly Bastard in the Sky, these cockroaches were sadomasochists, looking for the most painful way to die. Once I swallowed one absent-mindedly drinking my tea. Traumatised, I rang the local chemist. The voice on the line was gently reassuring: cockroaches were not poisonous, ingesting one would cause me no harm. Though, the chemist added, in terms of protein they were not as nutritious as snails.”
Rónán Hession is author of Leonard & Hungry Paul
If I was told that at the party I would be sitting next to a funny, witty person my heart would sink a little at the prospect of an evening stuck with an exhausting and self-regarding bore. I feel the same way about the comic novel, and so prefer humour by stealth in books that don’t set out in any self-conscious way to be amusing. Jade Sharma’s Problems, although undeniably dark in subject, is life-affirming in its singular, funny perspective on the world. My daughter and I can quote different lines at each other for a laugh.
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane I re-read every year for the comically limited perspective of its monstrous and compelling unreliable narrator, Aroon St Charles. The Psychedelic Confessions of a Primal Screamer by ex-tambourine player Martin St John is a fizzy, brilliantly ramshackle book about being in a band. St John’s love of music is totally infectious but more than that, so many of the anecdotes and observations just crack me up. The Henry Root Letters is a book that I bought as a teenager. It’s a collection of spoof letters to establishment figures and includes – quite incredibly – their real responses. I still find it funny. It set me off on a spree of sending my own fake letters to various individuals. Sorry in retrospect for that.
Wendy Erskine is the author of Sweet Home
My go-to funny book which is free and in the public domain is Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K Jerome. This is the book that disproves the adage that humour does not age well. From the same era Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad is equally hilarious (and there’s a fun bit on breaking a quarantine in Athens).
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be amused by PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Psmith books and Evelyn Waugh’s first five novels are Wodehouse with a slice of sarcasm and bitter irony on the side. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett wrote in the Wodehousian tradition and Adams’s first four Hitchhiker books hold up well.
If you like surreal with your funny I recommend Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and Hunter S Thompson’s delirious Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (the bathtub scene in the latter had me on the floor).
Stunningly apropos to our present nightmare however is Ottessa Moshfegh’s brilliant My Year of Rest and Relaxation about a young woman who refuses to leave her house for a year. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that but if it does her advice (take a lot of drugs and watch Whoopi Goldberg movie marathons) is probably one not to take.
Adrian McKinty’s latest novel is The Chain
Humour is all about style for me so my favourite funny authors are serious stylists. Wendy Erskine’s deadpan dry style is deeply funny, her comic timing perfect. Such a treat to hear her read from her story collection Sweet Home at Imagining Ireland in the Barbican this January. Rachel Cusk’s gorgeous prose is studded with hilarious observational gems. Her wicked comedy The Country Life combines Jane Eyre and Cold Comfort Farm along with the true-to-life absurdity of Alice in Wonderland. Just writing about it now makes me want to read it again! Elizabeth Taylor’s humour is quiet but deadly especially in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont Hotel. Fine humour is dotted through her Collected Stories. Flann O’Brien is high on the list, in particular that existential soufflé of absurdity The Third Policeman. And because I have only room for one more – PG Wodehouse, the king of stylists. In his essay, Dingley Dell and the Fleet, WH Auden described Wodehouse as “an expert on Eden” and it is true. To slip between the covers of a Wodehouse novel is to wander into a strange blissful truth. His characters can’t be forgotten. I recommend Summer Lightning and Joy in the Morning.
Martina Evans’ latest work is Now We Can Talk Openly About Men
One of the funniest novels I’ve read is LJ Davis’s A Meaningful Life, which is undoubtedly a bit black as humour goes, but very definitely funny – think Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. It tells the story of a middle-aged man, Lowell Lake, who seems to have reached a cul de sac in his life and in order to give himself something to do, buys and renovates an old house “of surpassingly opulent hideousness”. It will also cheer you up because you’re not Lowell Lake.
In laughs-per-page, there is one supreme champion: The Onion’s Our Dumb Century, which provides spoof newspaper front pages for the major events of the last hundred-and-something years, including WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICEBERG, TELE-VISION PROMISES MASS ENRICHMENT OF MANKIND and HOLY SHIT. MAN WALKS ON FUCKING MOON.
In this feature there may well be people above and below me recommending the various novels of PG Wodehouse– a Blandings here, a Wodehouse there. They are all wrong: his supreme achievement is Leave it to Psmith. Accept no substitutes.
John Self is a critic
Who better for sure-fire laughs than the greatest comedian of the twentieth century? Eric Morecambe Unseen, edited by William Cook, is a collection of diaries, jokes, and routines, illustrated by a mix of family snaps and publicity photographs. While both Morecambe and Wise were known for their insistence on perfection, straight man Ernie could switch off once the camera stopped rolling, whereas Eric, a heavy drinker and smoker, found it impossible to relax. His diaries are full of sharp one-liners (Fiddler on the Roof: “a one man show with about eighty in the cast”) and goofy asides (“the average man could be replaced by a hot water bottle”). A January 1976 letter from Spike Milligan opens, “Dear Lads, Re grinning Des O’Connor on your Programme”, then berates them for missing an opportunity for “the greatest squelcher line” on their Christmas TV show. Eric and Ernie were best mates who deliberately kept an office hours partnership; they never stayed at the same hotel and rarely socialised together. This brief exchange in the chapter Keep Going, You Fool is right for today: Wise asks “When will this torture end?”, and Morecambe replies “I don’t know. What time does the curtain come down?”
Henrietta McKervey’s latest novel is A Talented Man
The Information by Martin Amis, about the unhinged rivalry between two novelists, is a novel anyone involved in the literary life might find funny; it consistently makes me cry with laughter. However, like the same author’s Money, or his father’s Ending Up, or early Evelyn Waugh, or all of Edward St Aubyn, there is something a little too dark, too savage, too unsettling about it to work for me in the current unpleasantness; other’s nerves might be stronger.
There’s Nancy Mitford, of course, and Anita Loos and Dorothy Parker and Nora Ephron. The Best of Myles is maybe the funniest single book ever, but everyone knows that. Simon Gray’s diaries, all eight volumes, are ragingly funny, and his plays hold up; indeed, weirdly, they seem to work better now on the page than on the stage. Richmal Crompton’s William Brown stories still make me laugh, as do Michael Bond’s Paddington series and Willans & Searle’s St Custard’s books.
But if I must identify as a grown-up, I’ll plump for The Benchley Roundup. Robert Benchley was a fixture at the Algonquin Round Table and a minor Hollywood star. As a comic essayist – writing in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker – he seems to me to have weathered the years better than Thurber or Perelman, his great contemporaries.
Ask That Man, in which a husband, exasperated by his wife’s insistence that he seek travel directions from strangers, undertakes to do the opposite of what he is told; The Tortures of Weekend Visiting, in which host and guest listen anxiously at respective bedroom doors for one another to rise as morning turns to night; The Sunday Menace, in which the mooted remedy for the Sunday afternoon malaise is to set fire to the house; pastiches of opera synopses and strategies to repel your friends’ holiday anecdotes: it’s gentle, quirky, arch, observational, middlebrow fare and it’s very, very funny. And it’s in print!
Declan Hughes’ latest novel is All The Things You Are
I wasn’t yet thirteen and three-quarters the first time I read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. By that age Adrian had fallen in love with the treacle-haired Pandora, befriended the elderly beetroot-loving philistine Bert Baxter, navigated his parents’ disastrous marriage and evolved from “the sort of boy who had sand kicked in his face” into “the sort of boy who watches somebody else have it kicked in their face”.
I think I was actually about eleven-and-a-half when I first read Sue Townsend’s book and likely failed to understand at least a third of her razor-sharp 1980s social observations, ironic wit and wonderful turn of phrase. In the years since, I’ve read Adrian’s diaries over and over again and each time I do I find something new to laugh at – a fresh layer of humour and pathos. I’m only sad that Townsend is no longer with us, and we’ll never know what Adrian might have made of this pandemic, but at least we have her precious words to return to to help us through the crisis.
Emer McLysaght is co-author with Sarah Breen of the Aisling series
Measured in actual laughs – a hard currency that has been devalued by the age of emojis – the funniest book I’ve ever read is Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys. It’s not what critics would call literature. It’s just a consistently hilarious, over-the-top study of the male psyche. But of course, a big part of the reason it’s so funny is that it also contains a disturbing amount of truth.
For many years, Barry wrote a weekly column in the Miami Herald, syndicated to half the newspapers in the US. In the book’s blurb, PJ O’Rourke called him America’s “best-known, best liked, most successful humor writer”. Speaking of pandemics, O’Rourke added: “We would call him ‘beloved’ if only he were older and had a fatal disease”.
Like all funny columnists, Barry had a bag of tricks the reader got to know eventually, so that it became harder for him to surprise laughter out of you. His bag was bigger than most. Even so, I’d be afraid to reread the book now in case it doesn’t work anymore.
Humour is also a personal thing, which makes me hesitant to urge him on others. My cautionary tale is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which many insist is a comic masterpiece. I finally forced myself through it a few years ago, stony-faced, and am still wondering if it’s me or him.
Frank McNally writes The Irishman’s Dary in The Irish Times
Kit de Waal
My very easy choice is Me Talk Pretty One Day by the essayist and commentator David Sedaris. I bought the book as I often do on the title alone, it just made no sense but it refers to one of the funniest chapters in the book.
This book is Sedaris’ memoir, the first half is about his life growing up as a gay boy in a very bohemian Greek family in North Carolina. His siblings all try and outdo one another with their strange ways and his father solves every difficulty by playing loud jazz records. Sedaris was teased at school for having a lisp and a wonderful scene in the book is about his attempts to never use the letter “s” in class. The second half of the book is about his move to France with his partner Hugh and him taking French lessons. The title of the book is his bad translation of “One day I will be able to speak French really well”.
I read this book in a couple of bellyaching days and then gave it to my brother when he went into the Big Brother house in 2001. The book did the rounds of housemates. I used to watch them on the television rolling around and reading bits out to one another. It’s wonderful.
Kit de Waal’s latest novel is The Trick to Time
The first “grown up” books to make me properly laugh out loud was Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on Adams’s radio series of the same name. It’s about a man named Arthur Dent who is rescued from Earth before its destruction to make way for an intergalactic superhighway. Dent spends the rest of the story (a five-part trilogy) travelling through space while dressed in pyjamas and a dressing gown. It was the first time that I realised humanist absurdism was a good way to cope with existential anxiety and potential catastrophe. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book within these books, even came labelled with a very helpful instruction on its cover: “Don’t Panic”. I wear a pyjamas and a dressing gown a lot at the moment.
Before I read these, I’d already been primed for solitary laughter by reading about Richmal Crompton’s self-serious William Brown and Sue Townsend’s self-serious Adrian Mole who are still, now that I’m an adult, very, very funny. My wife Anna Carey’s excellent books for kids – the Rebecca series and the Mollie books – are cut from the same cloth.
In more recent years I’ve been rendered helpless with laughter by Gideon Defoe’s brilliantly silly The Pirates! adventure books (The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon) and the epically petty I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan and Nomad written by disgraced television host Alan Partridge (really Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Rob and Neil Gibbons).
My very favourite books, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, aren’t exactly “funny”. but those authors have a dark sense of humour that makes me laugh, especially when I’m in a weird mood. I’m in a weird mood a lot these days.
Patrick Freyne’s OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea is out in May
All the books I really love, even the most serious ones, were written by people with a sense of humour. If someone has a sense of the absurd I think it always comes out somewhere, whether they’re Kafka or PG Wodehouse. And the books that influenced my sense of humour the most are probably Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans’s The Compleet [sic] Molesworth, Richmal Crompton’s William stories, Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole and Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe books. I read them all as a kid, but they’re just as, if not more, funny as an adult.
Ever since I picked up my dad’s copy of Very Good, Jeeves aged 11 I’ve adored PG Wodehouse. I read Great Expectations and discovered how hilarious Dickens could be. When I was 14 I fell in love with Nancy Mitford, whose novels made me laugh and also taught me about the Spanish civil war. I’ve always had a thing for comic writing from the first half of the 20th century, especially ones with a streak of oddness and subversion; two of my favourites are EF Benson’s delicious Mapp and Lucia books, featuring the joyfully queer Quaint Irene, and EM Delafield’s sneakily feminist Diary of A Provincial Lady.
The more recent books that have made me laugh the most are Kate Davies’s In At The Deep End and all of Nina Stibbe’s books. There’s a bit about babies in Stibbe’s last novel, Reasons To Be Cheerful, that made me laugh so much I had to lie down. There aren’t enough writers who can do that; the ones that can deserve our gratitude and all the honours we can throw at them.
Anna Carey’s latest novel is Mollie on the March
“Funny” novels tend to be, on the whole, about as funny as a dose of piles. Those novels I find funny are more than funny, but that too. Just finished Anne Enright’s Actress. Few reviews said how absolutely hilarious it is. Enright skewers beautifully those creepy provincial aesthetes of Dublin of the sixties and seventies. A dramatisation of the life of Dorcas Kelly – “Zooks, Madame, is that a knife you wield?” – made me spray the room. Elaine Feeney’s just-out As You Were is about a cancer ward, but still seriously funny. Feeney has a great ear for dialogue and the exchanges between women who might never have crossed paths are brilliantly done.
And from the vaults? The Sportswriter by Richard Ford. Achingly beautiful, but also a riot. There’s the failed interview with a wheelchair-bound ex-footballer who is sick of being “inspirational”, a Midwest college staffed by allusive, supercilious kids who treat the writer-in-residence with thinly-suppressed derision (familiar), and a dog called Elvis Presley. A Sentimental Journal, overshadowed by Tristram Shandy, is still Laurence Sterne’s funniest book. Years ago I read Bilton by Andrew Martin. The book disappeared, but I still remember how hard I laughed. A young journalist curates weekly lifestyle features such as Me and My Pen and What I Did Yesterday, and his surly pal becomes a national celeb for throwing a cup of coffee at the PM. Withnail & I meets Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. Easily worth the pennies it must now cost online.
Conor O’Callaghan’s second novel, We Are not in the World, is out in April
Like most readers I have weak points and blind spots: I tend to approach new books so seriously, so gravely, that when I encounter humour I note it, rather than just let myself laugh. It’s not a great trait. Here are two books that were so funny I got over myself:
It’s the toughest time ever to be a debut, but Naoise Dolan is so talented I hope and believe it won’t put pause to her success. I’ve been yelling about Exciting Times to anyone who’ll listen; it’s incisive, touching and hilarious. There’s a line in it wondering whether one of the characters, a posh idiot, is really a person, or just three Mitford sisters in a big coat – I still cackle whenever I think of it. Do yourself (and your favourite bookshop) a huge solid and pre-order it!
Here’s what I love about Filter This by Sophie White: it’s revolting, and there’s nothing as disarming or as hilarious to me as a description of a wannabe Instagrammer falling asleep with her hand firmly tucked into a container of curry chips. It’s light, easy, smart and has heart. (Also, are we all listening to Sophie’s excellent podcasts? The Creep Dive is my fave.)
Sarah Davis-Goff is author of Last Ones Left Alive
Any time I’m ever asked to write about stuff that makes me genuinely laugh out loud or snort on public transport (not that we’re doing that at the moment!) I always start with David Sedaris. I came across him through the wonderful This American Life Podcast a few years back and his nonfiction essays are frequently things of comedy beauty. Maybe start with When You Are Engulfed In Flames or Let’s Talk Diabetes With Owls.
If you’re looking for something fictional maybe it’s time to discover (or rediscover) Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. When I was a kid and I found them for the first time I had never read anything so funny, surreal and that so appealed to my Monty Python funny bone.
Other books guaranteed to cheer you up might include Marianne Power’s Help Me (where she tries a different self-help book a month for a year), Rónán Hession’s gentle, beautiful Leonard & Hungry Paul, Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and huge chunks of June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker are hysterical (this may say something about me). I still adore Paul Murray’s satire of the banking collapse in 2008 The Mark and the Void.
The Rick O’Shea Book Club is starting a chat show each Monday night at 8pm
My favourites change all the time and rightly so, but I’m presently addicted to a pair of brilliantly original comic novels from Mayo writer, Michael Mullen. It’s another Mayo writer’s fault (Mike McCormack).
Kelly is Mullen’s first novel. The titular Kelly is chained to a rock in a field. In his eye a maggot fattens. Local healers apply a red hot poker and Kelly is suddenly imbued with fantastical powers of mind and body (plus an eye can now “see the wind and look over the rim of the sky and look into the dodges in men’s souls”). Thus begins Kelly’s misadventuring, enlisting for his purposes the services of trusty henchmen – the innocent half-wit, Leibide Ludden, and 3ft-tall wunderkind, Faustus MacGinty.
Mullen is cut from an absurdist mosaic that includes Flann O’Brien, Rabelais, Cervantes, Boccaccio, Gogol and Laurence Sterne. He draws on a deep knowledge of myth and lore, history and geography. His language is earthy, lush, sensuous, elemental and bawdy. Ever alive to its protagonists’ immediate surroundings, the writing fully exploits the narrative’s crazy logic and rich hinterland. The ordered chaos somehow sustains a larger-than-life role call of characters. Proceedings continually defy and delight.
And it is always funny. A smorgasbord of farce, absurdity, wit, ribaldry, mayhem and anarchy. On my first reading I found myself deliberately slowing down, flicking back to particularly pleasing passages. The bedlam continues in Kelly’s worthy follow-up, Festival Of Fools.
Alan McMonagle’s latest novel is Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame
I first read Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth when I was 19 and in Boston on a J1 visa. I remember sitting on the roof of our apartment building, the sun blazing down, and laughing until I ached. It’s a satire about Irish people and the Irish language, originally written in Irish as An Béal Bocht. It’s dark and caustic, and to this day, I’ve never read anything funnier. Of course, back then, Peig, Caisleáin Óir and all the rest were fresh in my memory. Being a veteran of Leaving Cert Irish probably enhances enjoyment of The Poor Mouth, but it’s not necessary.
The story centres on Bonaparte O’Coonassa from Corkadoragha where the poverty is extreme, the smells are putrid and rain runs constantly down the walls. As a visitor puts it, they are in a worse situation than any Gael since the commencement of the reign of Gaelicism. Their Irish, however, is pure.
There’s one scene at a feis when characters with names like My Friend Drumroosk and The Dative Case arrive from Dublin. An excess of oratory and Irish dancing follow until the natives of Corkadoragha are collapsing in the street (with the nocturnal rains falling down on them destructively). I must have read that scene 50 times, and it still makes me laugh out loud.
Rachael English’s latest novel is The Paper Bracelet
“There was nothing more the world stood so much in need of as knights-errant,” claims the ludicrously deluded Don Quixote as he girds his loins to set out on his quest, the better to prove himself worthy of the favours of the local farmgirl that his febrile imagination has anointed the imperishable Dulcinea del Toboso. Donning a rusty suit of armour, and mounting his faithful mount Rocinante, the Knight of the Doleful Countenance rides out into immortality, aided and abetted by the wily menial Sancho Panza.
Quixote is infamous for tilting at windmills, of course, believing them to be giants, and novel is laugh-out-loud funny as the deluded Don’s adventures are recounted in a deadpan tone that cruelly parodies the excesses of the epic mediaeval romances. And yet, as Quixote and Sancho trek across Spain battling a variety of imaginary villains, the Don cuts an ever-more poignant figure, and his fantasy -–that he alone can save the world from itself – something to be cherished and celebrated.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is the great comic novel, the fons et origo of every kind of literary humour - slapstick and farce, parody, social satire and surrealism - since it was first published in 1605. Do your funny bone a favour and embark on the greatest of all quests with the self-styled “never-deservedly-enough-extolled knight-errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha.”
Declan Burke’s current novel is The Lammisters
If you’re happy to agree that humour should produce laughter and uneasiness in equal measure, then Palinuro of Mexico by Fernando del Paso (brilliantly translated by Elisabeth Plaister) might be a book you’ll enjoy. It’s probably best too if you find sprawling novels with endless, unnecessary diversions appealing. With all that accepted, you can then begin to enjoy the story of Palinuro, a trainee doctor, and his passionate love for his cousin Estefania. Almost everything possible happens somewhere in the novel, including lots of things that should never happen at all.
Among the virtuoso moments of invention is the description of the one-for-every-occasion glass eyes a general owns: “I have an emotional and tear-filled eye for when the National Anthem is played, which is the same eye that I sometimes use, most reluctantly, when I am constipated.” For anyone who loves scurrilous, linguistic adventures, this book is a gem. As the author declares: “This is a work of fiction. If certain characters resemble people in real life, it is because certain people in real life resemble characters from a novel. Nobody, therefore, is entitled to feel included in this book. Nobody, by the same token, to feel excluded.”
Declan O’Driscoll is a critic
“I guess you think you know this story. You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.” Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes grabbed my imagination as a beginning reader, so he will always be the king of comedy to me, whether it’s Red Riding Hood whipping a pistol from her knickers, or – in The Enormous Crocodile – the titular character being flung into the sun and “sizzled up like a sausage!” That line was the funniest thing ever when I was a kid, the sort you have to chant out loud each of the 10,000 times you read the book (sorry, parents) and even now I can’t type it without the corners of my mouth going up.
Dahl never does pure ridiculousness, though; there is always something more substantial there. There’s a recognition of the dangers children face, often presented in absurd or hyperbolic ways (the monstrous Trunchbull in Matilda, the greedy giants in The BFG, the seemingly-lovely women who want to squish all children in The Witches). But then the kids get to fight back – so that you’re cheering on the protagonists as well as having a bit of a laugh. Or two. Or a hundred.
Claire Hennessy’s latest novel is Like Other Girls
Dickens at his best is hard to beat when it comes to comic writing. In Nicholas Nickleby, the protagonist’s mother – based on Dickens’s own – encounters a neighbour at Bow who believes that her “most divine charms” “waft mellifluousness over the neighbours’ gardens and force the fruit and vegetables into premature existence” and demonstrates his love by lobbing large marrows over the wall; pure slapstick served up with a beautiful comic turn of phrase.
For me, possibly the greatest comic novel in the English language is, however, Augustus Carp by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man. The title itself is inspired. Anyone calling himself a very good man deserves to be by himself. Published in 1924 and written (uncredited) by Henry Howard Bashforth – who later became the King’s Surgeon – I would argue that Carp even pips Diary of a Nobody to the post. It has always been a source of amazement how often this comic masterpiece has been out of print. For many years the only copies I could lay my hands on were gleaned from second-hand bookshops, yet everyone I’ve ever lent a copy to has become an instant convert. But what of Carp himself? He is under the serious misapprehension that he is a very pious man rather than the dreadful, gluttonous, vindictive prig he really is. It is truly inspired.
This leaves me just a few lines to urge you to lay your hands on a copy of The Ascent of Rum Doodle by WE Bowman (1956). It doesn’t do it justice to say that it’s simply a pastiche of a nonfiction account of a mountaineering expedition. It is the tale of a handful of plucky Englishmen (with just 3,000 native porters) attempting to reach the 40,000-and-a-half-foot summit of the mountain of the title. It reaches dizzy heights of inspired comedy.
Philip Ardagh’s award-winning (and very silly) Eddie Dickens adventures are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.
There’s few funny books I have read that have stayed with me as much as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I still remember the train ride back from college in Dublin to Longford where I read the book and laughed out loud, much to the bemusement of the folks around me.
It is perhaps an apt book for the strange times we find ourselves in for the hero Arthur Dent wakes up to discover not only is his house going to be demolished to build a motorway but Earth’s destruction by bureaucratic aliens follows soon after. It’s a real belly tickler and Adam’s wordplay is without doubt one of the best aspects of the book. Take for example his babel fish which people insert into their ears and which can translate any language making it understandable for the listener but the babel fish has caused more wars and miscommunication because of this fact.
Dent does make it home once again but not without having gone through a torturous time, all of which he does while in his bathrobe and pyjamas, something that many readers might well empathise with at the moment. Laughter in the face of mad and bad times is a great defence. Adams, though no longer with us, has created an end of the world disaster book that will keep you smiling to the very end.
John Connell is the author of The Cow Book
Whenever I’m in need of a laugh, I go straight to David Sedaris. The American humorist has published many collections of essays and has a brilliantly skewed view of the world. Unlike a lot of writers, myself included, Sedaris seems to genuinely enjoy the company of strangers and goes out of his way to interact with people he meets in coffee shops, airports and on beaches. The result is an uproarious rag-bag of peculiar men and women, each of whom are desperate to share their stories. From his experiences as one of Santa’s elves to having a tumour removed by a reader who showed up to one of his events, Sedaris lives an utterly bizarre life.
The funniest writer I know is Philip Ardagh. While his work is predominantly aimed at children, adults might want to check out The Silly Side of Sherlock Holmes and The Scandalous Life of the Lawless Sisters, in which he captions illustrations from 19th-century magazines such as Punch and The Strand with such wit and eccentricity that they will leave you with tears rolling down your face.
John Boyne’s latest novel is My Brother’s Name Is Jessica
I love humour that is a form of resistance, where you never quite forget the shadows and darkness that feed it and threaten it. You can feel it in Billy Connolly’s Tall Tales and Wee Stories, a “merry-go-round of memories, observations, fantasies and ad-libs”. There’s plenty to laugh at in this book – and I did, loudly – and you can hear Connolly’s distinctive Glaswegian voice in your head as he conjures up a world that is the antithesis of “beige”. He revels in the fun and absurdity of his stories but he’s also sharp as a tack, making for a book that is full of brilliant observations and is also a spirited refusal of any kind of blandness, pretentiousness or posturing.
The hard-won generosity of spirit in Connolly’s book is also present in Michelle Gallen’s terrific debut novel Big Girl, Small Town. I devoured this book in two days, carried along by the energy and personality of its narrator Majella who lives in a small town in Northern Ireland. Again, like Connolly, Majella is resistant to “normal” rules, and her observations of the world around her and her own distinctive way of understanding reality generate much of the humour in the book. Gallen covers some dark territory and the humour often has an edge to it but there’s plenty of affection and laughter here too, and the prose pulses with Gallen’s exuberant delight in Majella’s voice.
Patsy Horton is managing editor of Blackstaff Press