The world can be a dark place at times, and we all need something light-hearted to entertain and distract us. Happily, there are a host of witty, satirical and downright hilarious books out there, waiting to put a smile back on our faces.
From comic novels and memoirs, to essays and poetry, humour has filled literature for hundreds of years, always making it more inclusive, socially challenging and downright amusing. Here is the ultimate list of funny books that will have you cackling with laughter.
The humour of talented female authors was often underplayed in the 20th century but one book was acknowledged by contemporaries as a comedy classic - Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. It is a subversive, witty story about teenage orphan Flora Poste and her stay in Sussex with the doomed Starkadders. It's a book that has stood the test of time, with The Sunday Times calling it "probably the funniest book ever written."
Sophie Kinsella has long been a trailblazer in the romantic comedy genre. Across all her work, you can’t help but laugh with (and sometimes at) her flawed, funny and relatable female protagonists. Her latest work, The Burnout, is no exception. It follows Sasha, a woman who is exhausted by her life and signs up for a wellness retreat. While there, she meets a fellow burned-out guest who has his own unorthodox methods for recovery. Kinsella tackles a timely topic with her quintessential wit, in this gorgeous love story.
P.G. Wodehouse remains to many the most celebrated comic novelist of the 20th century. There were 96 Wodehouse books published in the Guildford-born author’s lifetime, and he was still working on a story when he died in 1975 at the age of 93. There is a vibrant, stylish energy to the goofball relationship between the valet Jeeves and the idle Bertie Wooster, and fans of Wodehouse’s escapist novels, including the captivating Right Ho, Jeeves, relish the Edwardian slang – “cove”, “blighter”, “snifter” – that peppers their conversations.
With Evelyn Waugh, readers are spoilt for choice, because his novels Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, The Loved One and Decline and Fall (jestful from the opening page) all fizz with waggish genius. However, we’ve gone for Scoop, a cracking satire about the world of newspapers. Waugh perfectly skewers a Fleet Street baron (Lord Copper, owner of The Daily Beast), while protagonist William Boot, the nature columnist mistakenly sent to cover a conflict in the African Republic of Ishmaelia, is a marvellous comic creation. Waugh was an expert at characterisation, making us laugh in fiction that was, paradoxically, full of profound wisdom and insight.
A family party often makes for the most entertaining of settings, and Grown Ups by comedy queen Marian Keyes is no exception. Three brothers and their three respective wives and children are all gathered for one such event – but when one of the wives accidentally hits her head, she can’t help but spill all of the family secrets. It’s the characters in this story that make it so unbelievably funny, and Keyes is just as brilliant at writing them all, from the the very youngest to the grandparents.
Packed to the rafters with hilarious, shocking and cringe-worthy anecdotes, this book reads like a joy-ride through Daisy’s life – and what a ride it is. From accidentally auditioning to be a pole-dancer to trying to reach the afterlife in the back of a pub, it feels like Daisy – who found fame writing and starring in hit BBC series This Country with her brother – was born to make us laugh. She also talks brilliantly on what it was like growing up with her mad family in rural poverty and trying to make it in an industry that often felt like it didn’t have space for her.
Dorothy Parker was a trailblazing Jazz Age humourist who purveyed her jocularity in short stories, poems, screenplays and criticism. Her highly original rapier wit is as fresh and challenging now as when she was freelancing for the newly inaugurated New Yorker magazine in 1925. Among her memorable one-liners was “What fresh hell is this?”, words she uttered whenever the doorbell rang that remain as entertaining today.
“I have never seen a dead body or a female nipple. This is what comes from living in a cul-de-sac,” writes teenage diarist Adrian Mole, whose angst was universal thanks to the ironic wit and sharpness of social observation in Sue Townsend’s joyful The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾. The novel provides pure pleasure, not only in Adrian’s hapless pursuit of the Pandora Braithwaite, the girl with the “treacle-coloured hair”, but also in the depictions of marital disasters and suburban idiosyncrasies.
Few people have written with as much zest and fun about modern Irish identity as Dubliner Roddy Doyle. In his marvellous Barrytown series the dialogue around the Rabbitte family in The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van crackles with life, humour and tenderness. Doyle has also written highly amusing children’s books, incidentally, especially The Giggler Treatment.
Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones’s Diary is the uproarious tale of the messy romantic adventures of a heavy smoking, Chardonnay-guzzling heroine who worked in publishing and fretted about her weight. The book sold two million copies and was turned into a successful movie that grossed more than £250m worldwide. Renée Zellweger earned an Oscar nomination for portraying Bridget, a protagonist who returned in Fielding’s sequels, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Bridget Jones’s Baby.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
At first glance, a novel about a teenager with Asperger's syndrome solving a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery about finding a neighbour’s dog dead on the lawn, impaled on a garden fork, doesn’t sound rich in comedy. Yet Mark Haddon’s novel, the first book to have been published simultaneously in two forms – one for children and one for adults – is rich in deadpan humour, because of narrator Christopher’s inadvertently ironic insights into the people around him and their foibles and pretensions. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will make you laugh – and cry.
Yinka wants to find love. The problem? Her mum wants to find it for her. When Yinka’s cousin gets engaged, the aunties are desperate to help her find a date to the wedding, but Yinka is taking matters into her own hands. Themes of self-esteem, self-love and faith are explored, all done in a cleverly amusing way that means you will whip through this – and I’m sure you’ll recognise some overbearing relatives along the way.
Marina Lewycka was born in a refugee camp in Kiel in Germany to Ukrainian parents. She was brought up in England. Her debut novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a family comedy about two feuding daughters trying to free their father, who is writing a history of agricultural machinery, from the clutches of Valentina, a Ukrainian divorcee who specialises in “boil-in-the-bag cooking”. The novel won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.
Nora Ephron, the hugely talented writer behind movies such as Sleepless in Seattle, Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally, triumphed with her book I Feel Bad About My Neck – 15 typically smart, dry and incisive essays that are full of brilliant observational comedy. Ephron is self-deprecating about her own body, and the slow, steady downwards spiral that is aging. The book overflows with sharp wisdom, too, including the line “when your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
Publications that combine visual and written humour are becoming commonplace in the 21st century – books such as Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot – and one of the best modern ones was by Canadian artist Kate Beaton, who says she chose the title Hark! A Vagrant “for arbitrary reasons” when creating her comic strip. The cartoons were collected into a multi award-winning book in 2011. Her strips parody literary works and figures, such as the Brontës. Beaton has a real gift for caricature and her gags are good.
Mindy Kaling’s irreverent memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which is part memoir, part lifestyle advice and comedy anecdote fest, was on the New York Times Bestsellers list for five weeks. Kaling, the daughter of Indian parents, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and went on to star in The Office before starring in her own hit show, The Mindy Project. Her book contains an array of tongue-in-cheek observations on topics such as weight, race, consumer culture and Hollywood’s obsession with conventional beauty.
Comedy genius Spike Milligan wrote hilarious poems and books but his letters contain some of the best material he ever wrote. Private correspondence provided a brilliant outlet for Milligan’s eccentric imagination. He once wrote to the Marketing Director of Tetley Tea asking, “when you changed from square to round tea bags, what did you do with corners?”. Spike Milligan: Man of Letters is a book for anyone who loves tomfoolery and mischief.
An open-house viewing turned hostage situation doesn’t sound like it would be the perfect setting for a comedy, but Backman’s novel is nothing if not laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also a deep-dive into humans, and how we interact with each other – Backman is at his best and most insightful when he explores human connection with his signature irreverent wit.
The second-generation Asian immigrant experience in America has provided the inspiration for some terrific 21st-century fiction. Jade Chang’s sparkling debut novel The Wangs v The World is about a wealthy Chinese-American make-up tycoon who is devastated by the 2008 financial crisis and decides to take his wife and teenage children on a road trip across America. Chang brings an impressive lightness of touch to a story of identity that unflinchingly skewers lazy clichés and stereotypes.
Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)
Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, was born in South Africa in 1984, to a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss father – something that at the time was a crime punishable under Apartheid laws. Some of the 18 stories in Born A Crime recall the stringent and often bizarre measures his mother took to hide him from a racist government that could have taken him away from his parents. The book is a sharply funny account of the absurdities of politics, race and identity.
Dolly Alderton, Marian Keyes and Meg Mason are leading the way as modern humorous fiction writers. Another in this bracket is Nina Stibbe, whose superb 2019 story Reasons to be Cheerful, the sequel to Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and the Comedy Women in Print Prize. The novel amply demonstrates her pin-sharp ability to revel in the inherent absurdity of everyday life.
In this candid and bawdy memoir, Tom Rasmussen, who grew up in Lancaster, England, speaks both as Tom and their performance alter ego “Crystal”. The tales about the tribulations and triumphs of life as a drag queen are sometimes shocking: Tom’s story of being attacked by a stranger is highly disturbing; his tales of trysts in a Portaloo and sexual experiences that saw them drinking out of toilets are amusing and heartfelt. “This book changed my life. It is the queer bible I’ve always needed,” remarked singer-songwriter Sam Smith.
A perfect rom-com premise: girl wakes up in hospital from a near-death accident next to her ex who she has forgotten to remove as her emergency contact. She then realises it’s time to build her life back, but could it just be that the worst day of her life ends up being the best thing that ever happened to her? Sweet, relatable and hilarious, this is a wonderful escapist read.
A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris (2021)
Ah, fragile masculinity. Joshua Ferris brings a masterful touch to one of comedy’s best-loved subjects in this poignant and witty novel. When Charlie Barnes’ millennial son forces him to reassess his Mad Men-era persona – newspaper and landline – through the lenses of his offspring, his wive(s), his friends and business clients, he is left trying to rethink his life, with entertaining consequences.
Sometimes it feels like celebrities come fully formed: Mo Gilligan, in particular, is so naturally funny and charming that it can feel like he was simply born for success. But in this hilarious, often poignant memoir, subtitled Life Stories from Way Back Then, Gilligan opens up about the moments in his life – long before his online comedy videos sprung him to national, then international fame – that made him who he is today. From memories of growing up in South London and his school days to early comedy gigs and learning to cope with fame, Gilligan weaves a heart-warming story of comedy, careers and community.
If the popularity of HBO show Succession has taught us anything, it’s that we love consuming rich people content - and this 2023 debut is no exception. The tennis-playing, party-hosting, uber rich Stockton family hold court on the exclusive Pineapple Street in New York, navigating their way through their wonderfully beguiling world - the dry and acerbic wit that flows through this book will have you snorting along with them.