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 face.
The publications chosen for this list of the 50 funniest books, which include comic novels, memoirs, essays, poetry, a dictionary and even a children’s picture book, are listed in chronological order and reflect how humour has become more inclusive and socially challenging over more than 130 years of richly amusing publishing.
To describe Clive James as multi-talented does not do full justice to man who practically invented the art of television criticism in the 1970s. The late Australian was a poet, novelist, talk-show host, essayist and raconteur. Writer P.J. O’Rourke described Unreliable Memoirs as “the best memoir in the world”. James revelled in the chaos and embarrassment of the world and his anecdotes, about everything from breaking a bed to mending a carpet, are profoundly entertaining.
Like fellow American Anne Tyler, Richard Russo is an adept hand at comic fiction set in ordinary towns. His triumphs include Mohawk and Straight Man – but my favourite is Nobody’s Fool, the tale of the cranky, limping, wise-cracking Donald ‘Sully’ Sullivan, superbly played in the film adaptation by Paul Newman. The novel, full of offbeat incidents in the dilapidated New York village of North Bath, simply fizzes with cracking dialogue. Russo penned a sequel called Everybody’s Fool.
It’s never too early to get into comical books and some of the best cheeky humour comes in children’s picture books. There is a boundless reserve of young readers’ literature that expertly blends humour with captivating illustrations – such Eric Carle, Julia Donaldson, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake all standing the test of time – but my pick is Peggy Rathmann’s Good Night, Gorilla, about an ape who steals the zookeeper’s keys and unlocks all the cages. There are only 42 words in an enchantingly funny book that never loses its charm.
Helen Jones’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, which helped cement the popularity of the “chick-lit” genre, was 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 the 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.
Nine years after starring in the hilarious film Withnail and I, Oscar-winning actor Richard E. Grant penned a “warts and all account” of his life in cinema. What survived extensive legal cuts was one of the most acidly funny celebrity memoirs ever written. His descriptions of the Hollywood community – “the land of liposuction” – of cravenly ambitious actors and movie-set disasters is hilarious. The chapter on the madness that was Hudson Hawk is worth the cover price alone.
When David Foster Wallace died by suicide in 2008, aged just 46, the world lost a daring and dazzlingly original American author. His collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again contains laugh-out-loud dissections of the Illinois State Fair, playing tennis and the impact of television. The highlight is his side-splitting and excoriating account of a one-week trip on a Caribbean cruise ship. A wider look at this visionary writer is available in Penguin’s The David Foster Wallace Reader.
Readers are usually split when it comes to choosing their favourite David Sedaris collection. The brilliantly acerbic and self-mocking essayist has written some radiant collections including Naked, Barrel Fever and Let’s Talk Diabetes With Owls. The funniest, however, is Me Talk Pretty One Day, which excavates his own suburban childhood in North Carolina, his chaotic time teaching a writing workshop in New York and his move to Normandy, France, with true comic grace.
Firoozeh Dumas knew only seven words of English when her family relocated to the United States in 1972. Her memoir Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America is a light-hearted examination of the immigrant experience. She finds humour in confronting American culture – including her disappointment when her father, an oil engineer, fails to qualify as a contestant on Bowling for Dollars – and retains a wry look at life even through the 1979 hostage crisis, when Americans were wearing “Iranians go Home” T-shirts. A second memoir, Laughing Without an Accent, followed in 2008.
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 Whitbread Book of the Year novel, the first book to have been published simultaneously in two imprints – 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.
Bromley-born Steve Aylett was praised by science fiction writer Michael Moorcock as “the most original voice in the literary scene” after writing his zany Zelig-like novel Lint, a mock biography of (fictitious) cult science fiction writer Jeff Lint, a sort of Philip K. Dick/Hunter S. Thompson/Ken Kesey pastiche. Aylett called his work “Voltairean satire for starters” and Lint is incredibly fresh and funny, from set-pieces such as a row with Gene Roddenberry over a rejected Star Trek script to Lint’s fresh one-liners, such as “television is light filled with someone else’s anxiety” or “when the abyss gazes into you, bill it.”. Aylett is a truly innovative writer.
Emmy Award-winning comedian Wanda Sykes was a regular guest star on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm at the time she penned Yeah, I Said It, a memoir which she admitted was “pretty much based on my stand-up routines”. The book is packed with risqué jokes, about everything from the Super Bowl to the failings of President George W. Bush; from Michael Jackson and the Catholic Church to the scourge of racism in America.
In the mid-1970s, when Steve Martin was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up comedy, he encountered Elvis Presley backstage. “Son,” Presley told him, “You have an ob-leek sense of humour.” That droll sense of fun shines through Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, a heartfelt and achingly funny account of a rise from working as a schoolboy at Disneyland to the pinnacle of stardom – and why he “walked away” from comedy and moved into films. Martin’s memoir is a deft comic masterpiece.
When it comes to writing about the ‘Jewish experience’, celebrated male novelists such as Howard Jacobson, Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth get a lot of deserved acclaim – but there are some fine books in this field by female writers. One standout is New Yorker Sloane Crosley, whose book of essays, I was Told There’d Be Cake, is full of riotous stories, including her account of being the only Jewish girl at a Christian summer-camp and having to play Mary in a Nativity Play during a sweltering July. Crosley’s 2016 novel The Clasp sparkles with fun, too.
Three of the modern titans of television comedy are Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler. When it comes to memoirs, Fey’s Bossypants narrowly edges out Silverman’s The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee and Poehler’s Yes Please. Fey’s book has an impressive jokes-per-page hit rate and is full of sardonically gimlet-eyed accounts of being a boss on the sets of 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live.
Although audiobooks have been around since 1932, they are now soaring in popularity. Comedy books are well suited to the format, and among the best recent ones is I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, narrated by Partridge creator Steve Coogan, in the guise of his famous character. However, for true laugh-out loud absurdist listening, I would recommend Toast on Toast: Cautionary Tales and Candid Advice, featuring the unbeatably amusing voice of narrator Matt Berry, reading his memoir of his character, a pompous, self-deluded thespian called Steven Toast. It’s a tour-de-force of comic writing and delivery.
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, which won The Thurber Prize for American Humor, is a moving, sharply funny account of the absurdities of politics, race and identity.
Another Thurber-winning memoir was poet Patricia Lockwood’s scintillating Priestdaddy, the story of growing up as the daughter of an irrepressible married Catholic priest, a man who converted on board a submarine while watching The Exorcist. As well as startling stories of childhood, there is a painfully funny account of having to move back in with her eccentric father as an adult. “My father despises cats. He considers them to be little mean Hillary Clintons covered all over in feminist leg fur,” is just one of Lockwood’s dazzlingly offbeat observations.
Texan Jillian Weise is an award-winning poet, essayist and playwright and a disability rights activist. She self-identifies as a “cyborg” because of her computerized prosthetic leg. Her sharp-witted writing has done much to raise awareness on disability issues (she also has an entertaining YouTube character called Tipsy Tullivan). Her 2019 poetry collection Cyborg Detective is full of biting wit and she has been praised as “an anarchic sharp-fanged satirist of the very first rank”.
Dolly Alderton (especially with the sharply observed 2021 novel Ghosts), 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.
Comedian and former “bitches gotta eat” blogger Samantha Irby calls herself “a high-functioning depressed and anxious person”. Her book of essays We Are Never Meeting in Real Life takes a caustic look at reality television, dating, lesbian sex, life in your thirties, owning a bitchy cat and how the ideal lover is someone who would “get me to stop spending my money like a goddamn NBA lottery pick”. Her essay about an ill-fated pilgrimage to Nashville to scatter her estranged father’s ashes is particularly witty.