I recently started writing more humor, which has been great! However, early on in my writing I realized that the old, horrible adage is in fact true: If you don’t use it, you lose it. My earliest efforts at humor were dispiritingly, clumsily unfunny. It was extremely distressing. I had clearly lost my edge and despaired at ever getting it back. Then a dear friend suggested that one way to get back into the swing of things might be to start reading more humor again, which was a great suggestion.
I began plowing through the humor section of my local library, which felt simultaneously like important research, and enormous fun. I also strip-mined the humor section of the library uptown, and also discovered one of the best parts about the library system—book requests! Go online, do a search, find whatever book you like, and then ask for it to be shipped to the library of your choice—and lo and behold, in a few days, it is! For free! And then they email you to come and get it. I have been abusing this system for several weeks now, and I love it.
Along the way, I discovered some really great humorists I’d never read before, and also read some books by some of my old stand-bys that I had originally missed. I thought I would put together a list of all of my favorite (or not favorite) humor authors that I can think of right now (I guess not all of them are necessarily ‘humorists’ so much as ‘funny people who wrote funny books’, but I don’t feel like splitting hairs right now). If I have particular books to recommend (or not), they are named. It is more or less alphabetical—note the preponderance of humorists with last names that start with a B. Why is that?? The world may never know.
Steve Almond – (Not That You Asked, CandyFreak): So, I recently discovered this author and I already love him. We share many of the same bleak feelings about the current state of the world, particularly with regard to modern technology. But while he’s cynical and biting and hilarious, he’s also strangely, beguilingly idealistic and very thoughtful. And CandyFreak taught me very interesting things about the candy industry and has convinced me that I will never again buy a mainstream candy bar again, but from now on will stick to underdog brands. Plus Not That You Asked has this long, meandering and brilliant essay about Kurt Vonnegut, whom the author idolizes. And he makes fun of chick lit author Jennifer Weiner, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Woody Allen—(Without Feathers): Is there really anything to say about Woody Allen that hasn’t already been said? I love how his stories, plays and essays manage to be at once brilliantly neurotic, irreverent and yet somehow poignant.
Erma Bombeck – (A Marriage Made in Heave: Or Too Tired for an Affair, Every other book she’s written, ever): I LOVE Erma Bombeck. She’s one of the first humorists I ever read. Even though once you’ve read a couple of her books, you more or less have a sense of what the rest of them are going to be like, I still read all of them over and over again. And her book on marriage, which I’d never actually read before, was a much darker, more introspective and more candid look at married life than I expected it to be. Parts of it took my breath away.
George Burns—I picked up a book by George Burns, I don’t remember the title, and was not incredibly taken with it. Written in the twilight of his career, it was full of more old-school, vaguely sexist ‘coveting your secretary’ humor than I was really expecting or appreciated. I grew up listening to Burns & Allen on the radio, and I prefer to think of George Burns as still pining for Gracie in his old age, rather than chasing hot tomatoes around the desk at the age of 80. Mind you, there was some good stuff in the book, and interesting digressions about vaudeville, but overall I was not that impressed. I guess I prefer Burns’ earlier work, or perhaps his comic personality is more suited to radio and television.
Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods): My husband and I both loved this book, and our tastes in literature do not often overlap. Bryson’s books (which tend to center around travel, history and science/nature) are the perfect combination of humor and education—he manages to teach you a lot about a subject (in this case, the Appalachian Trail) while also writing in an extremely engaging and often hilarious style. Brian is currently reading his book about traveling in Australia (In a Sunburned Country), which I am looking forward to reading.
Samantha Bee (I Know I am, but What Are You?): I picked up this humorous memoir with not particularly high expectations, figuring that Bee managed to get a book deal mainly because of her role on The Daily Show. But I have always liked her on The Daily Show, and I’m extra interested in female first-person observational humor, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Her humor was very occasionally hit or miss, but ultimately this was a great read with some really standout essays and memorable one-liners. Bee has also had a pretty interesting childhood and acting career, and knows how to tell a good story. I would definitely read another book if she wrote one.
Lewis Black (Nothing’s Sacred): Lewis Black is another one I love on The Daily Show, and I was hoping his rants would translate well to the written page, but unfortunately I read a couple of the first essays and wasn’t exactly grabbed by them, so I gave up. (During this safari into the humor sections of the library, I’ve given myself permission to stop reading a book if I’m really not that into it, and this was one of those). I still love Lewis Black, but I think I love him more on TV, where his personality and his delivery really come to life in the funniest way. It‘s highly likely that some of the jokes in these essays would have packed more of a punch had he been screaming them. The problem I guess with some comedians is that you can give them a book deal, and they can write down all their material, and it will just fall flat, no matter how funny they are live.
Jill Conner Browne (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love): Back when this book came out, a dear friend of mine heartily recommended it to me—and for whatever godforsaken reason, I never managed to read it until now. Needless to say, I deeply regret this error. I could have used some SPQ humor and wisdom well before my thirtieth year. Nonetheless, I am grateful that I finally saw the error of my ways. I will carry so many of this book’s genius recommendations to me for the rest of my life—particularly the one about The Five Men You Must Have in Your Life at All Times.
Sloane Crosley (I Was Told There’d Be Cake): I remembered this book of essays making a splash when it came out a few years ago, and I remembered feeling vaguely jealous at the time of the author’s huge success in humor at such a young age. So when I saw this book at the library recently I snatched it up with a feeling of excitement (at discovering a new female humor writer) mingled with vestigial resentment. So I was at once disappointed and spitefully smirky that I didn’t like the essays that much. I almost quit reading halfway through, but first decided to first read what was supposed to be the best essay in the collection, about Crosley’s being asked to be in the wedding of an old friend with whom she had lost touch. I found that essay to be unnecessarily mean and weirdly depressing. Still, I do credit Crosley for helping to pave the way and prove that there is in fact a market for female humorists who write first-person essays.
Nora Ephron (I Feel Bad About My Neck): I enjoyed this collection of essays, which were marred only by the fact that Ephron is one of those authors who manages to make you feel kind of bad about the fact that you are not famous and do not have a lot of money or live in Manhattan. I suppose I can forgive her for this, particularly in light of some of the excellent screenplays she’s written.
Michael Green (The Art of Coarse Acting): I discovered this book many years ago, and even though my family has always been heavily involved in the theatre, and I have never been heavily involved in the theatre, nearly every page of this book has always had me in hysterics. Part of this may be due to the fact that the author is British and spells everything Britishly and is just perfectly both arch and droll. God I love this book.
Chelsea Handler: (Are You There Vodka, it’s Me Chelsea; Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang): I have to admit, I had low expectations for Handler and in all honesty I only got her book out from the library to prove to myself that I was right that she was a lousy writer. Well, she has won me over. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not an elegant writer, with a particular flair for language, but she’s a great storyteller and she doesn’t pull any punches, and her stories are hilarious. In them, she comes across as a cruel, thoughtless, trashy, dysfunctional bitch on wheels—really, what’s not to love? Like Ephron, she provides us a view of life as a wealthy, spoiled celebrity—but she’s so beastly and unapologetic about her consumption and her privilege that I can’t really hate her for it. Plus she worked her way up from nothing and I respect that. I’m not interested in watching her talk show or her stand up comedy, but I’m now a fan of her books. Kudos to her for proving me wrong.
Cynthia Heimel (Sex Tips for Girls; Every book she’s written ever): I think Cynthia Heimel might be my favorite humorist of all time. Her books are funny, they’re smart, they’re thoughtful, they’re well-written and in all of them you feel as if she’s writing them for you and you alone. I can’t say enough wonderful things about this author, so I will just say this: her book Sex Tips for Girls, which was a gift from a dear friend, I have re-read about a hundred times. At least.
Jean Kerr (Penny Candy, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies): I first read Jean Kerr when I was fairly young, and even though many of her essays are obliquely about trying to balance having children and having a career, I was still somehow able to relate to them and to find them screamingly funny. Jean Kerr is wonderfully caustic and I wish she were more widely read.
Patrick McManus (How I Got This Way): I had never heard of this author, even though he’s written approximately two dozen books. I found his gentle, memoir-style humor which was mainly focused around hijinks having to do with growing up in the backwoods of the South, to be extremely funny in places. He’s got a real gift for storytelling and while at the moment I am too busy finding more humorists to read, I have the feeling that I will eventually work my way through more of his collection, because he’s the kind of author you feel loyal towards.
Steve Martin (The Pleasure of My Company, Pure Drivel): If it’s possible to have a crush on a brain, then I have a crush on Steve Martin’s brain. And really, the rest of him ain’t bad either. While I enjoyed Pure Drivel the most—it was a collection of brilliant, short humor essays, some of them with truly bizarre concepts—I also liked his novel. Both were extremely well-written. Steve Martin, how do I love you, let me count the ways. I know, I know, I need to read Shopgirl next. And I will.
Laurie Notaro: I haven’t read Notaro in quite a few years, (I can’t even remember which book of hers I read) but I recall her being pretty damn funny. A little uneven, at times, but still definitely worth reading. I will have to go back and reread soon, so I can say something meaningful about her here, as she deserves better.
David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk): Yes, of course I love David Sedaris. He’s the modern benchmark for personal humor essayists. And he’s earned the title; he’s a tremendous talent and very good at writing simultaneously funny and touching essays. What’s interesting is that I checked out his first collection of essays, Barrel Fever, the other day, and couldn’t finish it. The few pieces I read seemed either really heavy-handed or just not particularly interesting. It made me wonder whether I prefer more memoir-style humor essays to humorous stories. But I love Woody Allen and Steve Martin’s stories, so that can’t be the case. I did recently read Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, which was a strange departure from Sedaris’ usual style, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read a lot of negative reviews on it, but I thought it was pretty good.
Amy Sedaris (I Like You): I love this book. The writing is funny, but the subject matter and the photo collages and extremely intricate sets and background pictures in this book are my favorite part of it. Her more recent book about crafting was also funny but not quite as zany as I Like You. Amy Sedaris is a wonderful oddball in the best possible way.
Max Shulman (Barefoot Boy with Cheek): I found this dusty book, published in 1943, on a bookcase in our summer home in Upstate New York, and I honestly think it was the first humor book I ever came across that was not a kids book. Reading it probably changed my life. As I read it over and over, slowly the jokes and puns came into focus and began to make sense to me and became funny. I was probably eight or nine years old at the time, and I loved discovering that that things you read in books that didn’t even have pictures in them could make you laugh. It’s still a pretty great concept!
Tina Fey (BossyPants): I LOVE 30 Rock, and by extension Tina Fey. I borrowed her memoir from a friend of mine and read it in two days, like you do. While I think she’s funniest in person, her humor translated fairly well to a book. I definitely enjoyed it and it also gave me some insight into how she got where she is today, which I appreciate—any time a female writer/comedian discusses her path to success, my ears perk up a bit. I definitely recommend this book—it’s not fall-on-the-floor funny, but it’s still great.
Bailey White (Mama Makes Up Her Mind): These short, gem-like essays are wonderful. They’re so good that I read this book maybe 15-20 years ago, and I can still recall some of the beautiful, perfect phrasings in them. Many of her stories are sweetly funny as well as unforgettable. I absolutely love this book. I think White has written another collection of essays and I need to look it up pronto. Library request, anyone?
Jincy Willet: One of my favorite authors, she writes some of the funniest, most scathing short stories and novels I have ever read. I first read her collection of short stories, ‘Jenny and the Jaws of Life’ a few years ago, and when I found it in a bookstore again a couple of months ago I snapped it up– because I remembered so many of the stories so vividly and remembered how much I had loved them. Her two novels I have read, ‘Winner of the National Book Award’ and ‘The Writing Class’ are both just an absolute joy to read, and I have the feeling I will be rereading them several times throughout my life.
Finally: Did I forget anyone? Leave anyone out? Not do anyone justice, or malign anyone who didn’t deserve it? By all means, let me know.
Howard, Steve and I took on women in comedy in this week’s Perpetual Post. Check it out!
I’m growing tired of hearing about how Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are such funny women. I mean, yes, they are. But is this such a revelation? The amount of attention those two receive for being funny is becoming a little patronizing, because for the most part it’s the same reaction of good-natured astonishment that would be elicited by the sight of a gopher wearing chaps or a tap-dancing kitten. The implication is: Look! These women are breaking down barriers, they’ve turned our misconceptions upside down; they’re thriving outside their element! It’s as thought the general public thinks each of them woke up one day and said, “Today, I think I’ll be funny– unlike women.”
Tragically, I was never informed that women aren’t funny. As a result, I spent my clearly misguided youth worshipping witty, smart-ass female authors like Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr and Cynthia Heimel. I listened to old records and radio programs and grew to love the crackling improv of Elaine May and Joyce Grenfell and the sweet guile of Gracie Allen. I rented early Saturday Night Live episodes and marveled at the physical comedy of Gilda Radner and the snarky wit of Lily Tomlin. All of these women were brilliantly funny. I guess none of them got the memo.
It’s true that my many female comic idols are often less well-known than their male counterparts. George Burns’ fame far surpassed that of his counterpart and comic foil, Gracie Allen. Ricky always told Lucy she couldn’t be in the Babalu show. Saturday Night Live, for all its talented female stars, never seemed to launch their careers as far as it did the careers of legendary comedians like Steve Martin and Jim Belushi.
Indeed, for every smart, funny female role model I discovered through books, radio and television, there were many mediums which suffered from a distinct lack of vibrant female characters—or any female characters. After all, Bugs Bunny had all the good one-liners. None of the women stranded on Gilligan’s Island had decent comic timing; Smurfette was dull as dishwater. But to me, the lesson there was still not ‘girls in general aren’t as funny as boys’—it was ‘those girls aren’t funny’. So instead I watched Murphy Brown raise hell, and dreamed of the day I would live un-chaperoned in the Plaza Hotel like bossy, outrageous Eloise.
I agree with Steve Murphy that humor thrives on awkwardness and alienation, and that an adolescent penchant for feeling like an outcast is very likely to produce an individual who is quick with a one-liner and has a Simpson’s quote for every occasion. But I disagree that humor is a defense mechanism and a means of social survival mostly for males. Rather, I think it is a natural reflex for either sex—one that, if properly nurtured and cultivated, can be merrily abused as a dysfunctional means of self-protection by both boys and girls. After all, both face a tremendous amount of pressure to fit into their respective roles—and there are always going to be those on both sides who look around and think, “Wow, this shit is hilarious.”
I also agree with Howard that individual women who are not funny are often used as an example to somehow prove that women in general are not funny—which I find unfair. Were this standard applied to men, Pauly Shore alone would irrevocably prove that all men as a rule are desperately unfunny. Which is fair to no one, except Pauly Shore.