Give me a choice and I’ll take A Midsummer Night’s Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.
I think I am a pretty good seat mate on planes and trains. (Automobiles,too.) I don’t take up more than my share of the available space, I don’t initiate inane conversations, I don’t listen to loud music with improperly inserted earbuds, and I definitely do not carry and eat bags of fast food. If anyone has an explanation, please let me know why someone would sit at an airport gate, clutching a bag of greasy McDonald’s burgers and fries, and then wait to eat the cold, smelly food until an hour or so into the flight.
However, on a recent flight, I think I really annoyed the grumpy man sitting next to me. My offense? I laughed, and more than once. The first time it happened, I chuckled softly and he shifted in his seat and looked slightly irritated. The irritated look progressed to a lengthier glare, and finally he connected his headphones to his laptop. No, he did not appear to be outlining a plan for combating terrorism or putting the final touches on an important scientific presentation. He was playing solitaire.
The book that made me laugh — again and again — was The World’s Largest Man, a memoir by Harrison Scott Key about his complicated relationship with his father. It’s Key’s first book, but he has published essays in many magazines. According to his website, Key writes with the “comic verve of David Sedaris and the deft satire of Mark Twain or Roy Blount, Jr.”, but if we’re going to make comparisons, I’d say he is more like a cross between Bill Bryson and Pat Conroy.
Key grew up in Mississippi, the bookish son of a father whose main interests were hunting, fishing, and football — and in transforming his sensitive son into a different person, one who enjoyed waking at 4 a.m. and spending the day in a deer stand:
Why couldn’t I have been born with no arms? I knew, though, even if I had no arms, Pop would have found a way for me to hunt, rigging complicated pulley systems into trees and hoisting me up in a sack, then dropping me on the animals with a knife in each foot.
Key enjoyed a special bond with his mother, an elementary school teacher. who introduced “the perverse habit of reading through the gateway drug of encyclopedias, which she begged my father to purchase from a man at the door, hoping to counterbalance our growing knowledge of firearms and axes and tractors with more peaceful, productive knowledge.” Key preferred spending the day grocery shopping with his mother to hunting with his father and brother:
I was not encouraged, generally, to go grocery shopping with Mom, because Pop knew that if you sent your sons to the grocery store too much, they might learn how to locate water chestnuts, which could lead down a dark path toward vegetarian stir-fry and the wearing of aprons and eventually marrying someone named Cecil . . . How could hunting deer ever compare to hunting vanilla ice cream, which is generally docile and will let you pour syrup on it without running away?
Although Key is a gifted humorist, The World’s Largest Man is not a nonstop laugh riot. At its heart, it’s a story about love and acceptance. Much of the book is heartbreaking and poignant. Key succeeds in showing us the contradictory aspects of his father’s deeply flawed personality — a personality that turns out to be a greater influence on him than he had ever imagined.
One of the best things about humorous books is that they lend themselves to rereading. Sometimes it’s comforting knowing that what you are about to read will tickle your funnybone.
“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.
“Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?” Miss Honey asked.
“I do,” Matilda said. “Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.”
The first “grown-up” funny book I remember reading was Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis (a pseudonym). I found it on my grandmother’s bookshelves, and it made me laugh and laugh. It was out of print for more than 50 years, but it was reissued in 2001 and remains available.
Adam Freudenheim, publisher of Penguin Classics, called Auntie Mame “a lost classic” and said that he could not resist publishing a “laugh-out-loud” novel. He said: “There are lots of comic novels that aren’t that funny. It is very difficult to write ‘funny’ well. This one is sheer bliss.”
A lot of parents and teachers turn their noses up at Dav Pilkey‘s books, particularly the Captain Underpants series. That makes me sad, because my children loved Dav Pilkey. Guess what — kids and adults like different things. For example, some of the activities I remember enjoying as a child were throwing rocks in puddles with neighborhood children to see who could make the biggest splash . . . spinning in circles until I got dizzy and fell down . . . dressing my dog in pajamas. If Pilkey’s books had been available, I’m sure I would have laughed myself silly over them. What 7-year-old could resist Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, or Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants? A little potty humor ever did anyone any harm, and I think Pilkey shows kids that reading doesn’t have to be a grim and serious pursuit, accompanied by timers and worksheets, but can be entertaining and laugh-inducing.
Comic actress Ali Wentworth has published one humorous memoir, Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales, and has another one, Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales, coming out in June. They’re perfect light reading, full of wickedly witty anecdotes about Wentworth’s growing-up years, career, and current family life.
There’s an old Weight Watchers saying: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” I for one can think of a thousand things that taste better than thin feels. Many of them are two-word phrases that end with cheese (Cheddar cheese, blue cheese, grilled cheese).
I recently reread Nora Ephron’s roman à clef about the breakup of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, Heartburn. I was worried it would seem dated, but it was every bit as clever and funny as I remembered:
Vera said: “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?”
So I told her why.
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.
David Sedaris‘s books are hysterically funny, but best listened to on audio. And if you ever have the chance to hear his live performance, don’t pass it up. He is extremely gracious and will spend hours after his shows personalizing books and chatting with readers. I love the stories in Me Talk Pretty One Day in which Sedaris imagines how his broken French must sound to his classmates in French class. Attempting to describe the Easter bunny, he says, “‘The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate . . . He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have a basket and foods.'”
I think Bill Bryson‘s funniest book might be his account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods. I’m a little dubious about the upcoming movie — Robert Redford, who is almost 80, plays Bryson, who was in his 40s when he wrote the book. Also, the humor doesn’t stem as much from the events as it does from Bryson’s way with words:
Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.
Christopher Buckley is a political satirist, skewering everything from Chinese-American relations (They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?) to the tobacco industry (Thank You for Smoking) to the fiscal crisis (Doomsday). I’ve enjoyed his comic novels, but I especially liked his collection of essays, But Enough About You. According to the New York Times:
Buckley writes in a conversational style replete with deadpan asides. Perhaps he spends hours meticulously crafting each bon mot, but what he conveys in his work is the image of an assured writer amusing himself at the keyboard, expansively waving the reader over to join in the fun.
What are your favorite humorous books?