Comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks once described the difference between tragedy and comedy thusly:
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
He might have said it as a joke (sort of), but it holds more than a few kernels of truth. The reason so much comedy revolves around somebody else’s pain is that it’s their pain and not ours – and it’s hilarious! If you kick me in the groin, I will wail and stalk you until my dying day. If somebody kicks you in the groin, well – that’s comedy gold!
Laughter is the theme of today’s blog, because there’s no better time for laughter than when the world is uncorking like a volcano after a night of tequila shots. I’ve composed another list blog (aka “listical”), this one devoted to books that have made me LOL.
What’s that you say? List blogs are a cheap, lazy alternative to writing an actual blog?
How’s about this, wiseacre: Mind your own f*****g business…
About the selections: They are all funny in their own way, or at least a way that tickles my particular funny bone. You’ll find the usual lighthearted fare in these fun, breezy reads – murder, suicide, war, family dysfunction, toxic relationships, backstabbing, jealousy, anger, greed, mayhem, drugs, cigarettes, liquor, guns, mass destruction, terrorism.
They are not ranked in any particular order of funniness. All but three are works of fiction. All but one were written during my lifetime. No joke books, no comedian memoirs, no newspaper humor columnists writing about their wacky neighbors or how darn hard it is to repair the sink.
On to the list…..
White Teeth by Zadie Smith: I put this first because I just finished reading it a couple of weeks ago. It’s Smith’s debut novel, published in 2000. She started writing it as a student at King’s College, Cambridge, while in her early 20s. The fact that a 20-something college student could write something this ingénieuse makes me wonder why I even bother writing (the fiction I wrote in college was putrid trash – and those were the good ones). Anyway, “White Teeth” follows the lives of a multi-ethnic stew of tormented Londoners, stretching from World War II into the 1990s. It begins with a suicide attempt and ends with a possible act of terrorism. Funny stuff! It’s brutal, biting, unsentimental – and hilarious. Smith’s dialogue had me cracking up for pages at a time, and the scenes of a Bangladeshi husband and wife brawling in the back yard while their twin sons made bets on the winner nearly made me crash onto the floor.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson: This has been described as a kind of non-fiction novel, though you wonder how much really happened and how much was the product of Thompson’s drug-addled imagination. It’s an account of his early ‘70s journey to Sin City on a magazine assignment, accompanied by Chicano lawyer Oscar Zeta Ocasta, the famed “200-pound Samoan.” It might rank as my favorite book of all time. I’ve read it at least a half-dozen times, and it never fails to make me howl. It cranks up the funny from the opening line – “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold” – and doesn’t let up for its 200 or so pages. It’s the perfect requiem to the 1960s and that decade’s various hopes, dreams, excesses and hilarity, intentional and otherwise.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: I bought an original copy of this book when it was published by LSU press in 1980, but loaned it to a friend about 25 years ago and haven’t seen it since. I wish I still had the original – how much would that be worth now? – but I later bought another copy long after “A Confederacy of Dunces” had made its mammoth mark on the literary world. The story is set in New Orleans during the 1960s and centers on a lazy, half-mad slob named Ignatius J. Reilly who’s 30-something and still lives with his long-suffering Mom. The book is populated by the Big Easy’s usual cast of hustlers, radicals, psychos and street philosophers. Together these folks create a symphony of lunacy that never comes up for air. Maybe the funniest book on this list. The tragedy, of course, is that the author killed himself before it was even published (and partly because he couldn’t get it published), leaving the world without a young literary talent who might have become the 21st century Twain.
Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley: I could have put more than one of Buckley’s books on this list. He specializes in political satire – fitting, seeing as how his dad was William F. Buckley, a leading conservative author and commentator back when American conservatism still had a functioning brain. “Thank You For Smoking” centers on a trio of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., who represent the tobacco, alcohol and gun industries and find themselves under constant attack from lawmakers, regulators and the public at large. They call themselves the M.O.D. Squad, for Merchants Of Death. It’s a pretty genius premise for comedy, building a book around people who are universally scorned and are paid to defend the indefensible. Can you imagine what their lives are like? Read this book, and you’ll get a pretty good idea.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: An iconic World War II tale of American fighter pilots in Europe. The protagonist is Yossarian, a B-25 bombardier stationed in Italy. His main goal is to get a Section 8 by pretending to be insane, which will send him back home. But he keeps getting thwarted by military bureaucrats who tell him his desire to get out of flying more missions is perfect proof of his sanity – and so he gets even more missions. That’s one of many “Catch-22’s” in the book. One of my favorite characters is Orr, a bomber pilot and ”warm-hearted, simple-minded gnome” who puts crabapples or horse chestnuts in his cheeks without ever explaining why, thus infuriating Yossarian, which is the whole point. Another book I’ve read three or four times and still makes me laugh Every. Single. Time.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris: Another non-fiction book in which the truth might get stretched from time to time. Sedaris grew up right down the road from me in Raleigh, N.C., so we’re practically in the same sphere as literary icons go, except that he’s way up there amongst the stars, and I’m on the ground frolicking with the night crawlers and dung beetles. I can’t remember a single essay from this book, having read it only once many years ago. I just remember laughing my ass off. An interesting side note: When Susan and I lived in New York City we went to see a David Sedaris reading at the late, lamented Coliseum Books by Bryant Park. We happened to approach from a back entrance, where we saw Sedaris climbing out of a car. Susan was able to chat with him briefly and (I believe) get him to sign one of her books. A very friendly and unassuming dude.
Money by Martin Amis. The official title of this book from Britain’s enfant terrible of letters is “Money: A Suicide Note,” so that gives you an idea of the kind of humor you’ll find. Very black, very side-splitting. It follows the story of John Self, a London-based director of TV commercials who is invited to New York City to shoot his first feature film. Self is a drunken, narcissistic, hedonistic slob who spends much of his time watching porn or currying the favor of prostitutes. The New York of the 1980s is the perfect setting for this kind of black comedy, which basically serves as a play-by-play commentary on Self’s slow-motion descent into utter despair. It’s dark, stark and savagely funny.
Watch Your Back! by Donald Westlake: Westlake was one of those prolific authors who wrote so many books he had to write under several different names (one of his was Richard Stark). He’s probably best known for his hard-boiled Parker crime novels. “Watch Your Back” is part of the lighter Dortmunder series, which centers on sad-sack protagonist John Dortmunder and his band of fellow thieves. The best known Dortmunder book is probably “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”, which was later turned into a movie with Danny DeVito. All are funny, but I rank this one tops on the Chuckle-O-Meter.
Good as Gold by Joseph Heller. Yep, it’s another Joseph Heller book. Nope, it’s not nearly as famous or celebrated as “Catch-22.” This one came out in 1979 and centers on middle aged English professor Bruce Gold and his dysfunctional Jewish family – including a tyrannical father, a highfalutin stepmother, several busybody sisters, a caustic wife, an earnest but airheaded mistress, and an older brother who still enjoys tormenting Bruce. Bruce is trying to wiggle his way into a prestigious government post in Washington. His family rolls their eyeballs at his attempts to join the political elite, his friends chastise him, and he crosses paths with an aristocratic Southern gentleman who morphs into an anti-Semitic lout when he starts drinking heavily. Man, it’s a riot. A favorite line from Gold’s father when he introduced Bruce to someone else: “This is my son’s brother. He’s no good.”
Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard: Few writers can top Leonard for a fun, quick read. I happen to think “Maximum Bob” is his funniest because of the title character, a horny right-wing judge named Bob Gibbs who is renowned for handing out the maximum sentence to whichever poor defendant wanders into his courtroom. The guy is a real gas. Interesting side note: I went to another book signing of Leonard’s at the aforementioned Coliseum Books in NYC and had him write “Go Panthers” along with his name. This was before the 2004 Super Bowl, when my hometown Carolina Panthers played the Patriots. Carolina lost. Thanks a lot, Elmore.
Blood’s A Rover, James Ellroy: An odd selection for a list of funny books, seeing as how this third installment of Ellroy’s “American Trilogy” is full of blood, brutality, murder, double-crosses and a sense of impending doom from the very first page. BUT: some of the telephone transcripts between real-life characters like Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover are a hoot. The Hoover parts are especially funny, because in “Blood’s A Rover,” the aging FBI dictator is slipping into dementia. Among other things, he begins having delusions that soul singer Archie Bell of “Archie Bell and the Drells” is part of a black conspiracy to topple the government with his hit song “Tighten Up.” Hoover even goes into soulspeak, telling one FBI agent, “Sock it to me, baby.” Chuckles galore. Interesting sidenote: Archie Bell is the brother of Ricky Bell, the late, great USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace: This is a collection of essays from the author of “Infinite Jest.” The title essay is an uproarious account of Wallace’s cruise ship experience while on assignment for “Harper’s” magazine, including his secret desire to just chill out in his cabin and not mix with anyone. Another highlight is an essay on a trip he took to the Illinois State Fair. Again, he is on a magazine assignment with “Harper’s.” Sample passage about a short press briefing he had to attend:
“The briefing is dull. We are less addressed than rhetorically bludgeoned by Fair personnel, product spokespeople, and middle-management State politicians. The words excited, proud, and opportunity are used a total of 76 times before I get distracted off the count. I’ve suddenly figured out that all the older ladies at the table I’m at have confused Harper’s with Harper’s Bazaar. They think I’m some sort of food writer or recipe scout, here to maybe vault some of the Midwestern food competition winners into the homemaker’s big time. Ms. Illinois State Fair, tiara bolted to the tallest coiffure I’ve ever seen (bun atop bun, multiple layers, a veritable wedding cake of hair), is proudly excited to have the opportunity to present two corporate guys, dead-eyed and sweating freely in suits, who in turn report the excited pride of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart at having the opportunity to be this year’s Fair’s major corporate sponsors. It occurs to me that if I allow the Harper’s-Bazaar-food-scout misunderstanding to persist and circulate I can eventually show up at the Dessert Competition and they’ll feed me free prize-winning desserts until I have to be carried off on a gurney. Older ladies in the Midwest can bake.”
That paragraph is perfect.
Very Good, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse: I only started reading this 1930 collection of stories a few days ago, and already I’ve guffawed, I dunno, eight times? Will it have the staying power to remain on this list? We’ll see. I have high hopes, simply because Wodehouse does a masterful job of injecting that eloquent yet understated British wit into every line, every detail, every conversation. Here’s a sample passage, right on the very first page:
“Why – this is what I keep asking myself, Jeeves – why has my Aunt Agatha invited me to her county seat?”
“I could not say, sir.”
“Not because she is fond of me.”
“It is a well-established fact that I give her a pain in the neck. How it happens, I cannot say, but every time our paths cross, so to speak, it seems to be a mere matter of time before I perpetrate some ghastly floater and have her hopping after me with her hatchet. The result being that she regards me as a worm and an outcast. Am I right or wrong, Jeeves?”
“Perfectly correct, sir.”
“And yet now she has absolutely insisted on my scratching all previous engagements and buzzing down to Woollam Chersey. She must have some sinister reason of which we know nothing. Can you blame me, Jeeves, if the heart is heavy?”
I just love that last line – “Can you blame me, Jeeves, if the heart is heavy?” It’s just the perfect British way of saying he’s royally pissed off about it all, and sees nothing but gloom and doom ahead.
That’s what makes it funny. Because it’s his gloom and doom we’re about to experience, and we get to watch it from the luxury seats.