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HomeEducation & JobsDid We Get the Joke? Thousands of You Had Some Thoughts.

Did We Get the Joke? Thousands of You Had Some Thoughts.


Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, according to Samuel Beckett, and publishing an excruciatingly short list of books deemed “the funniest” was bound to create a fair amount of it. We asked our staff book critics to choose 22 favorites among the many books that have made them laugh: They had to be novels written in English and published since “Catch-22” (1961), which we felt was a turning point in American literary humor. Then we heard from you on what our critics missed. In article comments and a reader questionnaire, more than 4,000 of you let us have it.

What fired up readers the most was our omission of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES (1980), John Kennedy Toole’s novel about a hapless medievalist and sometime hot-dog vendor padding around New Orleans. It was, by a landslide, the most frequently cited title in your responses, and your reactions ranged from gentle prodding to biblical wrath. Many recounted their ecstatic reading experiences: “My wife and I took turns reading chapters aloud in bed, readings that countless times were choked off by paroxysms of laughter and tears,” wrote Fritz and Cindy Tripp Johnson of Dillingham, Alaska.

Other popular picks included THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (1979), by Douglas Adams; WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? (2012), by Maria Semple; and LESS (2017), by Andrew Sean Greer. John Irving! many clamored. Gary Shteyngart! Elif Batuman! All great suggestions. For some of you, the time frame was too constraining, as were any conventional understandings of humor: You oddballs went to bat for “Wuthering Heights,” “Moby-Dick,” “The Magic Mountain” and, somewhat distressingly, “The Pentagon Papers.”

“Not since ‘The Bell Jar’ have I laughed at food poisoning,” said Alice McGinnis of Silver Spring, Md., who pulled for Katherine Heiny’s STANDARD DEVIATION (2017).

Here’s what else you told us.

SQUEEZE ME (2020): “Skewers the Former Guy [Donald Trump], Palm Beach, xenophobia and Florida wildlife control, and makes me laugh out loud, even on second reading. What’s not to love?” — Lin Robinson (Albuquerque, N.M.)

DOUBLE WHAMMY (1987): “Playfully violent plot with rotting losers, and strangely kindhearted and sympathetic heroes. I get all smiley just thinking about it.” — Christine Shuler (Sunnyside, N.Y.)

BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS (1973): “It’s irreverent, hilarious, breaks the fourth wall with madcap energy, has these delightful asides, but also some real wisdom.” — Josh Henderson (Springfield, Va.)

GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER (1965): “When I was a young man, it helped to shape my worldview. Now that I’m an old man, it still occupies a cozy apartment just above the volunteer fire department in my heart.” — Grant Loud (Los Angeles)

SMALL GODS (1992): “A beautiful satire of the ways in which organized religion has lost sight of the importance of personal faith and piety. Loved by atheists and the deeply religious alike.” — Terry Fletcher (Pullman, Wash.)

GOOD OMENS, with Neil Gaiman (1990): “Enduring dark wit, dexterous language, a healthy look at humanity with fabulous allegories that make one sit up and realize that we can and must do better.” — Shaheena Karbanee (Harare, Zimbabwe)

THE GOOD LORD BIRD (2013): “One of the funniest books ever written based on real characters and events: John Brown, Frederick Douglass and the raid on Harpers Ferry. The narrator is one of the great characters in American fiction and, like ‘Catch-22,’ the humor is made more poignant by the serious parts.” — Mike Sokoloski (Seattle)

DEACON KING KONG (2020): “Set in a fictional Brooklyn housing project just as heroin is arriving in New York, this is a hilarious yet deep look at race, community and drugs in the United States. It made me laugh aloud and cry.” — Helen Benedict (New York)

DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS, by Julie Schumacher (2014): “Inventively told through a series of recommendation letters, this novel is a hilarious jaunt through both the emptiness of an academic career and the self-excoriating emptiness of a man who has lost his way. It’s a book that made me laugh and cry simultaneously, while nodding in recognition.” — Kyle Rudgers, (Flemington, N.J.)

STRAIGHT MAN, by Richard Russo (1997): “I am a retired professor who until recently was teaching at a regional Rust Belt campus of a state university, exactly the setting for Russo’s novel. One can laugh at the ridiculousness unfolding in the book while acknowledging the grim realities it exposes.” — Ruth Glasser (Watertown, Conn.)

MOO, by Jane Smiley (1995): “I teach women and gender studies in a liberal arts college at a land grant university, and Smiley nails it with wit and insight. From the provost’s assistant who actually runs the university to the ever-fattening pig housed in the agriculture college, the novel reveals the foibles and foolishness afoot in universities. And we see, in the novel as in real life, that during budget cuts, women’s studies is the first to go.” — Susan M. Shaw (Corvallis, Ore.)

“I live just a few miles from the Iowa border. I know these people. And ‘Moo’ stars the best literary pig since Wilbur: Earl Butz, named after the former secretary of agriculture.” — Peggy Derrick (La Crescent, Minn.)

CONJURE WIFE, by Fritz Leiber (1943): “Modern audiences might find the sexism of the male protagonist insufferable, but that is part of what Leiber is satirizing. The idea that the success of male academics in mid-20th-century America was dependent upon their wives’ use of witchcraft was a brilliant sendup. Though gender politics have changed, Leiber’s satire of the cutthroat means needed to survive in academia remains relevant as ever.” — Bert Clere, (Carrboro, N.C.)

KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE, by James Hynes (2004): “A bad breakup, an academic career lost. Could a furloughed professor’s life get worse? Wait, what are those otherworldly moans coming from the HVAC ducts? Why does no one else hear them?” — Jane Niles (Culver City, Calif.)

BLOTT ON THE LANDSCAPE, by Tom Sharpe (1975): “Sharpe’s books always take a good poke at the British way of seeing the world. Rollicking good fun.” — Kris Bulcroft (Chieri, Italy)

EPITAPH OF A SMALL WINNER, by Machado de Assis (1881): “This ‘autobiography’ of a dead man is funny and startlingly modern! That is all the more remarkable since it was written in 1881 in imperial Brazil by the Black grandson of enslaved people.” — Samuel Cole, (Richardson, Texas)

I AM A CAT, by Natsume Sōseki (1906): The descriptions of human behavior by the unnamed cat are so realistic and at the same time so absurd. The story is set in early 1900s Japan, but it makes you realize that human behavior always and everywhere is crazy, tragic and hilarious at the same time. — Jeffrey R. Hannig (Fargo, N.D.)

THE PICKWICK PAPERS, by Charles Dickens (1837): “The bad news: This book is about the size of a brick. But please keep in mind that it’s a picaresque. After being introduced to our cast of morons, we are invited to join them on a series of misadventures, each amazingly visual and filled with puns, malaprops and visual shtick. It’s almost like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie!” — Jeffrey Kahan (Los Angeles)

DON QUIXOTE, by Miguel de Cervantes (1605): “Its humor operates at every level, from the crudest slapstick to the most cerebral, self-reflexive play. Always bittersweet, at once funny and sad, joyful and tragic, a reminder that laughter is always more than fun.” — Paul Cohen (Providence, R.I.)

THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF TRISTRAM SHANDY, GENTLEMAN, by Laurence Sterne (1759): “In this still unclassifiable novel, the asides, omissions, diatribes and narration make for the most rollickingly hilarious read.” — Jonathan May (Memphis)

PRIESTDADDY, by Patricia Lockwood (2017): “This author sincerely loves her father, who happens to be a priest and rarely wears pants at home.” — Jerah Kirby (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

THE BREAST, by Philip Roth (1972): “Lucky the character is stuck in the pages of time. He’d probably be catatonic once he realizes that, as the breast, he’ll be no more than shriveled hanging fruit.” — Rose R. Jeter (Macon, Ga.)

INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace (1996): “The longest drug joke of all time.” — William Larsen (Plymouth, Mass.)

REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi (2012): “The love child of ‘The Office’ and ‘Galaxy Quest.’ ” — Maggi Schierloh (Chicago)

GALÁPAGOS, by Kurt Vonnegut (1985): “What could possibly be funnier than the extinction of the human race? Heartwarming, too.” — Dan Kravitz (Harpswell, Maine)



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