Picking the funniest book you've ever read is just about as difficult as it gets for a reader. But that's exactly what we made PW staff members do, and the results are as varied as can be. Help us add to our list of the best funny books in the comments below!
Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor: Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn
As a big fan of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, I was eager to read his most recent novel, Lost for Words, “a high-spirited send-up of a major British literary award” in the words of the flap copy. Books in contention for the Elysian Prize include The Mulberry Elephant, the magnum opus of a self-important Indian author; wot u starin at, a novel of Glasgow low life; and a cookbook that was submitted by accident which the judges deem a work of meta-fiction. My favorite is All the World’s a Stage, written by a New Zealander from the point of view of William Shakespeare. Here’s some sample dialogue:
“Do you know Thomas Kyd and John Webster?”
“Lads,” said William, giving the men a friendly nod.
Lost for Words may not rank with such British comic masterpieces as Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, but it’s certainly the funniest book I’ve read in a long time.
Michael Coffey, former editorial director: Watt by Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett's early novel Watt is like a Chaplin skit, serially extended, in which logic is repeatedly exposed as paradoxical. The Latin phrase reductio ad absurdum pretty much says it, as do the novel's final words: "no symbols where none intended."
Rose Fox, reviews editor: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
No contest: the funniest book I ever read is Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half, based on her website of the same name. Long before the book came out, various pages on her site had reduced me to wheezing sobs of laughter. When Brosh read from it at WORD Brooklyn, the audience had collective hysterics over her deadpan delivery. The combination of sly wit, deliberately crude illustrations, and deeply personal topics is just killer.
Jeffrey Greggs, copy editor: Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming
Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, is far more famous today than his older brother Peter, a literary editor and travel writer. But that was not always the case—in 1933, 20 years before the publication of Casino Royale, Peter scored a minor hit with Brazilian Adventure, a satire of British exploration narratives that gave rise to the designation “stumble in the jungle.” A young man at loose ends, Fleming signed up with group advertising in the London Times’s “Agony Column” classifieds: “Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett… ROOM TWO MORE GUNS.” In 1925, Fawcett, in search of the legendary Lost City of Z, had set off into Amazonia, never to be heard from again. The expedition’s primary purpose was to find him, but the guidance of eccentric American Major George Lewy Pingle turned out to be anything but experienced. Fleming recounts the trip’s follies—which led to
include a schism between group members and the formation of two competing expeditions—with remarkable verve and wit. As they used to say in Punch magazine, “collapse of stout party.”
Gabe Habash, deputy reviews editor: Airships by Barry Hannah
Barry Hannah's Airships is the funniest book I've ever read, and it's not even close. In this collection, heavy tombstones bring about the ends of stories and you get lines like “But she knows a lot about things and I think I’ll be in love with her.” Hannah's funny doesn't come from intricately built situational comedy, it comes from left-field lines and oddball internal logic and surprise. For maximum effect, you should read Hannah out loud to a person you care about and watch what happens. Many books are amusing, but few are funny. Airships will make you laugh, I promise.
Everett Jones, assistant reviews editor: My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber
The funniest book I ever read was, in fact, read to me. As a child, I was introduced to James Thurber’s dubiously factual but hilarious memoir of his turn-of-the-century upbringing in Columbus, Ohio by my parents. No doubt, their selection of the 1933 book as appropriate bedtime reading material was due in part to the near-complete squeaky-cleanness of its humor. But whenever I’ve revisited My Life and Hard Times, I’ve found that while his account of dysfunctional family goings-on may now seem innocent compared to latter-day comic memoirists like David Sedaris, it’s neither corny nor dated-remarkably, considering this is a book in which the author’s grandfather is a Civil War veteran. Thurber’s fresh, trim prose, and famously dashed-off illustrations, lends a kind of guileless panache to a succession of uproarious setpieces -“The Night the Bed Fell on Father”; “The Night the Ghost Got In”; “The Car We Had to Push.” He may be best, or only, remembered today for the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and its countless media reiterations, but this book, by my account, is his masterpiece.
Heidi MacDonald, comics editor: The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks
At the dawn of the internet, before scanning things in and snarking on them was a national pastime, Lilek’s website capturing the horrors of mid-century cuisine via old cookbooks was a blast a warm air from the easy bake ovens of our ancestors. With it came a waft of barbecued hot dogs, meat milkshakes, canned green beans and the ever looming threat of foods chilled in aspic. To the artisanal world, these ancient recipes seem like a horror show, but Lilek’s way with a phrase and deadpan captions literally made me laugh until I cried. A sequel on bad decorating is just as funny.
Evan Phail, intern: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s comedies always give me a good laugh but the one I’ve enjoyed reading and watching the most is The Taming of the Shrew. The Bard’s second ever comedy is criticized today for misogynistic themes, however, that’s not my interpretation. Instead I believe that the relationship that unfolds between Petruchio and Katherine plays with fair and foul play and some fool qualities too. Both characters are detestable yet deceptive and cunning to those who don’t know them well. The courting between Petruchio and Katherine are filled with brilliant sexual innuendos and puns to put any “that’s what she said” joke to shame. His foul language towards her is mere jest and flirtation to mirror her own aggressive behavior. Throw in suitors in disguise vying for the younger and fairer sister Bianca, and you get a rather naughty and witty read. The most enjoyable to read is Act 2 Scene 1, where the banter between the Petruchio and Katherine intensifies with every line.
Carl Pritzkat, vp, business development: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh and his refined British tastes traveled to Hollywood after World War II where they encountered the perfect foil: Los Angeles's pet mortuary business. The result is The Loved One, a short, delightful skewering of American culture.
Sonia Jaffe Robbins, contributing editor: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Rereading the first pages of this satire of war set on an imaginery Mediterranean island during WWII made me smile, then chortle. Not only because it reminded me of reading it for the first time in 1963, when my friends and I read passages aloud to each other and fell on the floor laughing. The characters are real people behaving absurdly in an absurd world, where the number of missions each soldier is required to fly increases every time he gets close to completing them, where Lt. Milo Minderbinder is a capitalist paragon, profiting from the war by buying and selling from both sides and even bombing his own mess hall; an officer named Major Major is promoted to Major and then stuck there; Lieutenant Dunbar tries to extend his life by making it as boring as possible; and Captain Yossarian wonders why they are trying to kill him and isn't mollified when he's told, "They're trying to kill everyone." The casual sexism of this 1950s novel may blunt the humor for readers today (we were unconscious of it in the '60s, alas), but the craziness lives on.
Judith Rosen, New England correspondent: Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
If I were to be honest with myself, the funniest book I ever read is a Mad Libs, which I encountered decades ago at summer camp. Later, I discovered a different kind of humor, not so much laugh out loud, but with lines that make you nudge the person next to you until they stop what they’re doing. Then you insist that you just want to read them one line, and the next thing you know you’re doing it again. Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, which I read in college in what was then a “new" translation by Ann Dunningan was such a book. In fact I still have the yellowing 95¢ Signet Classic edition. The very idea of a healthy 30-something-year-old man who spent the better part of his life in bed wearing his “authentic oriental robe” struck me then and now as hilarious. And he didn’t even have Angry Birds to while away his time. I’m sure I missed many of the layers of meaning about Russian society, but the idea of a person incapable of exerting himself to cut the pages of a book he wants to read, to figure out what to do about his impending eviction, or to decide whether to get up spoke to my teenage sensibility directly, and still does.
Seth Satterlee, digital production assistant: Candide by Voltaire
Voltaire's most outrageous book has marched through the centuries with its comic brilliance unblemished. You could even say the book redefined what humorous books could be. The ridiculous story and over-the-top caricatures are commonly mentioned as catalysts for the French Revolution. Skewering France, the church, chivalry, literature, philosophy, love, Voltaire put a target on everything. Every trick of the romantic tradition is mocked; thematic continuity is an afterthought and story is in service of the punchline. In Candide, the joke is the main character.
Jonathan Segura, executive editor: Money by Martin Amis
This is a tough one. A lot of funny books just aren't that funny. Real funny, reading-on-the-train-and-laughing-to-yourself-like-a-weirdo-funny, that's rare. The last time I got that was with Martin Amis's Money, and it was the third time I'd read it. The narrator, John Self, is a foul little man, a wonder of defilement visiting booming 1980s New York from London on some dodgy film business. This was Amis's first big statement novel, and it's aged well. It's about as close to a pants-pisser as a book's going to get. I'd quote a line or two, but I let a friend borrow my copy a while ago and, well, you know how that goes.
John Sellers, children's reviews editor: The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber
Picking a “funniest book ever” is next to impossible when so many books make me laugh every week. (To be clear, I’m talking about the books that genuinely make me cackle at my desk, not the ones that “make me laugh” in a more misanthropic sense.) In recent years, that has included the biting humor and wicked satire of books like Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens, Paul Rudnick’s Gorgeous, M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series, and Sally Gardner’s Operation Bunny. And I just about died when Olivia started channeling Martha Graham in Ian Falconer’s Olivia and the Fairy Princess.
But because humor doesn’t always pack the same punch on rereading, to attempt to pick one funniest book to rule them all, I think I need to go back to the hilarious stories, essays, fables, and cartoons of James Thurber’s The Thurber Carnival. From the pet “advice" of The Pet Department (“I think that what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog”) to the cracked accounts of Midwestern life in My Life and Hard Times, which my father read to my brother and I as bedtime stories, the weathered hardcover of The Thurber Carnival that I
stole borrowed when I moved to New York has kept me laughing nearly my entire life.
Oren Smilansky, editorial assistant: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
My grandpa of all people was the one who suggested I read this filthy novel. I was 18 and, like a lot of guys at that age, really into Bukowski. Based on that fact alone, he thought I might like Portnoy’s Complaint. Grandpa said it was one of the books he used to assign his high school English students, so I definitely wasn’t expecting the obsessive, hilarious, x-rated monologue I got when I started reading. Portnoy’s “complaints”—all shared with his psychotherapist, detailing his upbringing in a Jewish home in New Jersey as well as his sexual experiences – stood out to me as a stubborn and single-minded young male. I ripped right through the book and read passages aloud to nearly anyone who would listen. When I emailed Grandpa to thank him for the recommendation, and to tell him I was going to read Goodbye, Columbus next, he replied, “Glad I could be of service, but I don’t care for Roth’s other books.” I’m not certain that this is the funniest book I ever read—I think that award goes to Money by Martin Amis–but it was the first time I laughed out loud at something on every page.
Craig Teicher, director of digital: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The funniest book I've ever read is Catch-22, which is why I couldn't read it. Though I love funny people and funny TV, I hate funny books. I got about 50 pages in and was totally confused by all the crazy names like "Major Major" and whatnot and just gave up. But it's a funny book. I just don't come to books for my funnies. I want sad, soul-destroying literature. For funny, I turn on my TV...