The listing and rating of comedy books – any books, really, and indeed, “best of” lists of anything, be it music or movies, holiday choices or cheeses, is a highly selective and subjective exercise that says more about the compilers of the lists than about the quality of the books themselves. A demonstration of their erudition, perhaps, and their eclectic tastes? Or is it pomposity and pretentiousness, or worse, that put-down so beloved nowadays of shock-jocks, populists and self-styled”outsiders”: elitism.
Huffington Post published a list entitled “46 Hilarious Books Guaranteed To Make You Laugh Out Loud”. Now, how presumptuous is that? “Hilarious”. “Guaranteed”. “Make you laugh”. Says who? Esquire listed “the funniest books ever“, and The Telegraph presented “the fifteen best comedy books of all time“. And recently, there was he worthy Guardian wrangling famous authors into the paddock: “I fell out of bed laughing‘. “Funniest”. “Best”. Oh well!
I must confess that whilst I have heard of most of the books in these lists, I have read only a handful. And with the exception of Catch 22, The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, I would not rank these in a list of my own – which I will get to shortly.
Humour, comedy, call it what you will, is a funny business. Sorry. Bad pun.
There is a wide gap between a wry grin and a guffaw. One man’s cringe is another man’s belly laugh. And whilst whoopee cushions are anachronisms, remembered only by over-sixties, some folk actually DO like fart jokes. And age is no barrier – last week in Big W, I marveled (I think “winced with incredulity” is more apt) at a “fart blaster”, a promotional spin-off from the Despicable Me film franchise.
Humour works in many ways and on many levels. Sometimes, it doesn’t work at all. I recall my schooldays back in England, and being obliged to write essays explaining and analyzing the humour in Henry IV Part One (a title that doesn’t suggest a lot of laughs, although this is the play that gave world that lovable old rogue Sir John Falstaff and his motley crew) , The Pickwick Papers, and the plays of George Bernard Shaw (I can still sing all the songs from My Fair Lady). Like numberless students before me, I tried unsuccessfully to explain to “Sir” that I just didn’t find them “funny”. As did most of my classmates. So we settled for memorizing the different “types” of “humour” (as if being “funny” was not really a part of it). These were usually words of Greek and Latin origin (these old folk invented it, you see – the classical “commedia” that is ), and classifying the Bard, Boz and GBS according to this scholarly taxonomy. Which, incidentally, is summarized beautifully in Monty Python’s classic Piranha Brothers sketch as an a witness describes the negotiating techniques of the demented and dangerous Douglas Dinsdale:
“Well, I was terrified. Everyone was terrified of Doug. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than see Doug. Even Dinsdale was frightened of Doug…He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious”.
Some may find the concept and realization of this ice-thinly disguised and ridiculous send-up of the notorious and seriously brutal Kray Brothers to be in dubious taste (it would never get up today, what with political correctness and defamation laws). But that was the way the Python crew worked. You really had to “get” it. The same could be said of its predecessors, The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, and Pete and Dud’s Not Only But Also. And it’s successors, The Young Ones, Bottom, Black Adder, and Ab Fab. What is hilarious to some is puerile to others. What is deep and meaningful to serious aficionados is lightweight, trite and pointless to high and low-brow grumps alike – who “just don’t get it”.
And “getting it” too is selective and subjective. Some people “get” Woody Allen, and see all his stuff (and believe me, it can be patchy, and as he gets older, you do have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince of the Annie Hall and Manhattan days), and others just don’t see the point (quite apart from expressing discomfort with his private life). So you can see how subjective it all is.
Humour in radio, film and television is in the eye, ear and imagination of the beholder. It is audiovisual as well as textual, the one often illustrating and enhancing the other. Expressing humour on the printed page is an altogether different and difficult endeavour.
Which brings me back to books, and to those lists.
I could never get into the lightweight upper-class comedies of manners so beloved of many English people, the Jeeveses and the Woosters and the Three Men in a Boat, or the precocious, neurotic memories of New York Jewish writers and intellectuals (although I do “get” Woody, as I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t abide Portnoy’s Complaint), nor the chatty, revelatory memoirs and faux-memoirs of celebrities of stage, screen and standup (I did however enjoy David Niven’s Bring on the Empty Horses, back in the day, and Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs). Yet these and their ilk would appear to dominate the “best comedy books” lists. And I wondered why classics like Cervante’s Don Quixote and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, surreal and eccentric as they are, didn’t make the team – nor old George Bernard or the now rehabilitated Oscar Wilde. But then again, these worthies were so weighed down with social and political comment that the humour often got side-tracked. I mean, who wants to hear about madness and despair, class prejudice, the privileged few and the downtrodden masses? Who needs to read about what happens when “the white knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen’s off her head”. Sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist bringing Grace Slick into this.. “Remember! What te dormouse said”:
Back to those lists. Compiled several years apart, they contain quite a few of the same titles. Which might suggest one of several things: that intelligent, well-read, journalists and reviewers are into much the same kind of books as their peers; that their literary tastes are not at all like mine – I am very much a “I like what I like” person, are many other readers; and that people who put together such lists google others’ lists in order to draw up their own – so perhaps there are some lazy compilers out there who have not even read the books that they are listing.
Anyhow, in no particular order, here are my top five:
1. Jospeh Heller, Catch 22
The adventures of an American airman who maintains his sanity in an insane WW2 by endeavouring by fair means or foul to get discharged from the forces on grounds of insanity, and gives the world an iconic catchphrase for paradoxical double-binds and vicious circles. It was mean to be “Catch 18”, but Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ Warsaw Ghetto soap opera Mila 18.
2. Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Oedipa Maas returns home from a Tupperware party to discover that she has been appointed executrix of a former lover’s estate, and embarks on a strangely strange quest in which she encounters an exotic bunch of people with equally exotic names, like fascist Mike Fallopian, philatelist Ghengis Cohen, and a shrink named Doctor Hilarius.
3. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
An alternative history set in the Yishuv of Sitka, Alaska where the Jews of Palestine were settled after being expelled by the victorious Arabs in 1948, as alcoholic detective Meyer Landsmen struggles with his personal demons, broken relationships, Hassidic gangsters, Jewish-Inuit mixed-bloods, and timeless Jewish customs and traditions whilst investigating a gruesome mob murder.
4. David Barret’s Penguin Books translation of Aristophanes’ The Frogs and Other Plays Written by an Old Greek in the Fourth Century BC, these camp and corny, political satires, replete with cross-dressing, bawdy repartee, catchy choruses, and yes, fart jokes, are sharp and acerbic, and readily applicable to the politics of today. “Not my circus”, his over-the-top characters seem to say, “not my monkeys”.
5. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment.
Impoverished, arrogant, misanthropic, know-it-all Russian student plots the perfect murder. And, doesn’t get away with it. Just kidding.
Seriously though, here is number five:
5. George McDonald Fraser, The General Danced at Dawn
GMF Is better know for his Flashman books, in which the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” roves and rogers his way through the late nineteenth century, managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another. But Fraser’s semi-autographical memoir as a young officer in Egypt during WW2, recounted in a series of short stories, is an absolute delight. The title story of The General Danced At Dawn contains one of my unforgettable “almost pissed myself laughing” moments. It goes like this:
The inspecting General MacCrimmon is unimpressed with the Battalion until he watches a display of the regiment’s officers performing Highland dancing. He joins in, becoming more and more excited, and recruiting more and more soldiers and passers-by to join in, by dawn the next morning, a mob of Highlanders, Fusiliers who share their base, military policemen, Egyptian locals, an Italian cafe proprietor, a some Senussi Arabs from the west in burnouses, and three German prisoners of war make history by dancing ‘a one hundred and twenty-eightsome reel’. The General’s inspection report “congratulated the battalion, and highly commended the pipe-sergeant on the standard of the officers’ dancing.” The pipey’s opinion was that as a dancer, the General was “no’ bad … for a Campbell.
I “got it”. And still smile whenever recall that strange ceilidh.
Didn’t I say that lists can be selective and subjective.