Books take you to all sorts of places. Not literally of course. It's a metaphor.
However, rare is the book that provokes a fit of the giggles. Reading tends to be an insular activity; puncturing the silence that accompanies such an endeavour does not come easily.
So, when a book does trigger such an emotion then, dear reader, you have something very special indeed. In honour of those pieces of literature that stir the laughing gases, we present for your fair delectation the 30 funniest books known to our eyes.
You get to argue the case below… Just keep it clean, eh?!
High Fidelity – Nick Hornby
Everyone knows Nick Hornby does the irreducible minutiae of modern male life like no other contemporary writer – our angst, our foibles, our issues. But he also does laugh out loud funny. High Fidelity is his best example of this, as his protagonist Rob Fleming lurches from one ill-advised top five list to another. As a dissection of man’s inability to ‘grow up’, this is as painfully comic and wryly observed as it gets.
Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
Anyone who grew up in Britain during the 80s will immediately get this hilarious coming of age tale – a bildungsroman in literary parlance. Jason Taylor is a 13-year-old boy trying to make sense of the world in Worcestershire in 1982. As the adults – notably his parents – seem to collude in the art of self-destruction, Jason is left trying to work it all out. The language and references are spot on, and the abundant comic set pieces prevent this truthful tale from the author of Cloud Atlas staggering into melodrama.
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
Trainspotting is many things – dark, violent, destructive and, erm, addictive – but above all else it is a tour de force of black comedy. Welsh’s gift for language, chiefly the ripe vernacular of those he writes about, is mesmerising. As such the misadventures that Rents, Sick Boy, Begbie and co embark upon is never less than caustically thrilling.
American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis
Much like Trainspotting, the characters in American Psycho are amoral scoundrels – it’s just that they operate at a higher social stratum. However, even though the vainglorious Patrick Bateman and his chums Timothy Price, Paul Owen, Craig McDermott are loathsome individuals, there is also an earthy humour to their bland lives. You might not like yourself for doing so in the middle of a graphic murder, but you will laugh more than you will recoil in horror.
Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
That war is by and large a series of violent acts wreaked upon humans by other humans, under the auspices of humans with no wish to engage in such distasteful behaviour should highlight the madness involved. This of course makes it highly funny and ripe for satire. This is what Heller achieved in spades in his tale of Captain John Yossarian’s attempts to stay alive as World War II reached its climax. It is both brutal and comical as the best parodies often are.
Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
Christopher Hitchens – a man who knew a thing or seven about being funny – declared Kingsley Amis’s first novel the funniest book of the second half of the 20th Century. That’s up to you to decide of course, but we can heartily endorse Hitchens’s endorsement. Amis skewers many of old England’s societal conventions in his ribald novel of reluctant history lecturer Jim Dixon. The drunken lecture passage is worth the entrance fee alone.
The Ginger Man - JP Donleavy
Sebastian Dangerfield is one of literature’s finest rascals. A borderline intellectual with raffish boho pretensions who can’t stop himself from getting blind drunk at any opportunity or trying to get into the corset of every young woman he meets. Banned in the US and Ireland upon publication for obscenity, it is one of the finest – and certainly funniest – novels you will ever have the privilege of devouring.
Straight Man – Richard Russo
The male mid-life crisis is a rich playground for novels. The inherent comedic value in such a ludicrous Western capitalist notion gives authors room for plenty of manoeuvre. But to balance that with the needs of a weighty tome, that takes some skill. Russo has it in spades. Straight Man concerns the life of Hank Devereaux, an interim chairman of an English department. As he takes on his wife, the faculty, his daughter, his feelings for three women and the campus geese, Devereaux’s life slowly begins to unravel.
Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne
That celebrated man of letters Dr Johnson famously opined that Tristam Shandy was ‘odd’ and would ‘not last’. How wrong he was. Sterne’s ribald The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (generally referred to as plain old Tristam Shandy) is designed to be a simple account of Shandy’s colourful life. But from the opening passage through the 500-odd pages of drawings, jokes and diagrams (plus the odd blank page) this is a comedic masterpiece.
Three Men In A Boat – Jerome K Jerome
Intended as a serious travelogue of a boat journey between Kingston and Oxford, the hilarious scrapes that befall the three men soon gave Jerome his focus. Published in 1899, it captures an England on the precipice of the modern world, and yet the humour retains a fresh warmth to this day. Some of the incidents in the novel – not least trying to navigate the Hampton Court maze – have to be read to be believed.
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
The ultimate scatological novel – or, as some wag had it, high literature reduced to a fart joke. John Kennedy Toole didn’t live to see his saucy tale of the faintly repulsive yet oddly endearing Ignatius J. Reilly published, but thanks to the persistence of his mother, we can all share in Reilly’s gaseous emissions and his attempts at obtaining gainful employment in New Orleans.
Skippy Dies – Paul Murray
Yes, Skippy Dies. We know that from the title, and the book’s opening sequence. But this tragic incident doesn’t detract from Paul Murray’s amusing account of teenage life in a top Dublin boarding school. Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster’s best friend, the irascible and rotund Ruprecht is attempting to visit an alternate universe, while their other friends just want to brag about their (obviously fictitious) sexual exploits. Both touching and funny – not always an easy combination to pull off – this is equal parts The Inbetweeners and A Confederacy of Dunces.
Tietam Brown – Mick Foley
The opening chapter of ex-wrestler-cum-comedian-turned novelist Mick Foley’s first book is among the funniest ShortList has ever read. Rare are the books that induce involuntary chortles on the bus – this one achieved it five times in one dazzling sequence. The book concerns the life of Antietam (Andy) Brown V and his wayward father Antietam (Tietam) Brown IV: it is raw, unflinching and always painfully funny.
The Witches of Eastwick – John Updike
The big screen adaptation is naturally hilarious, but Updike’s original source material is a wonderful exercise in satire. Three women in the Rhode Island town of Eastwick acquire witch-like powers after being spurned by their husbands. Swearing to wreak vengeance they run amok until the mysterious appearance of Darryl Van Horne. What follows is high farce and social satire rolled into one. Mischievous doesn’t begin to cover it.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The first of five books in the Hitchhiker’s trilogy (there – that’s funny right off), Douglas Adams’s rip-roaring tale of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android has sold over 14 million copies to date. From the argument with the foreman before Dent’s house is bulldozed to Marvin reminiscing about being abandoned in a car park for half a billion years this is a remarkable, memorable and hysterical novel.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole – Sue Townsend
The first Adrian Mole book is an undoubted master class in comical teenage fiction. That a woman approaching middle age writes it only elevates the amusing tenor of the diary of a wannabe intellectual. Mole is that classic plot device – the unreliable and hubristic narrator who elevates his role in life. Just as entertaining are his observations on the national events of the time – the Falklands War and Margaret Thatcher’s administration chief among them.
The Code of the Woosters - P.G. Wodehouse
P.G. Wodehouse was the quintessential British humourist of the 20th Century, and his legacy lives on in the works of Stephen Fry et al. We could have chosen any of his Jeeves and Wooster novels, but this, his third to feature Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, is arguably the finest – and funniest – of them all. Wooster attempts to solve not one but two misfiring love affairs, has a run-in with a cold cucumber and there’s the strange case of the policeman’s helmet. Jeeves, as ever, is left to tidy up the mess. Classic upper class chortling.
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Yes, there’s the numerous passages devoted to masturbation techniques (one involving liver no less, but there’s more to Philip Roth’s feted book than how to jerk off. This is a dynamic, coarse and riotous novel that is framed around a monologue given by the narrator Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst Dr Speilvogel. Emblematic of the times (it was published in 1969), this repudiation of societal norms was both uproarious and profound.
The Comedy Of Errors - William Shakespeare
Slapstick is an underrated comedic device today. Shakespeare knew its worth though when he employed it marvellously in the aptly titled, The Comedy of Errors. Hinging on two sets of twins that were separated at birth, all manner of mishaps and farcical scenes abound when they are reunited. Academics today praise this work for its examination of social relationships. We love it because of the mirthful humour.
The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain
Ok, this isn’t a novel, it’s a travel book. But it’s a travel book penned by Mark Twain, quite possibly the funniest man ever to sit in front of a typewriter. Detailing his holiday to Europe and the Holy Land – famously dubbed his Great Pleasure Excursion – Twain unfolds a series of witty and unfortunate observations and incidents. For a Twain novel rich in humour try The Mysterious Stranger.
The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens announced his quite voluminous talent with this hilarious set of comic episodes that befall the endearing ‘gentleman of leisure’ and founder of the Pickwick Club, Samuel Pickwick, Esq. Misunderstandings regarding marriage rub shoulders with a shooting expedition in Suffolk. Pickwick’s servant Sam Weller is another magically observed character.
The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde could have probably transformed the diary of a train spotter into a comedic work of genius such was his way with a quip and a couple of bon mots. So satirising the duplicitous nature of Victorian society was meat and drink to this master wordsmith. High farce with no real serious interest was the theme of the play, but cunningly this worked to Wilde’s advantage as he managed to lance the boil of pompous Victorian morals by using the softly softly manner of comedy.
Money - Martin Amis
Martin Amis, like his father before him, is a masterful exponent of gallows humour. This is abundantly prevalent in his expose of 80s greed and lust, Money. The antagonist ad director John Self is a comic character drawn realistically from the rampaging themes of the age – hedonism, avarice and sloth. Amis cleverly extracts humour from Self’s misadventures by both poking fun at and revelling in his woes. Marvellous.
Illywhacker – Peter Carey
No ordinary novel, Illywhacker is divided into three books of 86, 61 and 66 chapters respectively. It tells the story of Herbert Badgery’s vivid life, from his exploits as a conman to time spent inside for ripping the finger off his childhood Chinese mentor. The prose is vibrant, bright and witty, as Badgery’s tales – and that of his son Charles – unfold in a meandering and light-hearted fashion.
Tom Jones – Henry Fielding
Tom Jones – no, not the glorified Welsh warbler, thank God – is regarded as one of the finest comedic English novels. Jones is a feckless everyman who sets off to find his fortune in mid-18th Century England. In classic picaresque fashion, Jones comes across a rogue’s gallery of characters from both high and low society. The result is bawdy expose of life in England – a time no so dissimilar to now readers will discover.
The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time – Mark Haddon
Christopher John Francis Boone is a 15-year-old self-proclaimed ‘mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’. When he discovers the body of his next-door neighbour’s dog, Wellington, he embarks upon a journey of shocking self-discovery that shakes his fragile world to the core. If it doesn’t sound like a barrel full of japes, let us assure you this is a tender and funny novel.
Finnegans Wake – James Joyce
A lurid journey into self-obsession, or a marvellously post-modern account of one man’s colourful dreams? The jury is still out on James Joyce’s much-debated novel, but what can be categorically agreed upon is that Finnegan’s Wake is strangely beguiling piece of sardonic literature. Just don’t ask us to tell you what it all means.
Cakes and Ale – Or, the Skeleton In The Cupboard - W. Somerset Maugham
The skeleton in the cupboard indeed. This piece of fiction set London’s literary set ablaze when it was published in 1930 because it was said to be a thinly disguised account of the recently deceased Thomas Hardy’s slightly scandalous personal life. Maugham spectacularly spears social snobbery and boorish behaviour in this ribald tale.
Puckoon – Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan made his name as a surreal comedian, so it’s apt that his debut novel should be such a bizarre and seditious delight. Set in 1924, against the backdrop of the Partition of Ireland, Puckoon is a village divided in two by some absent minded fools at the border commission who were thinking of the pub rather than their work. The Guardian claimed it has the funniest funeral scene in all fiction.
Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov
Timofey Pnin is a Russian exile from his communist homeland and a Professor of Russian at a US college. As he struggles to come to grips with his new home a series of merciless mishaps and misfortunes unfold. As narrator, Pnin isn’t wholly reliable and Nabokov throws in a number of curve balls along the way to keep the pace odd and fresh. If you only knew Nabokov because of Lolita, read this and see a more curious side to the writer.