The story goes that National Review’s estimable founder William F. Buckley Jr. didn’t read Moby Dick until he was 50. At which point, he told his friends, “To think I might have died without having read it.” As someone whose favorite literary pleasure — guilty or otherwise — is comedic writing, I recently had a similar revelation. At the ripe old age of 30, I cracked open a P. G. Wodehouse omnibus that had been sitting on my shelf untouched for at least six years. It quickly dawned on me that, despite my love of humorous literary endeavors, somehow I had been missing out big time. The pre-eminent humorist of the 20th century was all he was cracking me up to be.
Since I was a child, I’ve had a tremendous affection for any book that makes me laugh. It’s had a profound affect on me as a writer; occasionally I even write something funny. Should anyone notice, I like to quote Eugene Levy in Waiting For Guffman: “People say, ‘You must have been the class clown.’ And I say, ‘No, I wasn’t. But I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.’”
In my case, I read a lot of funny books. So as part of NRO’s summer books week, I thought I’d pass along some of my favorites in case you’re up for some light reading. Hopefully, you’ll go from “To think I might have died without having read it,” to “To think I might have died laughing.”
‐Let’s get this out of the way first — every NRO reader should know about the two deans of conservative humor, Christopher Buckley and P.J. O’Rourke. The latter recently said of the former, “Good comic novels about Washington can be counted on one hand, specifically Christopher Buckley’s.” I’ll testify to that; I particularly like Wry Martinis, The White House Mess, and Thank You For Smoking — the last of which was a darn good film, too. As for O’Rourke, he needs little introduction, I hope. He’s endlessly quotable and bears rereading. Flipping though Parliament of Whores recently, I became convinced it’s not just the funniest book ever written on public policy, but the best.
‐One of the very few good comic novels about Washington not written by Buckley is Jeffrey Frank’s The Columnist. As a journalist in D.C., I can tell you it cuts pretty close to the bone, and unlike a lot of Washington humor, it gets bonus points for being appropriately mean and scathing. I nearly lost it when near the end of the book it’s dryly mentioned that one of the characters, a politician famous for philandering, writes a memoir entitled Their Bodies, Myself.
‐After Wodehouse, England’s funniest writer is Evelyn Waugh. Scoop is still a classic, a must read for anyone who wants to understand journalism and laugh. (There’s a recent edition with a forward by Christopher Hitchens that’s worth seeking out, if just for Hitchens’s insightful take on the book’s importance.) Also, Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall, and Black Mischief are all hilarious. In the last, the main character is introduced when he wakes up in a totally unfamiliar flat in London and casually observes a lady in the corner eating a can of sardines with a shoehorn — vintage Waugh.
‐Kingsley Amis’s first book, Lucky Jim, which is about a young professor whose life is stuck in neutral, is maybe the most perfect comic novel of all time. If you’ve ever had a job you hate, this is the book for you. Here’s how Amis describes a hangover of his forlorn protagonist: “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”
‐If we’re talking comedy, sooner or later Groucho Marx is going to come up. There was an excellent slim volume of his writings published five years ago — The Essential Groucho, edited by Stefan Kanfer. When it comes to funny books, I’ll defer to Groucho: “Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
‐George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series is justly celebrated. Harry Flashman is one of the most decorated heroes of the British army. From the Boxer Rebellion to Little Big Horn, he’s mixed up in nearly every major military conflict of the 19th century. He’s total poltroon and completely dishonorable, but a canny sense of self-preservation and the incompetence of his superiors makes him come out on top in every one of his adventures (a premise that seems indebted to the Czech comedy classic The Good Soldier Svejk). Very politically incorrect and very funny; a new installment was just published this past spring.
‐Mark Leyner’s full-length novels, such as My Cousin, My Gastroenterolgist and The Tetherballs of Bougainville, are hilarious but a bit exhausting. His collection of short pieces, Tooth Imprints on a Corndog, strikes just the right balance. His amphetamine prose is an exceedingly rare combination of cerebral and bust-a-gut funny. If you don’t think you’d laugh out loud at a critique of consumerist culture disguised as an existentialist parody of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leyner will likely surprise you.
‐At first glance, The X-Presidents seems like a novelty. It’s a short comic book based on the eponymous Saturday Night Live cartoon sketches. However, it was written by two of the funniest comedy writers around, Robert Smigel and Adam McKay. Both SNL alums, Smigel is better known as the voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and McKay is the writer and director of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Their little novelty comic book is deadly hilarious, parodying both politics and comic books themselves. Be warned though: comic book or not, some of the material is definitely not appropriate for kids.
‐As for more family oriented humor, I heartily recommend Patrick F. McManus. Having grown up in the Cascade Mountains of Central Oregon, I did my share of fishing and camping. As a kid, I found McManus’s exaggerated reminiscences about his adventures in the outdoors growing up in Idaho both funny and easy to relate to, and most adults will too. His output varies a bit, but his first two books, A Fine and Pleasant Misery and They Shoot Canoes Don’t They?, are a great place to start.
‐A few years back, The New Yorker published a collection of its Shouts & Murmurs columns, titled Fierce Pajamas. And sure, New Yorker humor is usually of the how-droll-look-at-me-I’m-an-urbane-sophisticate variety. Maybe it’s not always laughter inducing, but it is always a pleasure to read, and it’s not often you see E.B. White and Deep Thoughts’ Jack Handey in the same table of contents.
I hope I’ve included a little something for everyone on this short list. If you don’t find any of these funny, just keep reading, and remember this other bit of wisdom from Waiting For Guffman: Comedy is “a zen thing, like how many babies you can fit in a tire.”
–Mark Hemingway is a monetary-policy correspondent for Market News International and a writer in Washington, D.C.