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Books that will make you laugh for all the right reasons

As seen on Ten Daily

The season for laughs is upon us as the Melbourne Comedy Festival begins this month, followed closely by the Sydney Comedy Festival in April. In preparation, here are some books that will make you snort into your coffee, stifle a chuckle on your commute or belly laugh in bed.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

I can’t write a list of funny books without including Vernon God Little, which my husband continues to quote with a chuckle whenever he eats ribs. Fast food plays a central role in this story of a disadvantaged family living in small-town America. DBC Pierre turns his sharp gaze on suburban America and its taste for grease, injustice and religion.  It is at its funniest when the women of the story are talking to each other, most often about food.

Vernon God Little won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing 2003.

“Mom’s best friend is called Palmyra. Everybody calls her Pam. She’s fatter than Mom, so Mom feels good around her. Mom’s other friends are slimmer. They’re not her best friends.” 

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

It is a rare writer who can combine classic literature with fart jokes, but that is exactly what John Kennedy Toole does in A Confederacy of Dunces. The protagonist, Ignatius J Reilly, is creative, educated and idealistic, but also overweight, flatulent, belligerent and slothful. Despite his shortcomings, he finds his inability to get a job inexplicable, and blames the ‘confederacy of dunces’ around him.

Ignatius’ pomposity and delusions of superiority lead him into some hilarious situations, and his responses are as painfully awkward as they are funny.

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Much of the humour in How to Be a Woman comes from the awkward truths that Caitlin Moran reveals in her likeable, occasionally angry, always engaging, way. The book chronicles Moran’s physical, social and emotional evolution from being a girl to becoming a woman, and all the humiliation, confusion and frustration that involves.

It is a kind of memoir and feminist manifesto that is both funny and serious, tackling issues ranging from abortion to sexism, and somehow Moran imbues each of these weighty topics with humour.

“The idea that women should have to flirt in order to get on is just as vexing as any other thing women are supposed to have to do – such as be thin, accept 30 per cent lower wages, and not laugh at 30 Rock when they have food in their mouth and it falls out a bit, on to the floor, and the cat eats it.”

He Died with a Felafel in his Hand by John Birmingham

The title of John Birmingham’s cult classic offers a hint of what is to come in this book about the filth and debaucherous fun of share housing. Published in 1994 long before Big Brother, He Died with a Felafel in his Hand offers insight into what happens when young strangers move in together.

At the time I read it I was living at home with my parents and it introduced me to an unfamiliar world that was at times disgusting and slightly horrifying, but undoubtedly funny. When I later lived in share houses after uni, John Birmingham’s book came back to haunt me as I came to recognise many of the situations and characters.

I am not the only one. A comment on Goodreads is indicative of many reviews of the book:

“’He Died With A Felafel In His Hand’ is hilarious, and so spot on. As an art school student, I lived and slept in various group houses in Queensland. They were fun years, although a bit hazy. I’m sure I know some of the people in this book, and a great many of the cockroaches…”

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Can a book be funny but sad? Yes, according to Sean Greer. Less centres on the story of a heartbroken central character, Arthur Less, who leaves home to avoid attending his ex’s wedding and celebrating his 50th birthday alone.

The hapless Less is more famous for a previous relationship with a genius than his own writing, and has resigned himself to life as a second-rate author. He tells himself he is not still in love with his ex, while obviously pining for him. Despite and sometimes because of Less’s disillusionment that verges on despair, this book is heart-warming and hilarious, written with wit and self-deprecating humour.

“New York is a city of eight million people, approximately seven million of whom will be furious when they hear you were in town and didn’t meet them for an expensive dinner, five million furious you didn’t visit their new baby, three million furious you didn’t see their new show, one million furious you didn’t call for sex, but only five actually available to meet you. It is completely reasonable to call none of them.”

Down Under by Bill Bryson

There is plenty that foreigners might find funny Aussies, from the way we name our swimmers ‘budgie smugglers’ to our nickname for our most successful export, ‘the singing budgie’.  And while it might sound unappealing to read about ourselves from the perspective of a visiting American, somehow Bill Bryson writes about Australia and its inhabitants in a way that is both affectionate and hilarious, but never condescending.

Bryson embraces the quirks of the country and its people, and is enamoured by some of our most underwhelming tourist sites, including Ned Kelly’s Last Stand in Glenrowan. It is a book that allows Australians to laugh at themselves, while reminding them of what is so special about the sunburned country.

I found myself snorting with laughter when I was reading Down Under, as well as other travelogues by Bryson, including Notes from a Small Island and A Walk in the Woods.

“Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey

The queen of television comedy has also successfully turned her hand to memoir in Bossypants. Tina Fey’s book is different from many celebrity memoirs in that it is less revelatory and more of a discussion of the humour in different situations that she has faced in her life.

Like many other funny books, this one doesn’t rest solely on its humour – I’m not sure a one-dimensional comedy could be sustained for hundreds of pages – but it is also insightful and inspiring as it shines a light on her industry and her dream of working in comedy.

“Obviously, as an adult I realize this girl-on-girl sabotage is the third worst kind of female behaviour, right behind saying “like” all the time and leaving your baby in a dumpster.”

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Another book in which serious issues are tackled with humour and wit is Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Described as ‘grimly hilarious’, The Sellout’s narrator is an African American who decides the answer to society’s ills is to reintroduce racial segregation and slavery in the US.

During his campaign, some of Beatty’s satire can be a bitter pill to swallow, as he casts a critical eye over the history of racism, classism and sexism, and the current malaise, in the US.

“I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalizing that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.”

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is an irresistibly witty collection of stories inspired by his move from New York to Paris. In the book’s title story, Sedaris recounts his attempts to learn French from a sadistic teacher with savage humour.

Like classics before it including My Family and Other Animals and Cold Comfort Farm, family also plays a central role in the book. Sedaris’ own anxiety is both endearing and irrepressibly funny, and he has a sharp eye for absurdity, both in society, his family, and in his own thoughts and behaviour.

“When asked “What do we need to learn this for?” any high-school teacher can confidently answer that, regardless of the subject, the knowledge will come in handy once the student hits middle age and starts working crossword puzzles in order to stave off the terrible loneliness.”

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

In the first book in Graeme Simsion’s bestselling Rosie series, The Rosie Project, genetics professor Don embarks on The Wife Project to find himself a suitable partner. This, in itself, offers ample opportunity for humour as the awkward and highly practical Don tries to find the perfect wife.

The latest in the series, The Rosie Result, follows Don’s attempts to ensure his son, Hudson, doesn’t encounter the same social problems that he faced at school. Both Don and Hudson have behaviours that might place them on the Autism spectrum. However, Simsion ensures both are well and truly in on the joke, and often highlights the absurdity of social interactions that we consider to be ‘normal’.

At one point, in his direct and perceptive way, Don describes his potential employer as, “a woman of approximately forty with an enthusiasm approaching mania.”

The humour in these books does not entirely disguise the serious issues of acceptance and equality, but makes reading them a fun way to challenge prejudices and misconceptions.


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