Is Comedic Literature Making a Comeback?

Our earliest laughs inevitably predate our first favorite books by a few years. Long before we understand the words inside a volume of The Boxcar Children or any Dr. Seuss book, some adult will do something silly that will make us giggle, even though we might not totally understand why. In a lot of cases, what we read — or what people read to us — can make us laugh just as much. And it’s children, more than adults, who are expected to want literature that makes them laugh. You don’t hear a lot of 20-somethings saying they’re buying a novel because they heard it was hilarious, yet there is no shortage of funny highbrow literature, and a lot of humorous writing that should be read with the same critical eye as some of our greatest “serious” short stories and novels – assuming you can read while cracking up.

One such book is Jack Handey’s new novel, The Stench of Honolulu.“I wanted to put the ‘Deep Thoughts’ character out in the field, to see what kind of damage he could do — just out of curiosity,” he tells me. If you’ve paid attention to comedy in the last three decades, you’re probably already familiar with Handey — his “Deep Thoughts” have been featured in two of America’s most venerable humor institutions, National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live. He is revered in comedy writing circles as one of the best of the best, but the guy responsible for the famous “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” Saturday Night Live skit has also written a great novel that might go unnoticed by people who look down their noses at funny books.

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And that’s a shame, because The Stench of Honolulu, Handey’s first novel and seventh book overall, is well worth reading. Its clean and clever story follows a very unreliable narrator who sees his time spent on the tropical wonderland of our 50th state as an adventure on a mysterious backwater island. The book is a short and easy read, and, of course, it’s hilarious. Think Ignatius C. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces if he believed himself to be Indiana Jones, but filtered through Handey’s unique voice.

Inevitably, the book comes with blurbs from comedy royalty like Judd Apatow and Jimmy Fallon. But lit snobs would do well to pay attention to a third blurb that proclaims, “Jack Handey is the funniest writer in America.” Situated above both Apatow’s and Fallon’s, it could come from another comedy writing god like Tina Fey or Woody Allen, but it doesn’t; the blurb comes from George Saunders.

“George Saunders is a great, funny writer,” Handey tells me. His endorsement of the author of the recent critically acclaimed short story collection Tenth of December could come off as a, “You call me really funny and I’ll call you the same” sort of deal, but it isn’t — because aside from being one of the best and most respected writers around, George Saunders is also truly funny.

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But Handey is no fiction connoisseur.“I don’t read a lot of fiction,” he tells me. “Mostly non-fiction. I just read two excellent biographies of Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore.” And then he delivers something close to a “Deep Thought”: “Stalin was a barrel of laughs.”

There have been plenty of great writers who bridged the gap between literature and humor, although they’re usually seen more as humorists than canonic authors: Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, and David Sedaris are a few of the names that come to mind. S.J. Perelman, who is best known for his work co-writing the scripts to two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, is another writer who gets squirreled into this category. Although Perelman’s work earned more than its share of laughs, he personally saw his style falling somewhere between James Joyce and the man he considered his rival, the British writer P.G. Wodehouse. Perelman hated seeing his work labeled as humor writing, rather than literature, especially considering that Wodehouse’s stories continue to be lauded as brilliant books that simply happened to be really funny. Being a great writer who is also hilarious can also mean that your persona outshines your prose: Dorothy Parker wrote fantastic stories that were often funny, yet she’s most remembered for being the life of the party.

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Perhaps the larger problem is that we still have trouble viewing comedy as a legitimate art form (see also: major movie awards consistently overlooking comedy films), and that strange exclusion can explain the literary establishment’s lack of interest in the humorous novel. But are things changing? Are we finally moving towards a world where you can laugh while reading a novel?

Interest in comedic literature was reignited a few years ago with the release of Sam Lipsyte’s brilliant novel The Ask, when Lipsyte’s then-editor, Lorin Stein (now at the helm at The Paris Review), opened the book’s press release with the following sentence: “A generation ago, there was no shame in a book’s being funny.” Stein went on to list “Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Barry Hannah, the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint, the DeLillo of End Zone, etc., etc.” as examples of the strain of humor running through books written by writers born around the time of the Second World War. He lamented that novels of that kind have become less and less popular in the last few decades, citing Lipsyte’s book (one of the best book’s of the last decade in this writer’s opinion) as a more than adequate corrective.

Whether Stein was being sincere or just trying to make a provocative statement about the decline of funny novels to sell a funny novel, I’ve noticed that in the last few years, funny literary writers are getting more attention. All of Gary Shteyngart’s books, Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, Seth Fried’s The Great Frustrations, The Miniature Wife by Manuel Gonzales, and a book that will likely top my 2013 best of list, Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely, all offer plenty of laugh-out-loud lines. These books may not have much in common with your standard dumbed-down Comedy Central special — Maazel’s features a cult that promises to cure loneliness in the 21st century, and Wilson’s is filled to the brim with masturbation and drug use — but depending on your sense of humor, you’re likely to laugh a few times as you read each of them.

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Ultimately, what comedy and literature share is the aim of pushing readers’ and audiences’ boundaries for the sake of pleasure. It’s probably why you hear Lenny Bruce’s name so often mentioned in the same breath as the Beat writers, and why a book like Portnoy’s Complaint, in which the main character masturbates into a piece of meat, can be considered a Great American Novel. But this overlap is just as pronounced in the work of comedians like Hannibal Buress; when you strip away the “comedian” title, the guy is a really hilarious storyteller (not to mention one who also happens to be a great comedy writer).

Humor has, in fact, always been central to literature: Shakespeare wrote comedies, Mark Twain was America’s first great humorist, and Steve Martin has a few really good books to his name. But although I’ve read books and paid attention to comedy in equal doses throughout my life, I’ve noticed is that while comedy can be a career, being a funny literary writer has a shorter shelf life. Roth’s books haven’t been funny for years, and 1985’s White Noise is the height of DeLillo’s darkly hilarious writing; the same goes for Money by Martin Amis. When I mention this to Handey, and tell him I wonder why so many writers eventually lose their sense of humor, he recalls a quote from one of comedy’s most literate stars, John Cleese: “To a civilian, a man slipping on a banana is funny. But to a comedy writer it has to be an old woman, falling into a manhole.”