I was speaking with a friend last year, and he said something that really got me thinking. Not only did I agree right then, I had agreed for a long time and never realized it. What he said was something along the lines of “the way I see it, all our greatest modern philosophers are comedians.” Obviously, my brain exploded with the implications of his statement.
It was comedy that had either changed or reaffirmed my opinion on so many topics—from gay marriage to conspiracy theories, whether they had intended to or not. It was that moment in particular that prompted me to re-read a lot of my favorite comedy novels, looking for the ways they affected me and changed the way I see the world. Perhaps I was just a bit oblivious before, or I didn’t acknowledge what was happening during the time, but it was everywhere. Here are some of the books that came to mind and why I loved them, and if you have any kind of taste, you will too.
1) John Dies at The End by David Wong
This is the most recent addition to the list, having finished it only a couple of weeks ago. I’d have loved this book for the unique writing style, gross out humor, and silly one-liners alone, but there was so much more to it than that. There are extraordinarily profound moments that are not only brave and honest, but non-threatening to whatever opinion you may hold.
The story wraps up nicely and makes sense, but the philosophical questions go unanswered, as I suspect they were meant to. It slaps you in the face a few times for not having seen things coming, and it grabbed me by the guts and twisted more than once. But I think its greatest achievement was making me fall in love with a character that the title clearly states dies…at the end. I try to guard myself from stories like that, The Walking Dead being a good example, but I honestly couldn’t help it with this one. John is a fuck up retard who spouts out stupid one-liners and runs around using video game logic as if every fucked up thing that might happen to him could be handled when he respawns at a save point. I can’t say I didn’t see way too much of myself in that character.
The sequel is also excellent, but you have to start at the beginning. This Book is Full of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch it) was, in my opinion, even better than its predecessor. The writing style has been tightened up and the comedy is just as good. The narrative takes on a dour tone as we read through the countdown to each major disastrous event in the plot, which is, ironically, exactly the kind of morose backdrop that black comedy needs for maximum effectiveness. I suggest them both, but definitely read them in order.
2) A Practical Guide to Racism by C.H. Dalton
I’m sure more than one of you took pause at the title, so let’s put it out there: it’s a satire. This book is probably the most responsible for my indifference to others being offensive and my enjoyment of statistically reinforced stereotypes. Races are biologically non-existent. Two white guys could be less genetically similar to each other than the two of them are to a black guy that just happens to be walking by. Your “race” is literally defined by a few loci in your entire genome, but because those few genes are phenotypically very obvious, we’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by them. But enough with the science.
We all see race, no matter how color blind we proclaim to be. Many people take the path of trying too hard not to be seen as racist, and therefore treat one race differently than the other, ending up doing the very thing they were trying to avoid. This book takes the opposite approach; it pulls out every stupid stereotype that you can imagine about a given culture and throws them around in a way that shines light on how stupid they all are.
With made up charts, diagrams, and even made up races, it celebrates not only what actually makes us different, but also how nonsensical our notions of other races can be. Racism is ignorance, and ignorant ideas deserve to be mocked and ridiculed, and satire is perfect for the job. If you’re the type who loves to feign outrage over the mere mention of racism, read this book, but understand that you aren’t fooling anyone.
3) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Have you ever noticed all the smartest people you know rave about how fucking genius this book is? Well, I’m here as proof to the point that you don’t have to be a smarty to enjoy this book. The story, setting, and characters are all funny and quirky, and if you pay close enough attention, you might learn something about what it really means to be human. I won’t go into too much detail, mostly because there are a million people out there more eloquent and learned than I am that have already done a much better job of selling this book to you, and I don’t have anything particularly original to add.
4) Catch 22- by Joseph Heller
This is another one that’s on plenty of reading lists, and rightly so. Set on an air force base in Italy during World War II, the story is full of ridiculous characters and events. It centers on John Yossarian, a bombardier who is desperate to get out of combat and go home. He’s convinced that people are trying to kill him; whether it’s him specifically or the idea of him as a soldier is of little consequence. The biggest obstacle in his way is the shifting goalpost of flight missions required before he will be discharged. Every time he gets close, the number goes up. Like any rational person who is dealing with the futility of their circumstances, he tries to get sent home, but everything he does simply leads him into a contradicting regulation that puts him back into combat.
One of my favorite things about this book is the author’s clever use of language. He managed to do things in a way that wasn’t flowery or contrived, while making complete sense and remaining easy to read.
I was amazed at how single minded—and often one-dimensional—some of the characters were, not because of how poorly they suited the story, but for how charming many of them were. It played into Yossarian’s obvious self-absorption that everyone else in the story would be such a caricature, yet so very integral to the plot.
All in all, this book is excellent, and though the lack of linear chronology was confusing at first, everything started to come together and wrapped up nicely.
5) Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
My favorite book. I don’t hide the fact that I’m an atheist, and if asked, I’ll tell you all about my journey from piety to doubt, and eventually to passive non-belief, but that isn’t what this is about. A friend of mine entertains the idea that losing your faith mirrors the stages of grief, and considering that, you could say that I was in my anger phase when I picked up this book. By the end, I realized that I loved Christ, I loved his teachings and his demeanor, and that he was brave enough to stand up and say, “Can’t we all just get along?” I was by no means a Christian, but reading this book brought into focus that I didn’t need to hate Christ, or rational Christians, for that matter. It set me on a path that would show me that it was fundamentalism and dogmatic thinking that I find deplorable.
Unlike The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, or The Jefferson Bible as it’s known colloquially, this book does not exclude divinity and the supernatural in telling the tale of Yeshua, or as he’s known in the novel, Joshua. Through the eyes of his rambunctious best friend, Eli, who is called Biff, they travel from Nazareth to North Africa, Asia, and India so that they can learn from the three wise men. Trained in sorcery, martial arts, spiritual meditation, yoga, and, in Biff’s case, tantric sex, they return to Israel where Joshua starts his ministry.
The rest of the story goes as you would expect, with the arrest and crucifixion of Joshua. The comedy of the book is mostly situational, and often hinges on Joshua’s use of Biff as a sin guinea pig as he tries to understand the nature of sin, or Biff’s complete ineptness in learning the techniques that his friend is mastering with ease.
All in all, this is an incredible book that gives more character to Christ than the New Testament while maintaining his canonical purity and a non-confrontational voice. This book single-handedly pulled me out of my angry stage, and I highly recommend it whether you’re a Christian or not.
And those are the five comedies I suggest, nay, implore that you read. If you read them, stop back by and let me know what you think. If you’ve already read them and have something to add, leave it in a comment below, and I’ll add it to the page with your name attached, even if it completely disagrees with something I’ve said.
I look forward to hearing what you think.