Friday 10 August 2012

Best comic classics in English


A comic classic must be re-readable, must be read spontaneously (and not prescribed in courses), and must be not only enjoyable but also funny on re-reading.

The best comic work generates a kind of 'depth' from the world it creates - this world must be delightful.

Farce is not comic - because it is heartless.

But in the lists below this category excludes 'great' literature which is also comic - to get onto the list the work must primarily be comic (although almost never exclusively comic).


Best comic novel: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

Best comic travelogue: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Best comic novelist: PG Wodehouse, especially Jeeves stories

Best writer of comic verse: Lewis Carroll

Best writer of comic poetry: John Betjeman

Best comic playwright: Tom Stoppard (early)

Best comic 'diary': Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith



Jonathan C said...

I've read Lucky Jim, but I guess I just don't get it. It didn't make me laugh.

The all-time funniest novel I've read is Richard Russo's "Straight Man", which is also about academia. It made me laugh out loud a lot.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JC "I've read Lucky Jim, but I guess I just don't get it."

Fair enough. The above list makes no pretense at any kind of objectivity.

It is purely a personal view.

Humour is much more subjective than beauty. And most of the books I list are very English, and would not be likely to people of other (envious?) nations - such as dearieme ;-)

dearieme said...

Jonathan C is hereby drummed out of the Having a Sense of Humour Club, the qualification for membership being enjoying Lucky Jim.

BGC is dismissed from the Being Good at Teasing Club, the qualification for membership being entirely obvious.

P.S. William Dunbar should have been on the lists of pretty good poets.

Bruce Charlton said...

Dunbar, agreed. Superb poet for those like myself who are fluent in Inglis/ Middle Scots.

FredR said...

Good list.

Wm Jas said...

Best writer of comic prose: Stephen Leacock.

By the way, what's the difference between "comic verse" and "comic poetry"?

Wurmbrand said...

"Farce is not comic - because it is heartless."

You could give Waugh's Decline and Fall as a spectacular example.

Thursday said...

Not originally in English, but I think you might enjoy the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem. Hillel Halkin has done a good translation.

Thursday said...

Satire isn't the same as comedy either. Interestingly satire seems to belong to the reactionaries, though not necessarily all the most religious of reactionaries. A lot of the following had a big rationalist streak.


One might also include:


All very conservative.

The only possible competitors in (broadly) liberal satire would be Rabelais and maybe Twain if you stick to literature and Stanley Kubrick (for Dr. Strangelove) if you include film.

FHL said...

I have nothing to add to the list, but hoho!, I've got a comedic story of my own, and it has the advantage of being a true story. It's called “The time FHL spent a night in jail, courtesy of the British.”

Four years ago, I was at my apartment one night drinking and watching tv. I invite over a friend, a Brit who was in the US on a student visa to play soccer (or “football” as y'all call it). When he gets here, we decide to go to the store. Since I had a few a drinks, I thought it safer to walk, but he offered to drive. Little did I know he had came to my place straight from the bar. So I toss him the keys to my car we're on our way. Now to this day, I don't know if he did this because he was drunk or because he was British, but he turns out on the street onto the wrong side of the road, driving straight into incoming traffic. Lucky for us, the incoming car manages to stop in time; unlucky for us, it's a police car.
So the red and blue lights flash and my friend pulls the car up into a nearby parking lot. I'm now going through my glovebox looking for insurance papers, thinking we'd have to pay some big fine, but Sir Gallahad next to me has other plans. Next thing I know, the driver's side door is wide open and he's sprinting down the street. Backup is called, half a dozen police cars surround him, and one big cop manages to tackle him.
To cut to the chase, we both end up going to jail. I was charged with public intoxication- which means not only was intoxicated but I was also a danger to the public.
I speak to a lawer: “I wasn't even drunk- and how can they say I was a danger to the public? How was I supposed to know he'd been drinking? He has an outrageous accent, I can't tell if he's slurring his speech!”
“They don't really have a case, you probably don't even have to hire a lawyer to get out of this one. Only thing I can think of is they'd say that had you had your wits about you, you would have known he didn't have a license because he came here just a few weeks ago from Britain.”
“So we're just supposed to assume the British can't drive, and anyone who attempts such a reckless endeavor can safely be assumed to be drunk and a danger to the public?”
“Like I said, they don't really have a case.”
The lawyer was right, the case was dismissed before I even went to court. But I learned a new lesson: that apparently you can go to jail for the crime of letting the British drive.

stephen c said...

Not exactly a novel or a series of short stories, but there are wonderful parallels between the achievement of the creator (sub-creator) of Peanuts and the creator (sub-creator) of the lands of Middle-Earth; a world like ours but infused in a slightly different way with the divine; a focus on the enthusiasm of childhood (as recommended by St Paul) and an equally strong focus on the recollection in tranquillity of emotions of the past (as recommended by Wordsworth, Lewis, Tolkien, King Solomon, etc), and, in addition, the creator of Peanuts, who published every day for about half a century, was laugh outloud funny many times every year. And he created a Christmas tradition, at least in the US and Canada, which puts him in a very elite group of comic authors (which includes, among others, Dickens, Schultz, and a bunch of unfortunately and unfairly anonymousish poets and carol writers)

Bruce Charlton said...

Wm Jas - "By the way, what's the difference between "comic verse" and "comic poetry"? "

I don't know in any official sense, but if you think about what Lewis Carroll was doing, and what Betjeman was doing, there is a big difference. They are coming at humour from different angles, almost opposite directions.

@Thursday - I think that in an ideal world there would be no satire, although I used to do a lot of it myself (justified to myself by my attacking that which deserved to be destroyed) I now perceive it if much more likely to do harm than good because of the standards of evaluation which satire enforces.

I would, in fact, regard all your examples of satirists as anti-traditionalists, radicals, subversives (of course they seem reactionary to us, but in their time they were setting new fashions).

This is intrinsic to satire which mimics in order to subvert. Clever satire can discredit anything, and without ever offering an alternative - it can be/ is destructive of all Good - even while deploying fragments of Good in its satirical blendings.

At any rate, satire is the *last* thing we need in the West, now.

@FHL - excellent story, thanks.

@stepehn h - I agree that Schulz was absolutely first rate by world historical standards. I should certainly have included him.

Gabe Ruth said...

Very good remarks about satire in the comments.

Have you ever read "To Say Nothing of the Dog" by Connie Willis? I highly recommend it. However, I've read one other book from the author, and I don't intend to read any more from her.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - No, I've never heard of this.