Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Who are the funniest American writers?

Pat Robertson helped me discover Andy Borowitz.

Borowitz writes a great humor blog. The other day he posted this:
Evangelist Pat Robertson sparked controversy in today’s broadcast of his 700 Club program by saying that yesterday’s mild East Coast earthquake was God’s revenge on people “who act kind of gay.” 
I saw the re-post on Facebook and, thinking it was serious, made some sort of snarky remark. Then someone hipper than me sent a status-update that Borowitz was a humorist, fool, kind of like The Onion. Then I looked up the rest of Borowitz's take on Robertson:
"All across the Eastern seaboard, there are men who get manicures, wear designer eyewear and know about thread counts,” Rev. Robertson said.  “God finds this somewhat gay-like behavior confusing, and He responded by getting mildly peeved.” The televangelist warned that if Americans persist in their “seemingly sort-of-gay behavior,” the country should brace itself for additional ambiguous acts of retaliation from the Almighty.
 “God will strike back at people who act sort of gay with all kinds of mild responses,” he said.  “If you keep getting pedicures and facials, you can expect two to three inches of rain and some really hot humid days in your future.”
I get it. Very funny. Cuts close to the truth which is what good satire should do. And I fell for it.

Here's his bio from amazon.com:
Andy Borowitz  is a writer and a comedian whose work appears in The New Yorker and at his satirical website, BorowitzReport.com, which has millions of readers around the world. The author of six books, he is the first-ever winner of the National Press Club's humor award, a two-time finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a two-time host of the National Book Awards. He has been called a "Swiftian satirist" (The Wall Street Journal), "America's satire king" (The Daily Beast) and "one of the funniest people in America" (CBS News Sunday Morning).
He has a new book coming out in October. It's called "The 50 Funniest American Writers." Already he's causing controversy with his list. For one thing, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell aren't on it. To thinking people, they are the most hilarious people in America (along with Michele Bachmann). But other comedians didn't make the grade, either.

But humor writers aren't really comedians. They have comedic talents, naturally, but they also know how to create believable characters and string sentences together into a story. 

Some of Borowitz's favorites are mine too. Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, Mark Twain, Fran Leibowitz, Molly Ivins, Woody Allen, etc. Others I don't know much about: David Rakoff, Larry Wilmore and Sloane Crosley. Must find out more…

On the literary humor side, the National Book Critics Circle “Critical Mass” blog has been featuring posts all summer by its membership and former winners about the best comic novels. It comes under the title "NBCC Reads." Since I didn’t see this until we were well into the dog days, I had to play catch-up with my reading. 

Favorite comic novel? No surprise there – “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller. It’s a masterpiece, one that I’ve read six times and dip into periodically for some laughs. The characters are fantastic and the writing superb.

I’m a little less insightful on some of the other choices. I haven't read “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis. This makes me feel dumb as apparently everyone else in creation has read this 1953 novel.

I feel smart again when I read about the classic English novels “Tristram Shandy,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Tom Jones.” It’s been awhile, but English Department Brit Lit courses are good for something.

David Abrams writes at length about Lewis Nordan’s “Music of the Swamp. I haven’t read that Nordan masterpiece, but I have read “Lightning Song,” “The Sharpshooter Blues” and “Wolf Whistle.” There is always a dark streak to Lewis Nordan, usually darkly humorous – he’s from Mississippi, after all. In the latter novel, he uses it to great horror with the infamous Emmett Till murder.

“A Confederacy of Dunces” was named by three writers. Bharati Mukerjee likes Salman Rushdie’s “Shame.”

Here’s how Rob Spilman describes his favorite, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," by Douglas Adams: “The consistently hilarious series of novels is deadpan funny from the opening destruction of the earth."

My son Kevin would agree with that. He turned me on to the series through audiobook during a cross-state jaunt across Wyoming. He’s still a big fan. I also saw the movie, which sort-of counts.

Go read this Critical Mass series as summer wanes.

I’d like to make a pitch for some of my favorite comedic writers, ones that seem to have been left out of the NBCC series. The late Grace Paley’s stories are amazing. I have a signed first edition of Paley’s “The Collected Stories.” I suppose I should be handling it with kid gloves, but it’s well-worn now. Here’s the opening from “An Interest in Life:”
“My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.”
It just gets better from there.

Tim Sandlin of Jackson is a fantastically funny novelist. I’m not saying that just because he’s from Wyoming. Go read “Jimi Hendrix Turns 80” or any one of the Gros Vont series. Tell me that’s not funny.

Bronx-born Jerome Charyn writes the Isaac Sidel NYC cop novels. I read the Mysterious Press paperbacks that came out in the 1990s. They are very hard to find now, at least in bookstores, even good ones such as Kramerbooks in D.C. Kirkus Reviews says that Charyn “writes like a rabbi on bad acid.” The NYT Book Review called his books “anarchic in form and apocalyptic in theme.”

Our public library has none of Charyn’s books (they’ve tried to order them). Neither do our bookstores. I have a few copies you can borrow. I’ll temporarily swap you a copy of “Maria’s Girls” for one of “Lucky Jim.”


Anonymous said...

Mike: I love Confederacy of Dunces and laugh everytime I reread it. The back story is so sad though. Lori B.

Michael Shay said...

Confederacy of Dunces is an amazing book. The back story, alas, is a tragedy. I have always been pleased that it was another of my favorite writers, Walker Percy, who helped get "Dunces" published. Percy a fine Southern novelist whose humor is underrated. Maybe it's just that his observations of humankind are so dead-on, and humans are so funny, that his novels can't help but make me laugh. I love "The Moviegoer."