The British sense of humour is famous around the world but what kind of literature makes us laugh? It seems the ideal amusing read would be a mind-boggling combination of PG Wodehouse's sublime wit, a liberal dose of Joseph Heller's black humour and a slice of Douglas Adams' galactic comedy.
AbeBooks.co.uk recently asked 555 of its customers to name the funniest book they had ever read. Right Ho, Jeeves, Catch-22 and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were the top three. Eight of the top 10 authors were British but Americans Heller and John Kennedy Toole also featured prominently.
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Just one female author, Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones and big pants infamy, is on the top 10. Most of the main protagonists in the top 10 are also male. Three Men in a Boat still makes readers smile 120 years after publication. Three novels in the 1970s are there as well as a pair of Wodehouse books from the 1930s. Two books about war show there is humour in the worst circumstances. Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall was the only piece of non-fiction to make the top 10. Drunken public speaking, pointless bureaucracy and pompous bureaucrats, relationships on the rocks, and insecurity are all prominent themes.
The top 10 funniest books almost certainly reflect the opinions of Britain's Baby Boomer Generation. The likes of Peter Kay and Russell Brand, both of who have had bestselling books in recent years, were barely mentioned. The humour of Spike Milligan probably means very little to people under 35. America's leading humourist, David Sedaris, appears to have made little impact on the UK. Just two people suggested a Sedaris book - When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Barrel Fever - as their funniest read and that was two more than Garrison Keillor received. However, Bill Bryson, an American who lived for many years in the UK, received many mentions for his travel writing.
The AbeBooks survey also asked for suggestions regarding the funniest passage or funniest moment in a book, and predictably the results were extremely diverse with many people finding it tough to identify a single laugh-out-loud passage.
The alcohol-fuelled speeches made in Right Ho, Jeeves and Lucky Jim were identified as passages capable of raising more than just a smile. Wodehouse's story features a drunken Gussie Fink-Nottle speaking at Market Snodsbury Grammar School's prize-giving event. The Kingsley Amis novel climaxes with intoxicated Dixon's 'Merrie England' lecture where he mocks his pompous boss. Clearly, there is delight in hearing inappropriate comments at the most inappropriate time - shades of the formula that has helped turn The Office's David Brent into comedy's biggest name in recent times.
Numerous passages from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were called out as memorable moments in literature, especially the opening section of the book where a stunned Arthur Dent struggles to prevent his home from being bull-dozed. Many readers simply said Catch-22 was funny from beginning to end although Major Major Major Major is often listed as a highlight.
Below is a selection of comments from AbeBooks.co.uk customers that add more flavour to this discussion on humour.
"Gussie Fink-Nottle's prize-giving at the local grammar school goes horribly wrong after drinking a jug of orange juice that had been rather over 'fortified' after Bertie had decided that a 'nip of gin' would be just the ticket to help Gussie through his ordeal." - Peter from Potterspury
"The world would be a better place if more school speeches were like Gussie's." - Emma from Dunrossness
"Yossarian says, 'You're talking about winning the war, and I'm talking about winning the war and keeping alive.' 'Exactly,' Clevinger snapped smugly. 'And which do you think is more important?' 'To whom?' Yossarian shot back. ' It doesn't make a damn bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead.' 'I can't think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.' 'The enemy,' retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, 'is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on.'" - Simon from Bridgnorth
"There are so many it's impossible to choose, but I like the part where a dead man's family are brought in to see Yossarin in the hospital, under the impression that Yossarian is their dead relative." - Maria from Sheffield
"The Catch-22. Orr is crazy but if he said he was then he must be sane. Only a crazy person would want to fly more missions." - Caroline from Bishops Stortford
"The introduction of Major Major Major. It made me laugh out loud." - Mary from London
"The sequence in the tunnel where the protagonists are trying to escape from cops who are shooting at them, but during a break in firing for negotiations try to convince the protagonists that they are in fact 'intelligent caring guys who you'd probably like if you met us socially.'" - Adele from London
"The argument with the foreman before Arthur Dent's house is knocked down. Great start to a book." - Mark from Bisley
"The opening scene with the pub and the bull-dozing of the house." - Peter from London
"Marvin the Paranoid Android reminiscing on being abandoned in a car park for half a billion years." - Dave from Tamworth
"It was the first book written for adults that I read as a boy that made me laugh out loud, particularly memorable were the attempts to open a tin of fruit whilst on the river, and the escapades with the dog." - John from Coventry
"Trying to open a tin of pineapple chunks with an oar." - Tim from Egremont
"Jim Dixon's drunken speech to the student body on the subject of 'Merrie England' at the end of the novel." - David from Keighly
"The comically feeble attempt by Jim and his arch enemy to have a fight. When I first read this scene, I was sitting in the university library pretending to work but actually was trying to get over a girl who had dumped me the night before. I had to run out of the library because I couldn't stop laughing. As a third-rate historian with women problems, I sympathised with Jim. It helped that my ex came from a family as pretentious as that of Jim's professor." - Anthony from Ely
"One of the Philosopher's sketch: Mrs. Pepperpot rings Mrs. Sartre to speak to Jean-Paul, and asks 'Is Jean-Paul free?' to which Mrs. Sartre replies, 'Aha, 'e 'as been trying to work that one out all 'es life'" - Andy from Swansea
"I first read this when I was 10 and I still find it funny now at 35. The whizzpop scene with the Queen (which I shouldn't find funny at all now) makes me laugh until I cry still." - Linda from Manchester"The best line I ever read from Wodehouse ws when he was describing a vicar in a very rural English parish. He said, 'He gave the impression that he had been stuffed by an incompetent taxidermist.'" - Pearse from Hexham
"Description of his pet scorpion, making her getaway down the dining room table, scattering her babies among the tableware and creating havoc among the humans who have just sat down to a meal." - Rowan from Llanidloes
"The description of the cat hurtling around inside the car as James Herriot is driving along. Tristan Farnon is trying to catch it, shouting: 'James! It's sh***ing everywhere.'" - Sally from Cambridge
"The author's first contact with England, in the person of a seaside landlady and her boarding house, stays in the memory forever as one of the funniest pieces of writing. The uncannily accurate, and always affectionate, description of English eccentricities sums up much about the inhabitants of our small island better than any native could have done. The achingly embarrassing conclusion to Mr. Bryson's stay in this particular hostel, in which he is marched solemnly, and in silence ot the lavatory to be shown a small turd which he had failed to properly flush away is, for once, literally laugh-out-loud." - David from Halifax
"When the platoon catch crabs, and they are put on the back of a flatbed truck with ointment and driven to the sea to wash them off. The change from larking around to putting the ointment on realising it stings like anything had me laughing my head off." - Rod from Nottingham
"The end section of the book is the transcripts of when Cook used to ring up a local radio station and, for his own amusement, pretended to be a Norwegian insomniac named Sven." - Graeme from Newcastle