Tragedy is Easy; Comedy is Hard*

Few “best [number]” lists bother me like lists of funniest books. I can usually brush off my urge to argue with the others but, when I saw NPR publish a list of the 100 funniest books, I realized a) that putting together a list of funny books is impossibly difficult and b) I feel weirdly proprietary about this subject. Since talking about (b) would take too long and probably reveal more about my personal life than I want to on the interwebs, I want to tackle (a).

Greek terracotta statue of a tragic actor (Image via Wikicommons)

My second thought after I saw NPR’s headline line (after, WHY?!) was that I think the list of things we find tragic is smaller than the things we find funny because we all tend to respond to the same plot lines with sadness. Death, suffering, regret, pain—all of these things tug on the heartstrings. (Unless you are a psychopath). But there is so little we know about what makes things funny that there is actually a field of psychology/sociology that studies humor.

Speaking for myself, I know I have a peculiar sense of humor. I love creative wordplay (P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, and ), ridiculous situations that escalate via a series of seemingly logical thought but cross over into hilarity (Jenny Lawson and Janet Evanovich), pure silliness (Wodehouse again, Terry Pratchett, and Christopher Moore), and the occasional work of gallows humor. Because my tastes are weird, I’ve grown cautious about what I recommend to others as “funny.” The gallows humor rarely goes over well and not everyone is fond of whimsy. (Except for terrible, nerdy puns. Those I inflict on share with everyone.

The humor scholars have boiled down a lot of what we find funny (but not all) to the unexpected. That may be the rub. While I can see how some of what I find funny plays on my expectations of word use and behavior, what is unexpected to some people is totally expected by others. For example, there is a twitter account that posts jokes from the Ancient Mediterranean world. (Some are still funny.) Most, however, are baffling. We’ve lost too much knowledge of those cultures that it’s impossible to say if the jokes traded on the unexpected. What’s funny differs from country to country, era to era, and person to person.

All that said, there is so much variation in humor that I suspect that any reader of NPR’s list will find a few books that genuinely tickle their funny bone. The odds that someone will find something to smile, chuckle, or guffaw at may be higher for this large, crowdsourced list. We might be able to work out a top 10 best tragedies list, but 100 funny books is probably as narrow as we can make it.

I would feel remiss, as I bring this post to a close, if I didn’t share my favorite joke:

How many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?


Okay, one more, because it’s a terrible nerdy pun:

Why doesn’t Karl Marx like Earl Grey tea?

Because all proper-tea is theft!

* Paraphrased from the alleged last words of actor Edmund Kean: “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” This is also attributed to others.


3 thoughts on “Tragedy is Easy; Comedy is Hard*

  1. Humor is also very national, imho. I have a very hard time with humorous American / foreign books, unless I listen in audiobooks (where tone compensates, I guess). I don’t know why that is. I read Amy Poehler memoir and it didn’t work for me. In the NPR list there’s Nora Ephron “I feel bad about my neck”. I haven’t posted about it yet, but it left me all melancholy (despite breaking a smile regularly).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally get this! I love British comedy and can mostly understand Russian humor (because it’s almost all black humor). But I usually don’t understand the German sense of humor.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The One with the Cabbage Strudel | Smithereens

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