A Humor Writer's Favorite 20th Century Funny Novels

shelved under Expert Opinions, Humor, and Fiction

Something that’s not discussed enough about great novels is the comedy component.

Let’s be blunt: How often — really — do you want to subject yourself to a six-to-ten-hour reading experience that’s chuckle-free? I hope your answer is: Very seldom. What’s not great about supplying readers with giggles, good times, levity and wit?

In compiling the list below, I’m assuming you already have these twentieth century comic classics on your bookshelf: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, as well as the oeuvres of Dawn Powell, E. F. Benson and P.G. Wodehouse. Here are 10 equally wonderful, though maybe less well-known, funny novels to add to that shelf. Now go read — and stop wearing such a straight face!



by Thorne Smith

This Flapper era romantic ghost-story is best known as the basis for the deliciously silly Cary Grant/Constance Bennett film, but it's also a sparkling novel. A perfect screwball entertainment, Topper may be the most debonair ode to hedonism ever written in America.



by Junichiro Tanizaki

Best-known for The Makioka Sisters, a melancholy classic for the ages (and a genuinely great book), Tanizaki also wrote hilariously about sexual perversion. Naomi is about a man's erotic submission to a very shallow young woman. It's unusually layered for a comic novel, and underneath the sexy mischief is a dark satire about the Japanese obsession with Western culture.


Rosemary's Baby

by Ira Levin

Levin was a master not only of popular fiction but of malicious, hairpin plot turns and sociological observation. His 60's masterpiece, Rosemary's Baby, manages to send chills up your spine as well as make you laugh out loud. It's the rare horror novel that can engage and amuse non-horror fans.



by Mason Hoffenberg, Terry Southern

The outrageous black humor that Southern brought to his screenplays for Lolita and Dr. Strangelove is even more uncensored and subversive here in this collaborative retelling of Voltaire's Candide. When Candy is discussed it's often thought of as a one-of-a-kind gonzo comic performance, but it's important to remember that it's a beautifully crafted novel as well.


Auntie Mame

by Patrick Dennis

Patrick Dennis is a name that's been tragically lost to literary history, despite his illustrious fans, who include Camille Paglia. Yet during the 1950's Dennis was a celebrity author and rightfully so. His books are spirited and innovative, and he made his mark repeatedly on popular culture. Now, you may already feel as though you know Auntie Mame. You've seen the movie, you've seen the play and you've seen the musical. Do you really need to read the book, you ask? The answer is an overwhelming YES. Don't miss this giddy high of a novel! And I'll assert that it's as searing a look at the American family in the fifties as Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. The only difference is you'll roar over every page of Auntie Mame.


The Player

by Michael Tolkin

It's not as though the 20th century hasn't delivered tons of high-quality Hollywood satires, but Tolkin's comedy about the moviemaking world nails the high-concept world of the '80s once and for all. You don't have to be a movie buff to enjoy Tolkin's inside jokes: the Yuppie values he skewers in The Player extend beyond Hollywood meetings.


The Hunter: A Parker Novel

by Richard Stark

The recently-deceased popular-fiction genius Donald Westlake was loved for his comic crime novels, but I've always preferred his hard-boiled Parker novels, which I find just as funny. (The Hunter was made into the 1967 film, Point Blank, and was remade recently as Payback with Mel Gibson.) The Hunter is existential, blunt, wildly-plotted, deadpan, and brutally hilarious. And I'll never forget Westlake at one Edgar Awards evening when he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He responded with a perfect satire of the typical writer's acceptance speech. ("Whither the short story?") I'm still giggling at the memory of his audacity.



by Tom Perrotta

Perrotta nails 1980's suburbia and nails a character type that we all know: the go-getting, unstoppable over achieving A-student. Super-props to Perrotta for giving her the perfect name: Tracy Flick. Whenever I run into one of these young women I think to myself, "Yep, there goes another Tracy Flick. Better get out of her way!"


Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

by Ishmael Reed

Reed's second novel is a parody Western that's a staggeringly funny and exuberant performance in a manic '60s-underground-comix/stand up comedy style. Plus the title just makes me smile.


post office

by Charles Bukowski

Gutbucket despair is never funnier than when it's written by Bukowski. Written about twelve years that he spent doing gruntwork at the U.S. Post Office, Bukowski manages to make his drunken dead-end day job a fascinating and hilarious read.


The Love Machine

by Jacqueline Susann

Finally, room must be made among the classics of comedy for those novels that didn't set out to be funny but managed to hit the target anyway. This deliciously over-the-top novel by the unmatchable flamboyant Jacqueline Susann has lines and plot turns that intentional humorists would kill for.