The British sense of humor is famous around the world but what kind of literature makes them laugh? It seems the ideal amusing read for Brits would be a mind-boggling combination of P.G. Wodehouse’s sublime wit, a liberal dose of Joseph Heller’s black humor and a slice of Douglas Adams’ galactic comedy.
Our UK website, 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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Top 10 Funniest Books According to AbeBooks.co.uk Customers
- Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (1933)
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
- Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)
- Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
- Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
- The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse (1938)
- Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding (1996)
- Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall by Spike Milligan (1971)
Just one female author, Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones and big knickers 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 humor 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 humor of Spike Milligan probably means very little to Brits under 35. America’s leading humorist, 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 poll 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.
Satire has its place too. Tom Sharpe fans love Wilt‘s antics with a blow-up sex doll and also Zipser’s bedroom encounter with the middle-aged Mrs. Biggs resulting in the deadly condom explosion.
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 flavor to this discussion on humor.
«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 «The funniest sequence of events is when Ignatius, the protagonist, wearing a billowing white smock and pirate’s cutlass, is manning his hot dog-shaped hot dog cart. It’s a hard book to describe, but A Confederacy of Dunces is easily the funniest book I’ve read.» — Liz from London
«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
«Wilt gets a ransom note for his wife. When the policeman asked Wilt what happened to the note he says he was short of toilet paper and wiped his bum on it.» — Andrew from Welwyn Garden City
«First Tom Sharpe book I ever read. I found all of it funny but the scene with the blow up doll and his attempts to dispose of it were hilarious.» — Andrea from Doncaster
«The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at a US airbase reprogramming computers to bring on WW III, remarking that it wasn’t what they had expected — after all Durer never created a woodcut of the Four Button Pushers of the Apocalypse.» — Maria from Kent
«The running joke that tapes left in a car for longer that a fortnight morph into The Best of Queen.» — James from Maidstone
«Seeing Mrs O’Leary’s knickers as she climbed the ladder to put up bunting for the Royal weddding, she had a feeling he was looking up her skirt and he seemed quite disturbed by her lacy underwear.» — Paul from Crawley
«When Adrian paints his bedroom black, but the Noddy wallpaper proves difficult to cover — especially the bells on Noddy’s hat — and he has to use about four coats of black paint. When he finally finishes (bells still showing through) he finds it totally depressing. Many laugh out loud moments in these bitter sweet diaries.» — Ann from Poole
«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
«Every young man starting out in life ought to know how to cope with an angry swan, so I will briefly relate the proper procedure. You begin by picking up the raincoat which somebody has dropped; and then, judging the distance to a nicety, you simply shove the raincoat over the bird’s head; and, taking the boat-hook which you have prudently brought with you, you insert it underneath the swan and heave. The swan goes into a bush and starts trying to unscramble itself; and you saunter back to your boat taking with you any friends who may happen at the moment to be sitting on roofs in the vicinity. That was Jeeves’ method, and I cannot see how it could have been improved upon.» — Daniel from London «The watchdog scene, in which a violent, drunken husband has to contend with a surly watchdog, his wife’s lesbian lover, and a drugged lout who has unknowingly crawled into bed with the wife.» — Edward from Exmouth «Where Bryson and Katz are wondering what animals are making noises outside their tent. Bryson is petrified and asks Katz if he has anything sharp with him, to which he replies a set of nail clippers.» — Rebecca from Congleton «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 whole book captures life in all its unintentional comic glory…there is one particular incident where our author develops such a love for red paint that he even paints the bath red, with obvious but still hilarious consequences.» — Nana from London «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 «Undoubtedly, the short story called ‘Pig Hooey’ (from Blandings Castle) where the Empress pines for her absent pig man until his lordship discovers the secret of pig calling. As a confirmed Wodehouse fan, I was debating between the much more famous ‘Gussie presents the prizes’ and ‘Pig Hooey’. Simply thinking about them was enough to start the chuckles and line after immortal line crept into my mind from other stories. Sheer genius.» — Abhijit from Hendon
«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
«Mrs. Biggs who sneaks up to Zipser’s room in the middle of the night and wakes him. By the time he realises she’s in his room, to his great shock she undresses without saying much and promptly enters his bed against his protests, and lies on top of him.» — Graham from London «‘I’m not going to ride on a magic carpet!’ he hissed. ‘I’m afraid of grounds.’ ‘You mean heights,’ said Conina. ‘And stop being silly.’ ‘I know what I mean! It’s the grounds that kill you.'» — Susan from Plymouth «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
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