Our pick of the most riotously funny stories ever written

Keep laughing and read on! The final part of our series of best-ever books concludes with our pick of the most riotously funny stories ever written

  • British writer Roger Lewis, collated a selection of the funniest stories penned
  • Among his top picks is Kingsley Amis and his hapless hero Jim Dixon 
  • Elsewhere is the eccentric absurdity of the Starkadders in Cold Comfort Farm 

What we all need in unsettling times like this is a good laugh. And in this cracking collection of comic novels you’ll find the dry, ironic wit of Jane Austen and her meddling heroine Emma; the knife-sharp comedy of Kingsley Amis and his hapless hero Jim Dixon; the eccentric absurdity of the Starkadders in Cold Comfort Farm; the brutal satire of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; the laid-back charm of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat; and plenty more. From a wry smile to a laugh-out-loud guffaw, these are guaranteed to lighten your mood…

COLD COMFORT FARM by Stella Gibbons

COLD COMFORT FARM

by Stella Gibbons

Though she lived to be 87, Stella Gibbons is known only for this one title — a grisly and hysterical satire of the bucolic existence and the alleged pagan and magical powers of rural life.

Into the maelstrom of Starkadders, Lambsbreaths and Beetles — the interbred, bestial agricultural folk, whose herd of cows are named Graceless, Pointless, Aimless and Feckless — comes metropolitan lass, Flora Poste.

‘On the whole I dislike my fellow beings,’ she tells us. This doesn’t bode well for her attempts to interest the locals in modern fads such as medicine, cleanliness and new curtains.

The characters don’t really mind being ignorant and stupid — it’s how they have survived since the Stone Age, thank you.

The book also contains the famous phrase ‘something nasty in the woodshed’.

It’s a tribute to Gibbons’ spanking comic prose that, when it was first published, critics believed that she was Evelyn Waugh writing under an assumed name.

CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller

CATCH-22

by Joseph Heller

Millions of people who have never picked up Heller’s bestseller know what a Catch-22 situation is — the no-win impasse, the logical dead-end.

The book deals with a U.S. Army Air Squadron, bombing Italy to bits in the 1940s.

Heller dives headfirst into a comic hell of military jargon, bureaucratic shenanigans and legalistic duplicity.

War may be crazy, but ‘a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind, so what to do,’ wonders Yossarian, the hero. It is said of one of the characters that if he flew more missions, he was crazy and had to be grounded, ‘but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to’.

Heller’s further point is that superiors can be more trouble than the enemy, as the officers have a right to do anything their subordinates can’t stop them from doing — another Catch-22.

This is set in World War II, but the sentiment Heller expresses is a product of the Korean War and the Cold War.

Even the names are works of comic brilliance: Captain Aardvark, Milo Mindbender and Major Major Major Major.

THREE MEN IN A BOAT by Jerome K. Jerome

THREE MEN IN A BOAT

by Jerome K. Jerome

Jerome’s book is as tremendously Edwardian as anything by Kenneth Grahame or A. A. Milne, and is steeped in nostalgia for a world later destroyed on the Somme and in the trenches of Passchendaele.

Whimsy vanished, along with the ability to write books with titles such as Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow — another of Jerome’s.

Three Men In A Boat is his affectionate account of a boating holiday up the Thames with his pals George and Harris, which caught on — especially as it is a disguised pub crawl. ‘For thirst,’ we hardly need reminding, ‘is a dangerous thing’.

It seems to unfold in a time-warp, where jokes can be made about barometers and bagpipes, and where chaps make a hash of trying to fend for themselves without women. They cook frightful stews, for example, to which the dog Montmorency wants to contribute a dead water-rat: ‘What the eye does not see the stomach does not get upset over.’

In Russia, the translation was used in classrooms as a textbook about English life. Do seek out the lesser-known sequel, where the men go by bicycle to the German Black Forest, entitled Three Men On The Bummel — a word that means amble or stroll.

LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis

LUCKY JIM

by Kingsley Amis

We are in a provincial university in the post-war era, where Jim Dixon, a probationary lecturer, has to be nice to bores and idiots, especially his boss Professor Welch.

A man keen on madrigals and medieval instruments, Welch is additionally a miser, serving ‘coffee and cakes, intended to replace an evening meal’. Jim has an ugly and frigid girlfriend, Margaret, whose laugh is like ‘the tinkle of tiny silver bells’. He sets fire to a bed, loses his lecture notes, and gets inadvertently drunk.

In this, his first novel, Amis — himself an academic in Swansea — was already making play with life’s small irritations, which mount up. Salvation comes when Jim meets his dream girl, Christine.

Margaret, by the way, was based on Philip Larkin’s partner Monica, and Dixon Drive was where Larkin lived in Leicester.

EMMA by Jane Austen

EMMA

by Jane Austen

Note the date of publication —December 1815. The Battle of Waterloo had been won in summer that year.

Emma, who is ‘handsome, clever, rich’, and perhaps in need of her comeuppance, is a kind of emotional Napoleon.

She manipulates the characters into forming emotional alliances; does battle with others; tries to impose herself on neighbouring estates and clergymen; and uncovers and provokes secret engagements. Here in Regency England, clever women could perhaps become governesses — Austen’s satirical joke is that Emma is already a Field Marshal, who gets everything wrong and misreads the territory, until she is put right by Mr Knightley.

There’s much more to Austen than bonnets and dropping lace handkerchiefs. Her novels are about power.

THE GOBBLER by Adrian Edmondson

THE GOBBLER

by Adrian Edmondson

Julian Mann, an ‘alternative’ comic sitcom star, and the anti-hero of this vibrant novel, takes popular acclaim as his due.

He is awash with money, and models materialise wherever he goes, removing their clothes.

He also drinks far too much: ‘He didn’t know where he was, or what time it was, or where he’d been. He wasn’t sure whether he was sober or drunk.’

He has started to receive eye-watering tax bills, many of his fans are psychopaths, home life is hell, and he discovers he has neither friends nor colleagues, only ‘professional enemies’. This novel is as uncompromising as Vile Bodies: it’s Waugh for the 1990s.

TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT by Graham Greene

TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT

by Graham Greene

The retiring, dahlia-growing Henry Pulling is dragged off into a life of adventure and criminality by his domineering and high-camp Aunt Augusta.

Henry and Augusta go on the Orient Express to Turkey, where ‘politics are taken more seriously than they are at home. It was only quite recently that they executed a Prime Minister. We dream of it, but they act’.

The whole caboodle is an opportunity for Greene to make a point about moral relativity. ‘I have never planned anything illegal in my life. How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?’ says Aunt Augusta to the authorities.

If you can hear the swooping delivery of Maggie Smith, you’d be right. She has starred in a film adaptation.

DIARY OF A NOBODY

DIARY OF A NOBODY by George and Weedon Grossmith

by George and Weedon Grossmith

You’d have to be a millionaire today to own the six-room (plus basement) house ‘The Laurels’, in Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, as inhabited by Charles and Carrie Pooter. They are emblems of a struggling lower-middle class — anxious to appear genteel, wanting only (like all of us, in truth) to seem important and distinguished.

Comedy comes from hopes dashed and humiliation dished out. Shopkeepers are rude, cabmen obnoxious. Litigation is threatened over a boot-scraper.

The parties the Pooters attend are full of common sorts, as in the Representatives of Trade And Commerce ball.

The deadpan Charles, writing it all up in his diary, is blissfully not in on his own jokes. ‘I believe I am happy because I am not ambitious,’ he says — yet, a humble clerk, he is desperate to pass himself off as slightly grander than he really is.

To this day it is the staple sitcom format — Captain Mainwaring, Hyacinth Bucket, Basil Fawlty. Charles is also lovable, which is the key to any classic.

BRILLIANT CREATURES by Clive James

BRILLIANT CREATURES

by Clive James

The Australian critic James was supreme at linguistic monkey-business, always able to turn a phrase and find a gag. Take this one, for instance: ‘Beyonce and pathos were strangers. Amy Winehouse and pathos are flatmates, and you should see the kitchen.’

His television reviews were funnier than anything on television, and his autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, about growing up in Australia, was reprinted often.

James arrived in England in the 1960s, was an extra in a Barry Humphries film, and became a highly paid hack.

This is the world of his novel, Brilliant Creatures, which paints a crowded picture of London’s musing cafe-philosophers and media folk.

‘Achievement without fame,’ we are informed, ‘can be a rewarding life, while fame without achievement is no life at all.’

PUCKOON by Spike Milligan

PUCKOON

by Spike Milligan

Owing to a mistake made by the Boundary Commission during the Partition of Ireland, the fictional village of Puckoon is half in Ulster, half in Eire.

The anomaly gives Milligan licence to make lots of jokes about the nonsensicality of sectarianism, patriotism, and divided loyalties.

He himself was born and raised in India, before ending up in Catford.

His father was Irish, however, so in later life Milligan took out Irish citizenship. When he applied for his passport, the staff at the embassy said, ‘Oh thank God, Spike. We is terrible short of people.’

Puckoon captures this warm-heartedness and goonishness. ‘Many people die of thirst, but the Irish are born with one,’ we are told.

Meanwhile, the Boundary Commission make their error because nobody can hold a pencil steady when drawing on the map.

MR LONELY by Eric Morecambe

MR LONELY

by Eric Morecambe

For once, Morecambe without Wise. In this novel, about the rise and fall of a 1970s stand-up comic, Eric reveals a lot about his true feelings for his craft, and what it was like when fans kept asking, ‘Do you make it all up as you go along?’

For Sid Lewis, the protagonist, ‘performing was the only thing he wanted to do’.

We read of horrible nightclubs, the treadmill of summer seasons and panto.

It is quite harsh: the tone, the misogyny, the sexism and racism. An Asian doctor is put down as ‘young different-coloured sir’. When a girl is slapped about, ‘she’ll be fine when the swelling goes down!’

Of the sexual temptations experienced on the road, we are told ‘conscience doesn’t stop you from doing it. It just stops you from enjoying it’.

It is a fascinating portrait of a scurrilous and downright seedy light entertainment scene which lasted all too long.

EXCELLENT WOMEN by Barbara Pym

EXCELLENT WOMEN

by Barbara Pym

Philip Larkin thought her the most underrated author of the 20th century:

‘I’d sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen,’ he said.

Her novels were about spinsters eking out their tiny lives in the parish church, busy with the flower-arrangement rota, coffee mornings, jumble sales and the garden fete. They flutter their eyes hopelessly at new curates.

In this one, Mildred Lathbury is one of those ‘excellent women’ everybody takes for granted, who cooks for bachelors and does their typing.

Despite the domestic comedy and politeness, there is a massive amount of pent-up, wasted emotion, and soon enough come betrayals and quarrels in the vicarage.

It wouldn’t take much to tip this into Agatha Christie territory.

THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE by Muriel Spark

THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE

by Muriel Spark

Under the guise of conducting market research, the devil is at large in South London, in the person of ‘double-tongued, young and energetic’ Dougal Douglas, sometimes known as Douglas Dougal.

He puts ideas into peoples’ heads, such that brides are jilted at the altar, landladies collapse with strokes, and there are various stabbings. The ‘wicked spirit that wanders through the world for the ruin of souls’ is there to make the point that ‘there’s a dirty swine in every man’ and woman.

The novel is wickedly funny, if cruel. I prefer it to Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.

TRISTRAM SHANDY by Laurence Sterne

TRISTRAM SHANDY

by Laurence Sterne

Nothing happens, everything is jumbled up, and the characters — Walter Shandy, Corporal Trim, Dr Slop, Parson Yorick — go about their business muttering and shuffling.

Stories peter out — indeed this is the original cock and bull story. There are digressions about noses and chamber pots. A character, relieving himself out of the window, is circumcised, or worse, when the window slams shut.

It is strangely modern, with typographical games: the page goes black, or squiggles appear in the text. There is a superb film based upon it, called A Cock And Bull Story, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

SCOOP by Evelyn Waugh

SCOOP

by Evelyn Waugh

William Boot, who contributes nature columns on voles to the Daily Beast, accidentally turns into a foreign correspondent — during slack periods newspapers always want jolly stories about distant wars.

The irreverent novel was based on Waugh’s experiences, contributing to this paper, as it happens, when he covered Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia.

He doesn’t stint on descriptions of megalomaniac proprietors, eccentric editors, and lunatic reporters running up expenses accounts for collapsible canoes, cleft sticks, camels and tropical kit. Journalists love this, as they can see nothing in it is invented.

THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS by P. G. Wodehouse

THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS

by P. G. Wodehouse

Where to begin? Where to end? Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Psmith, Lord Emsworth and his prize sow…

Wodehouse, who spent most of his life in the U.S., created an imaginary and idyllic England — reminiscent, perhaps, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas — via his 90 books and 40 plays.

The Code Of The Woosters (which is ‘Never let a pal down’), in addition to the usual malarkey about Bertie’s fear of being married off, has a darker subtext. This concerns the upper-classes being infiltrated and seduced by Oswald Mosley, here called Roderick Spode, a rotter who clashes with Bertie over a silver cream-jug.

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