Congratulations on watching all of the comically progressive original shows on Netflix and Amazon, and then listening to every single podcast. Your next assignment: Read some comedy books by the comedy people that you love so very, very much.
The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, by Kliph Nesteroff. I’m so glad this book is finally a real thing and that Nesteroff wrote it, because it’s such a great match of writer to material. A former comedian himself, it reads like Nesteroff is having a casual conversation with you about the history of comedy, breaking out interesting fact after fascinating story. Nesteroff conducts tons of his own interviews and seamlessly intertwined existing interviews to create a hybrid oral history/epic tale of the history of American comedy, specifically and most frequently the development of standup comedy. It’s told chronologically while helpfully broken down into vaudeville, late night TV, nightclubs, Las Vegas, the ‘70s/’80s comedy boom, and beyond. The Comedians humanizes comedy, and American history, like no other book this year.
Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, by Nick Offerman. In Paddle Your Own Canoe, Offerman reclaimed manliness back from brain-dead macho misogynists. In Gumption, he reclaims patriotism from the right wing, showing that liberals can and do love their country just as much. It’s a modern-day profiles in courage, consisting of more than 30 individual looks at people that Offerman feels embody the American spirit and make this country a good place, from George Washington to Jeff Tweedy to, most notably, Yoko Ono. It’s a funny book in the way that explosions of joy can sometimes make you laugh.
Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari. This functions somewhat as a companion piece to Ansari’s series Master of None, which dramatizes all the really messed up things about trying to find love in a world in which technology has given us endless choices which render us unable to make a decision. With Modern Romance, Ansari teams up with sociologist Eric Klinenberg for some hardcore research to back up a lot of theories about dating in the new millennium – particularly how men have gotten crude and crass and lazy because they can hide behind their phones. Ansari writes with a curiosity and wonder over the findings and also plenty of embarrassing, confessional asides and food porn, because this is an Aziz Ansari book.
D.C. Trip, by Sara Benincasa. This feels like it might be a young adult novel except that it’s nowhere near appropriate for teens. The story of a three-day sophomore class trip to Washington, D.C. (as well as a parallel story focusing on two of the teacher-chaperones), it’s profane, sexually-charged, and concerned mainly with the anxiety about growing up and expressing identity. So, you know, like what being a teenager actually feels like, after you’ve grown up and are glad you’re no longer a teenager.
The Terrible Two, by Mac Barnett and Jory John. The majority of comic novels these days seem to be written for kids, because when you’re 12, all of life feels as weird as the world of a comic novel. Hence one of the funniest novels of the year is also a book aimed at 12-year-olds. The Terrible Two follows some familiar kids novel tropes – new kid in town, evil principal – but goes in way different directions. The Terrible Two is about two kids who play elaborate pranks against each other who team up to commit pranks against others. Because when you’re a kid, isn’t friendship equal parts nihilism and deep spiritual connection?
I Must Say, by Martin Short. Short has always been the kind of entertainer who gives the people what they want. His memoir hits all the right notes, delivering exactly what we want in a memoir of Martin Short. He jumps around chronologically, mixing up professional stories (how he met his SCTV cohorts) with personal stories (his brother’s untimely death when they were both kids). He also writes up a bunch of in-character interstitials as Ed Grimley and Jiminy Glick, because that’s what the people want.
Oh, the Flesh You Will Eat, by Mike Levine. It’s not easy to parody Dr. Seuss. Okay, it’s not easy to parody Dr. Seuss well, and then stick out the rhyming nonsense and familiar tone over the course of an entire book while honoring the source material while also being, you know, funny. Levine manages to do it, taking down a peg that kind of lame Dr. Seuss book we all got for graduation by injecting into it zombies, violence, and gore.
Almost Interesting, by David Spade. Spade more or less invented the snarky tone that came to define comedy (and, well, conversation) for the better part of a decade. That tone is turned by Spade onto Spade himself with his self-deprecating, and somewhat understated memoir. It’s a pretty fascinating look at how the nastiness of life influenced a comedy career, and then how that comedy career played out on the biggest stages in the world. Lots of backstage SNL stuff here, along with some never before heard Chris Farley stories.
Spectacles, by Sue Perkins. Comedy people have a necessarily thick skin, but it’s their vulnerability that makes them so magnetic, and which leads to relatable comedy. Such is the case with Perkins. If you aren’t familiar with this British TV personality, check out her work hosting The Great British Bake Off or The Supersizers, a very funny reality show in which she ate her way through the foods of different historical eras of England. But Perkins was a writer first, and hers is a classic, British cutting wit in the tradition of Wodehouse or Shaw and she is only a little hard on herself in this tender, funny memoir.
Quietly, From Afar, by Lucas Gardner. Gardner is a Splitsider contributor and this is his first novel. It’s a dark, silly, absurd Western novel that embraces dimestore cowboy novel tropes while also upending them, satirizing them, and extending them to their most illogical conclusions. I don’t throw the phrase “delightful romp” around a lot, you guys.
Moone Boy: The Blunder Years, by Chris O’Dowd and Nick V. Murphy. O’Dowd’s semiautobiographical TV series Moone Boy, in which he costars as the imaginary friend of himself as an idiot child, is one of the funniest things going right now, and now there are books of it. This, the first in a series, shares the same tone and style, a mix of the brutally real (lower middle-class economic struggles, being an idiot child) with the fantastical (an assortment of imaginary friends and a boy who doesn’t know he’s an idiot).
If the Raindrops United, by Judah Friedlander. Friedlander is of course best known for his standup, playing Frank on 30 Rock, and for being the general World Champion, but he’s been making one-panel cartoons since he was a little kid, and If the Raindrops United collects a few hundred of them. Some are silly, some satirical, most are clever wordplay, and quite a few are profoundly sad (the ones about living in New York City).
Zone Theory: 7 Easy Steps to Achieve a Perfect Life, by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. The Crown Princes of Nihilism have a book, and it’s a logical and accurate extension of the bewildering, challenging madness of their many TV shows. Taking up the Andy Kaufman torch of all-performance-art-all-the-time and spare no decorum, the book’s target is quite specific. It’s a parody self-help book that’s really a terrifying satire of cults, celebrity-endorsed spirituality, and the cult of personality.
Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. The bizarre universe of the podcast expands and becomes even more unhinged in this first Welcome to Night Vale novel. It’s balls-to-the-wall batshit crazy and constantly heightens and yes-ands the supernatural/paranormal/absurd circumstances. Several tales intertwine, all featuring characters and places from the original podcast (is this the first novel based on a podcast?) but it stands on its own. It’s like a classic H.P. Lovecraft novel if Lovecraft suddenly became extremely self-aware. Silly, ridiculous, and spoooooky.
Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy, by Judd Apatow. While hosting a show for his high school radio station, Apatow tricked a bunch of famous comedians (Garry Shandling, Steve Allen) into doing really insightful interviews about the craft of comedy. Herein, Apatow transcribes those interviews with his future cohorts while also adding in new ones with today’s comedy people (Chris Rock, Louis C.K.).