To add to your diet of comedy consumption which is likely already at critical mass, what with the comedy movies, sitcoms, sketch comedy shows, web videos, Twitter feed, and novelty T-shirts, here’s your reading list: the best comedy books of 2014. This year had an especially delightful selection of comedy and comedy-related books. Here then are some of the comedy history, comedy theory, comedy memoirs, comic essay collections, and comic novels that stood out.
The comedy book of the year is an exhaustive, 500-page encyclopedia by a college professor that provides a fleshed-out sociological survey of American life by examining what people used to find funny. Knowing what made people laugh during their tough, 1930s lives, for example, is humanizing, and while this book explains now corny tropes like anvils, mother-in-law jokes, rolling pins, milquetoasts, and hillbillies, it’s kind of a moving experience. It’s a must-read for any fan, student, or creator of comedy. (It also finally explains those jokes in old Looney Tunes that as a child you knew were references to something, you just weren’t sure what.)
Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
The only thing more fun than watching SNL is obsessively talking about SNL and mythologizing SNL. The 2002 oral history was a definitive account, but SNL kept going after this book was published, so Shales and Miller added another 200 pages or so to cover arguably the most important period of the show after the “Not Ready for Primetime Players” era. The new material covers the phenomenal rise of Kristen Wiig and the Digital Short, how the Internet has affected how the show is created and consumed, and the show’s role as spoiler in the 2008 presidential election.
Spoiled Brats, by Simon Rich
Rich has written for SNL, turned out a few great comic novels, and he’ll have a show on FXX soon. That’s all well and good, but Rich is a comic essayist on par with Steve Martin, Woody Allen, or Nora Ephron. Spoiled Brats is his latest collection of hilarious, high-concept but somehow relatable short comedy.
Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler
Poehler has probably shaped Today’s Comedy more than anybody else—she founded the UCB! She made SNL a better place to work, and better in general! She lead Parks and Recreation, a comedy that defied conventional wisdom to be both incredibly sweet and incredibly funny. We finally get to hear how Poehler made it all happen.
Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirik Clark
This novel (and recipient of “The Colbert Bump”) is funny in the way that Don Delillo or Douglas Coupland books are funny, this novel about the 40-year-long self-inflicted guilt trip of the man who helped invent toxic food additives and sweeteners. You know, in the “modern life is rubbish and the universe hates you” kind of way.
Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation, by Adam Resnick
A book of self-loathing and misanthropy from Resnick, the guy who co-wrote Cabin Boy and Get a Life? Yes, please.
Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, by Bob Zmuda and Lynne Margulies
This is not the first time Zmuda has written a book about his close friend and comedy partner, the late Andy Kaufman. Or is he really dead? Zmuda wants us to consider the long-standing rumor that Kaufman faked his death. The pranking never ends with these guys. Still, Zmuda’s admiration and affection for Kaufman shine through, but the real reason to read this book is to start appreciating Zmuda as much Kaufman himself for creating a new comic voice and a comic movement.
This understated farcical novel flew under the radar, but it deserves a read. Thematically, it delves into what a lot of entertainment in the last decade has tried to do—skewer reality television. But Beha and his gritty, regret-plagued characters provide new insight, making this a satire of marriage and media manipulation as well. You know what? It’s a comic Gone Girl.
Harris isn’t a comedian, but he is a talented comic actor and the best host of things. It was certain that the ex-child star/one of the first out celebrities/How I Met Your Mother guy would write a memoir some day, but it’s a pleasant surprise that he went so meta. He wrote a true story, his life story, as a choose-your-own-adventure book.
If you’re going to read one steampunk-influenced, dimestore novel-throwback comic adventure novel about President Taft trying to solve a decades old mystery with Abraham Lincoln’s son, this should be in your top three.
Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown Up, by Grace Helbig
Self-help books seem to always have an assholic quality about them. Perhaps it’s the “I’m successful, you can be, too” feel that is innate to such a title. Comedian and web video star Grace Helbig avoids those traps with this book that is part memoir, part self-help book, part self-help book parody. It’s a breezy read that never rings false, and Helbig is so disarming in delivering the truth we’ve all suspected about being an adult, in that it’s bullshit and we’re all faking it.
Sacks follows And Here’s the Kicker with another collection of extremely insightful interviews about the craft of comedy writing. Sacks questions are brief, but he has a preternatural ability to ask just the right questions to get the Gods of Comedy—Adam McKay, Patton Oswalt, James Downey—talking at length about their work, themselves, and the work of others. This, and Kicker ought to be textbooks for those who want to write comedy for a living.
Becoming Richard Pryor, by Scott Saul
A definitive work-biography of the tormented and revolutionary comic, Saul provides insight into the mysterious period in which Pryor dropped out of the spotlight and decided he was going to be a truthful, edgy comic (instead of a tame Cosby clone)…and how that decision transformed stand-up comedy, for the better, forever. (Alright, it’s not a definitive work-biography because there isn’t much on Superman III, but that’s for the best.)
Science…For Her! by Megan Amram
Amram’s “Megan Amram” character is a despicable human being, a dangerously self-destructive and others-destructive nightmare in the guise of a girly girl, and this book is a full-length exploration of that. Using the venue of “science,” and her character’s complete and total ignorance of it outside of how she can use it to do drugs, have sex, get a boyfriend, or get even, cranks up the wicked satire. It’s bonkers and works on so many levels, but it’s so thoroughly graphically designed, with pictures, charts, pull quotes, and sidebars that it harkens back to those broad humor books we all read cover to cover in the bookstore when we were poor and 13.
A Load of Hooey, by Bob Odenkirk
Essay collections by a single author are a great insight into the creative process, as they generally span years if not decades, and include previously published stuff as well as things never before seen. Odenkirk’s anthology is all of that. His voice is loud and clear on what are many cases sketches in prose form, such as “Martin Luther King’s Worst Speech Ever” to “Obituary for the Creator of Mad Libs.”
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, by Carol Leifer
A really great memoir from someone who has been making comedy better and more human for decades, since the ‘70s and ‘80s comic boom up through her stints writing for awards shows, Seinfeld, and The Larry Sanders Show.
Other notable titles:
Photo by Germán Poo-Caamaño.