Do you like volumes of comic essays that you’ll end up reading entirely in one sitting? How about amusingly embarrassing memoirs, unpredictably silly novels, or behind-the-scenes accounts of classic comedy movies? Are you at all interested in comic strips, hipster-mocking, the diaries of a genius, and novelizations of fictional movies? Then give a hoot — read a book.
Stinker Lets Loose by Mike Sacks
Can a book be both extremely innovative and comfortably familiar? Well yeah, of course it can, if it’s written by the right person. Mike Sacks is a comedy historian, walking comedy encyclopedia, and he also writes great short-form comedy. Stinker Let Loose, though, is a novel. Or actually it’s a novelization. You see, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, part of a movie’s marketing plan was the movie told in novel form. That’s the comfortably familiar part; the innovative part of Stinker Lets Loose is that it’s a novelization of a movie that doesn’t actually exist, a crude, sex-charged action comedy that’s a mixture of Every Which Way But Loose and Smokey and the Bandit. He took a joke, a lark of an idea, and stretched it to 200 pages. It’s an incredible feat of humor writing.
Vacationland by John Hodgman
This is far from Hodgman’s first book. The Daily Show correspondent, actor, podcaster, and commercial pitchman has already published three ramblings books consisting entirely of fake “information.” On Vacationland, Hodgman drops the act and invites readers in to see the real him, or at least a realish version of himself he chooses to present. This one is a memoir/essay collection with the through line of giant, strange houses. For his youth, it’s a massive old home in a college town, and later on, it’s with his experiences a semi-reluctant vacationer in Massachusetts and Maine.
What Are We Even Doing with Our Lives? by Chelsea Marshall and Mary Dauterman
This is such a great idea for a book that it makes me jealous. What Are We Even Doing With Our Lives? captures the zeitgeist of right now and the past ten years by knowingly sending up Brooklyn-style trust fund-funded self-absorption with the anthropomorphic trappings of Richard Scarry’s Busytown. It’s subtitled “the most honest ‘children’s’ book of all time” because while most picture books make you think adulthood is going to be a series of unceasing wonders in which everyone’s happy, has a place, and get along, Marshall and Dauterman don’t shy away from the depicting the “meh” (“Miranda prefers to retreat into her phone when she gets anxious”) and WTF (a mayonnaise stand at the farmer’s market serves “‘deconstructed mayo’: a hard-boiled egg and some vinegar for a cool twelve bucks”).
Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002) by David Sedaris
You know how you know that guy that likes a band so much that they own and actually listen to endless outtakes, alternate cuts, and even studio chatter culled from the making of the band’s most popular album? Theft by Finding is the equivalent of that for the hardcore Sedarishead. Most people know that Sedaris is an obsessive diarist — how else could he put together book after book of amazing and true stories from his own life if he hadn’t written them all down? Well, now here are those diaries, the raw material that led to the classic short stories in Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. It’s not always funny and it’s not even always interesting, but it’s a powerful look into Sedaris’s artistic process.
Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night by Jason Zinoman
The New York Times’ staff comedy critic goes deep on an icon who has somehow never received the full, meaningful, warts-and-all biography yet. (Perhaps it’s because Letterman is so famously self-loathing and reclusive.) At any rate, Zinoman outlines not only the biographical details, but why Letterman is important, quantifying his clear influence on pretty much any modern comedy that’s good.
Unqualified by Anna Faris
Unqualified is also the name of Faris’s podcast, which finds the star of Scary Movie, Smiley Face, and The House Bunny delivering earnest advice to listeners about their relationship issues. Faris claims often to not know what she’s talking about, but she does, and this book is the proof. It’s mostly a memoir of Faris’s romantic triumphs, failures, and highly relatable experiences that allow her to empathize with others. Particularly endearing and funny: the story of grade-school Faris’s attempt to get an ambivalent boy to like her by buying him ice cream at lunch; and the one about college-age Faris disrupting frat parties by pretending to be a hostile teenager.
It Devours! by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Welcome to Night Vale is objectively the best fiction podcast of all time, so over the top in its descriptions of weird events in a creepy desert town that it’s ridiculously funny, all delivered in a deadpan facade that never cracks. Creators Fink and Cranor deliver more theater of the mind in this, the second Night Vale novel. The limitations of the podcast, or rather the lack of limitations of prose, allow them to delve deeper into why Night Vale is the way it is with this affectionately Lovecraftian nightmare.
Mustache Shenanigans by Jay Chandrasekhar
Comedy and music are always getting linked and compared because both have an acute appreciation for the DIY — you can and almost have to carve out your own niche in comedy to be successful. For the Broken Lizard comedy troupe out of tiny Colgate University, setting themselves apart was audaciously making feature-length, feature-quality films. Their first (and still best) is Super Troopers, the episodic cult hit about piss-poor Vermont cops. Troupe member Jay Chandrasekhar directed the movie, his first stop on the way to becoming one of the busiest comedy directors in TV land, and in Mustache Shenanigans he details his filmmaking adventures; particularly fascinating (and even inspiring) are his behind-the-scenes stories about the fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants making of Super Troopers.
Mom Presents: I Think These Guys Are Hot Stuff by Hana Michels and Alex Firer
It’s as if your own sassy mother wrote a zine and printed it on her laser printer. Which is to say the book uses atrocious fonts like Papyrus and Comic Sans to detail the doofuses and dorks she thinks are real hunks (that she’s also been dating since the divorce). It’s completely ridiculous and wonderful.
We Rate Dogs by Matt Nelson
Nelson is the proprietor of @WeRateDogs, one of the most delightful Twitter feeds in recent memory. Sure, everyone loves pictures of dogs on the internet, but Nelson found a way to present them in a new way that is also absurdly funny. Call it “comedy of enthusiasm.” In this collection of Nelson’s best posts about the best doggos and puppers, every dog gets at least a 12 (on a scale of 1 to 10). Your dog will enjoy chewing up this book.
Stephen Colbert’s Midnight Confessions
With the exception of that one guy who thinks everything is “great and amazing ohmygod!” the late night talk shows have become a nightly source of catharsis from the day’s likely maddening political news. Leading the charge is Stephen Colbert and his Late Show writers, because Colbert has the most astute and funny political humor since he honed it for a decade on The Colbert Report. That’s all well and good, but one forgets that these late night shows were, and after the first 15 minutes, still chock full of silly, innovative bits of pure comedy. As his Late Show predecessor David Letterman had his “Top 10,” Stephen Colbert and company have “Midnight Confessions.” They’re basically just silly, weird, and dark one-liners framed in a first-person voice. This handsomely bound volume made to look like some kind of church book collects the best ones, such as “When I was a child, I had a lot of imaginary friends. They were real people. I just imagined they were my friends.”
Comics for a Strange World: A Book of Poorly Drawn Lines by Reza Farazmand
Poorly Drawn Lines is webcomic, but no, keep reading. There are lots of webcomics, yes, and many have self-deprecating titles. But Poorly Drawn Lines isn’t poorly drawn at all. Farazmand’s style is as charming as Mo Willems’s and as fun as the imagery on Adventure Time. Also, the writing is brutally funny and all over the place as far as subject matter is concerned, bringing the panel comic strip into the 21st century. I mean, a man having his toddler arrested for plagiarism? Decomposing computers growing into new computers? That’s some Life in Hell-level stuff.
Not Quite a Genius by Nate Dern
Dern is responsible, both directly and indirectly, for so much of the comedy you consume everyday — he’s a former UCB creative director and he’s now a senior writer and editor at Funny or Die. Here we have Dern’s first book, a jaunty collection of his many comical essays, short fiction pieces, absurd lists, and wacky scenarios. (A highlight: a spin class taught by Walt Whitman.)
Is Canada Even Real? by J.C. Villamere
You can’t make fun of Canada, you trite hack — only Canadians can make fun of Canada. Villamere’s book is part encyclopedia of Canadian pop culture, trash culture, and inexplicable cultural icons. In examining them, she tries to define what it means to be Canadian, both to non-Canadians and to herself. (Villamere is Canadian, by the way, so she can make fun of The Littlest Hobo. If you don’t know what that is, you are both lucky and not Canadian.)
Being a Dad Is Weird by Ben Falcone
When I picked this up, I thought it was going to be a bunch of wacky stories about Falcone raising two young daughters with his wife, Melissa McCarthy. That would have been fine, but there’s actually very little of that — in addition to self-effacing missives about his own endearing anxiety about trying to raise kids correctly, the Dad of the title refers to Falcone’s father. The book is largely a joyful memoir about Falcone’s childhood in the ‘70s and ‘80s and how his quirky, nontraditional, free-wheeling dad taught him how to be not just an attentive father, but a good dude, too.
It’s Funny Until Someone Loses an Eye (Then It’s Really Funny) by Kurt Luchs
You’ve read Luchs’s work in all the usual elite comedic channels: The New Yorker, The Onion, McSweeney’s, and maybe his own comedy site, The Big Jewel. This is a collection of his best comic essays, but it’s not like the other comic essay volumes. Luchs’s humor is more situational and observational (literary even) than joke-and-laugh oriented. He’ll take his conceit and escalate things to their ridiculous end. For example, with The Kafka Convention, he finally gives the man behind The Castle and The Trial the send-up he needs.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
Before Koul was one of the funniest and sharpest article-writers online (The New Yorker, Jezebel), she was the daughter of Indian emigrants growing up in the semi-rural confines of Calgary, Alberta. Her essays about balancing new identity and old, individuality and family, familial expectations and personal goals are highly prescient and are often hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time.
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
They canceled Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell way too early. His woke, insightful progressive identity comedy would be a welcome show in today’s horrific political and social climate. There’s necessarily a lot of that exploration of self and how it fits into the broader culture in this, Bell’s life story. His book reads like a social history of America over the past 40-odd years…that then insightfully and precisely rips it to shreds.
Every so often, the Splitsider Humor Section forgoes its weekly comic essay in favor of a comedy book excerpt. Here are the ones we had the pleasure to preview this year:
The Best American Emails by Amanda Meadows. In the 20th century, it was pretty common for a statesman or famous author’s letters to get collected and published — as they should, because they’re thoughtfully and beautifully written. But electronic correspondence is the medium of our era, and Meadows presents a mock-esteemed collection that makes fun of all the dumb things we type to each other a thousand times a day.
Away with Words by Joe Berkowitz. This is the author’s accounting of the time he embedded himself in the competitive punning and wordplay circuit. Yes, that’s a thing, and it’s fascinating.
Man vs. Child by Doug Moe. Though a series of essays, rants, diagrams, and illustrations, Moe (a UCB veteran) reveals that being a parent is a beautiful, heartwarming, Sisyphean farce.
The Official Handbook of the Bowieverse by Alex Firer and Kenny Keil. This fun Bowie remembrance presents all of the many characters of Bowie — Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, etc. — as if they were superheroes, Doctor Who villains, or Dungeons and Dragons characters…or maybe all three.
Danger…With a Hard G by Matthew David Brozik. A spoof of those old pulpy private eye novels starring Harrison “Danger” Bennett as a violence-averse detective on an absurd case. There are also like five groan-worthy puns per page, which is a very good rate.
Paul Ryan Magazine edited by James H. Folta and Andrew Lipstein. The editors rectified all-star talent from The Onion, CollegeHumor, and late night TV for a good cause: to mercilessly mock the iron-pumping, Medicaid-cutting Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. It also mocks magazines, because every new spread is an immediately familiar send-up of a different magazine, only the content is always about Paul Ryan.
Brian Boone edits the Splitsider Humor Section.