best of 2018

The 10 Best Comedy Books of 2018

Featuring Chris Gethard, Nell Scovell, The Simpsons, The Kids in the Hall, and an intimate look at Robin Williams.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

There are probably dozens of reasons to read. Reading informs you about the myriad ways that the world is imploding, or how many calories are in the thing you’re eating, for example. Reading can also help you meet or improve on your comedy-consumption goals. Like, sure, you’ve seen Nanette. You’ve watched at least half of the top 1,000 comedians of the year perform live. You dressed as drag John Mulaney for Halloween. But you’re no comedy nerd unless you’ve done the reading. Below are ten of the best, biggest, and most engaging comedy books of 2018.

“Comedy books” is admittedly an umbrella term that encompasses a lot of different kinds of titles that may not even occupy the same sections at one of America’s five remaining bookstores. These ten books are just the best books of the year that a true and multifaceted comedy devotee ought read. This list includes collections of comic essays, memoirs by important comedy figures, prescient satire, the stories behind important comedy institutions and TV shows, and one comic novel that probably defies that label.

10. Look Alive Out There, by Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley’s crisp and clever essay collections (like this, and I Was Told There’d Be Cake) unfortunately only come along once every few years, and this one is another treat. While staying personal and introspective, Crosley explores some universal, comedy-abundant topics, such as one’s own selfishness and the desire to do more, but getting caught up in the infuriating and mundane day-to-day nonsense of daily life and the writing hustle. Highlights of Crosley’s adventures undertaken for our enjoyment (and to learn something about herself, maybe) include a visit to an active volcano and learning about a distant relative, a semi-famous adult-film star.

9. Lose Well, by Chris Gethard

Gethard contributes both delightfully weird ideas and a “let’s-see-what-happens ethos” to his many live shows, on The Chris Gethard Show, or on his various podcast appearances. With Lose Well, it seems as if Chris Gethard started out writing a memoir — a capital idea, as he’s one of the more innovative comedy minds of the last decade or so. But in the course of relating his unlikely rise to fame and comedy pioneer status, Gethard wound up writing an extremely inspirational book. His open, self-deprecating survey of his own failures and second-guessing himself on the way to embracing his singular gifts will make you, dear reader, appreciate your own false starts and stumbles and help you realize your goals while also being way funnier than any Oprah-approved book of similar purpose.

8. How to Be Alone, by Lane Moore

Today, Lane Moore is the host and curator of the wonderful stage show Tinder Live as well as a musician and contributor to all of the good humor sites, and her DIY perspective comes from having to literally DIY most everything. How to Be Alone tracks her progress from a miserable childhood in which she essentially raised herself to the life of an uncompromising artist. Herein what she’s learned with the rest of us, namely that so many of the things we’re told we need, and chase, and strive for are bullshit. She’s only half-kidding, but she has a point (lots of them) in suggesting that TV has ruined our notion of romance, nostalgia is a fallacy, and internships are predatory. Of course, the way Moore relates her personal experiences with such life chapters are wise and hilarious. Let Lane Moore help you.

7. Springfield Confidential, by Mike Reiss

Probably because it’s the best and most important comedy TV show of, well, ever, tons of books about The Simpsons have been published. But not until Springfield Confidential has one really nailed what it’s like to work in the mystical promised land of The Simpsons’ offices, and it’s because this one is written by a guy who’s been part of the show for more or less its entire three-decade-long existence. Recalling his experiences as a writer, producer, showrunner, and unabashed fan of the show, Reiss shares the pride, joy, frustration, gratitude, grueling labor, and sense of luck that are a part of bringing Springfield to life. Simpsons nerds (meaning most adults between the ages of 29 and 45) will eat this up, what with the many behind-the-scenes secrets, character inspirations, and lore-busting.

6. Randy!, by Mike Sacks

Last year, humorist and consummate comedy interviewer Mike Sacks wrote and published Stinker Lets Loose, a novelization of a late ’70s trucker movie that doesn’t actually exist. This year, he went meta once more with Randy! Sacks claims to have actually found and republished this book, which he found at a garage sale in Maryland, which is a self-published biography of an opinionated, small-town party legend, inventor, and dirtbag named Randy. He’s a guy who inherited his Mam-Mam’s farm, sold it for $900,000, and used the money to do everything he ever wanted to do, which was build a ridiculously garish mansion overlooking Mam-Mam’s farm, buy a used Hummer, and hire a guy to follow him around and record his thoughts and recollections. It’s a roundabout, complex character study about a simple guy with simple tastes in which Sacks simultaneously pays homage to and brutally satirizes his home state of Maryland.

5. Just the Funny Parts, by Nell Scovell

The funny TV you’ll always love, that you grew up on, and which formed your comic sensibilities is in large part due to Nell Scovell. What she wrote, you consumed, as she’s been writing great TV for decades, with stints on Late Night With David Letterman, The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, and the terribly underrated, non-Satanic TV version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (which she also created). While Scovell’s you-are-there anecdotes and stories about her professional evolution are a great read and bursting with the joyful, not-mean brand of gag-writing (also a terribly underrated thing) that she brings to the table, Just the Funny Parts provides an often far too visceral, myth-busting, and romance-killing look at what it really feels like to work in the writers room of a network sitcom.

4. New Erotica for Feminists, by Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer

The Belladonna is the new Onion, a combination humor/fake news/lifestyle parody site from a sharp, female and/or feminist point of view that delivers precise, critical blows to toxic masculinity, the dumbass patriarchy, and dumbassery in general. In that spirit, Belladonna editors Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer wrote a piece for McSweeney’s that rightfully went viral for its relatability and hilarity: “New Erotica for Feminists,” in which women’s constantly unfulfilled wish for equality and decency and to not be treated like sex objects is expressed via short erotic stories, like a paragraph from a romance novel, or a letter to Penthouse. Well, they turned the idea into a whole book of inspiring and vital “erotica.” For example, when Juliet dumps Romeo because their relationship is clearly toxic, or a fantasy about Tom Hardy filling one’s fridge with LaCroix and then playing with a rescue dog.

3. Robin, by Dave Itzkoff

It seems like each year the publishing world gives us one definitive, landmark biography or memoir about or by a Great American. This year, we got two: Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Robin, meticulously researched and lovingly but fairly written by New York Times culture writer Dave Itzkoff. Getting inside the mind and talent of the never-replicated Robin Williams was a tall task, as the man was nearly inscrutable when he was alive, maybe because he was a genius, but Itzkoff shows that Williams was actually inscrutable, and thus fascinating, because he was a genius with a lot of personal torment who put up walls even as he was so giving and warm with his talents, and fulfilling his professional goal to create human connections with every performance. In many ways, Robin is the classic showbiz tragedy, that of the lonely child who develops his gifts to entertain himself and others who enters a world of exploitation, pressure, and failed relationships. It’s also a fascinating look into the psychological and social reasons why comedians feel so compelled to do what they do.

2. The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy, by Paul Myers

Paul Myers has written a few rock-star biographies (his Todd Rundgren book is particularly essential), and he takes that approach to writing about the greatest sketch-comedy troupe of all time. That’s because the Kids in the Hall are, for all intents and purposes, a rock band. Their story plays like a Behind the Music, only with humor, depth, and humanity as they form from separate troupes, become the hottest thing in Canada and cult figures in the U.S., and fractiously splinter as a result of both their own success and the making of Brain Candy. Myers has such a tenderness and knowledge of his subject, and he interviewed every living person associated with the Kids for this book, including the Kids themselves, and shares so many nuggets, like all of the movies they could have made instead of Brain Candy and the fascinating origins of recurring characters like Man in Towel, Chicken Lady, and Buddy Cole.

1. Calypso, by David Sedaris

This movement in comedy over the last few years — anti-comedy, comedy that isn’t LOL funny, confessional comedy, whatever you want to call it, which covers stuff like Nanette, Transparent, and Atlanta — isn’t a fad or subgenre. It’s an evolution or cultural shift. The best comedy has always been about vulnerability and human beings sharing their humanity, and sharing those concepts with laughter, honesty, or, now, both. David Sedaris helped to launch the funny essay/memoir movement in publishing nearly two decades ago, and he’s helped comedy evolve the whole time. Now, he’s onboard the Nanette train, and it’s exquisite. This is the least chuckle-causing, read-passages-aloud-until-your-spouse-is-annoyed Sedaris book ever, but it’s still quippy and self-deprecating, because how could it not be. But Sedaris has matured and so has his writing. He’s more comfortable than ever to tell stories that cut a little bit deeper and expose, rather than hint at, his sadness. Calypso keeps coming back to a beach house he bought for his family of adult siblings, which they’d always wanted as kids. But it comes in the wake of a sister’s seemingly inexplicable suicide. Pangs of nostalgia, loss, and grief puncture and slowly saturate the comedy, and they pop up at random, the way grief and loss do. It’s the comedy book of the year because it’s what comedy is all about in 2018.

The 10 Best Comedy Books of 2018