“Summer beach read” lists are all well and good, but the roundup a person really wants to know is: Which books do funny people find the funniest?
With this in mind, Vulture spoke with eight comedians, all contributors to Notes From the Bathroom Line: Humor, Art, and Low-grade Panic From 150 of the Funniest Women in Comedy, a modern pantheon selected by Amy Solomon, producer on Silicon Valley and Barry. Notes includes a wide range of comedy genres, spanning Lennon Parham’s holy psalm to Target to Karen Chee’s bullet-point list of reasons why her mom is calling. There are also quippy “group” responses to surveys like “What’s a Song/Album/Movie/Book That an Ex Ruined for You?” or “What’s a Bad Habit You’ll Never Get Rid Of?” (For the latter, per Joanna Calo, a producer for Hacks and BoJack Horseman: “Watching a quick hour of television when you’re supposed to be somewhere in 45 minutes.”)
“I live to recommend things to people,” Solomon remarks in Notes’ introduction, “namely bookstores, things to do in Chicago, and my amazing allergist in Los Angeles.” Solomon herself grew up smitten with Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women, a 1976 publication that gathered women comedians into a kind biblical compendium, from Gilda Radner to Phyllis Diller. Solomon updated that “iconic opus” approach by assembling an array of sly, wry personalities working today.
We followed up on Solomon’s cue and discussed the funny and formative books championed by eight comedians featured in Notes.
Lennon Parham: I was thinking of books that made an impact on me, and surprisingly enough, Anne of Green Gables is one of those books that I have in common with almost all the women I’ve done comedy with. Like Jessica St. Clair, June Raphael — we all were obsessed with Anne of Green Gables when we were tweens. I read all the books, like feverishly. I connected with that feeling — like a lot of comedians feel when they’re little — that there’s something wrong with you. That you’re an outsider.
Anne’s a real weirdo. I grew up in a small town in Georgia and felt very “other” early on. I tried to fake my way through it, while still trying to be authentic to my freak flag. So I think I really connected with Anne on that. She’s endlessly romantic, fiercely loyal, she’s an optimist, she’s incredibly intelligent, well-spoken, has a fiery temper, and loves imagination. And you could see she persevered, so maybe you’ll be okay one day too. Recognizing those traits in a young woman — speaking up against adults, calling out a wrongful action, even standing up for yourself — that wasn’t, especially in the ‘80s, being taught. I was getting that information at home, but I wasn’t getting it from other adults.
In high school, we did Anne of Green Gables as a stage play, and I played Rachel Lynde. She’s the town gossip. It might have been one of the first straight comedic roles that I got to play. She’s always advising on how Anne should be raised, and Anne really hands her her own ass at one point. Well, multiple times, because she’s butting in where she shouldn’t. That juxtaposition of the fierce quality of Anne and also the softness within is really interesting.
Mitra Jouhari: I usually read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I read Ali’s book last year. It was comforting. I obviously found it very funny, but also I learned a lot about her.
She writes about food really beautifully. I don’t identify as someone who is a “foodie” — I can kind of just eat whatever and not really care. So reading from the perspective of someone who gets a lot of joy and delight from food, why they love it so much, and the respect they have for it … It felt inspiring when I was burnt out on cooking the same three things every day. And the way she writes about her life and her relationship with her husband and her daughters was really funny, but I think beautiful too.
She’s still writing in the voice that people who love her recognize, but whenever you switch to a different medium, you’re able to take on different things, or go into more granular detail. You can talk about things you might not talk about onstage. I don’t want to say she’s not worrying so much about not being funny, because it is very funny, but comedians who perform live are so used to immediate feedback. So putting something in that book format is difficult, because you’re used to thinking This joke is funny, and then saying it onstage, and finding out right away if it’s funny. So it’s stressful to have to wait.
Lolly Adefope: I find that novels tend to skew toward serious, so finding a hilarious one is such a rare treat. Miranda July writes like no one else — her characters are so unique in their absurdity, and she crafts her stories so well that it’s like watching the film adaption as you read.
I like when people bring things into the spotlight that we’re aware of but maybe haven’t seen the humor in yet. I think Miranda July does that: She takes behaviors that on paper might seem pathetic or depressing, like [protagonist] Cheryl eating straight out of the pan, and makes them hilarious. She describes the kind of detail that I notice in real life and never expect to see in literature. That’s part of what she does so well — invites the reader in through these seemingly tiny yet precise moments that then stay with you.
This was the first thing by Miranda July that I’d read or seen, which might be why it blew me away so much. I had a vague idea in my head that she was an arty, cool maker of arty, cool things, but didn’t know much more than that. I think discussions of whether her work is “quirky” remind me of discussions about “whether women can be funny” — they center slightly sexist ideas and approaches rather than appreciate the work on its own merit.
Sasheer Zamata: I love her takes and grievances with the mundane parts of life. I was inspired to get this book because I watched clips online of her HBO show Public Speaking and thought she was insanely funny. She speaks as if she’s delivering a stand-up set. So when Pretend It’s a City came out on Netflix, I of course devoured that immediately. I aspire to complain as well as she does.
I’m not sure when I first read Fran’s work, but I know I was living in New York at the time, which seems appropriate. She has an incredible way of portraying a love-hate relationship with the city, and I could definitely relate to that after about ten years of living there. Fran’s distaste for people who don’t know how to walk in New York definitely resonates with me. Yes, New York is amazing to look at, but you can see more of it if you stop looking up and actually walk to wherever the hell you’re going.
She’s so good at highlighting details that many people would gloss over. Like, she made a list of obligations (dropping off laundry, going to parties, etc.) and called them “Modern Sports.” I would love to hear her thoughts on greeting someone in a post-COVID world. I imagine she never liked hugging someone when meeting them, and would probably prefer that not come back. And a kiss on the cheek would most likely be out of the question.
Karen Chee: Full disclosure: Blythe is a very good friend of mine. I read it because she’s a friend of mine, but then I read it and was like, This is so good. I’m also a fan now. It’s legitimately exciting when your friend makes something that you’re really proud of. I imagine the topic of the book could have gone very serious, because it is about navigating dating as a straight cis woman and trying to date men in a very patriarchal society. But she takes all these really fun, whimsical turns and has so many good jokes packed into every page that it is just a true joy reading it.
This is my dream SparkNotes: the philosophy of dating. She does it without being pretentious, which I ultimately appreciate because if I’m reading a book that’s pretentious I am lost. She has such a good “performer” voice, and is able to translate that perfectly to the page. It’s like taking comedy and setting it to a different rhythm.
The book has a lot of wholesome comedy — or, comedy about wholesome things. There’s a piece in there about how Tom Hanks is the actual villain in You’ve Got Mail. (Would they have actually been happy together?! Like, he put Meg Ryan out of business! Her mom’s store!) There are lots of really absurd, silly pieces scattered throughout the book also, so it’s fun.
Dating is so nebulous that I always feel kind of embarrassed talking about it to people — unless they’re my close friends — because it sounds like I’m overanalyzing something silly. But in the book, it feels like No, it’s okay to think about this. It’s not frivolous by nature. If it’s nebulous, it’s because someone is making a mistake.
Meg Stalter: I read it a long time ago, like around 2014. That’s when I started comedy — like really started. I was like OMG, this is the life I want to have — like her writing a play with her friend, and being on The Office and fighting for her material in the writers’ room. At that time, I was going to Barnes & Noble and getting anything I could about comedy: Tina Fey’s book, that big SNL book, everything I could.
Mindy writes like she’s one of your friends. I became even more of a fan while reading it. I was nannying all day and doing open mics at night. I’m sure it would be fun to go back and read now, but I really needed it at the time. Even though my stuff is so different than hers, I was able to recognize: That’s what I wanna do with my stuff. Before I knew how to do anything, I wanted to do everything. At that time, I didn’t really have my voice yet.
The stuff I do is pretty absurd. It would make sense if I chose John Waters or something. But Mindy is appealing to my real-life self. I’m painfully earnest in real life — like “write poetry” and “cry at everything” earnest. That book had a lasting effect on me, because I didn’t know at the time that you could make a career out of being a comedian. I was really young and I was like, How are people doing this?! How do you get a writer’s job? It was watching somebody do what I wanted to do. And then later, I figured out how to write my own crazy stuff. As this nanny with no money, I couldn’t move to New York, I couldn’t move to L.A., but I was like, If she can do that, I can do that. It was a look into the future. You can make your own way.
Catherine Cohen: Everything about my life is humiliating and embarrassing and just cringe. But when I read something like this, it feels so honest and fresh, and almost funny by accident. I just fell in love with it. It’s this tale about her breakup and, in between, an “art show” with titles of the pieces she’s doing.
Do you remember Lenny Letter, the thing that Lena Dunham did? They would do such great excerpts of female writers. They showed an excerpt of this or maybe some poetry she’d written in around 2016, and I was like, This is so funny. This unlike anything I’ve read. It just felt so immediate and accessible. I love anything that’s like these little prose poems — little tweets, almost — that form the novella.
When I read it, it was exactly what I was going through at the time: dating around, trying to be some kind of artist, trying to figure out if you’re terrible. She just makes you feel so seen. I felt the way I feel when I discover something I’m obsessed with: Oh, it’s allowed to be like this?! Oh, we’re allowed to write how we speak?! It feels like you’re texting with a friend who happens to be very insightful and bizarre.
She throws in these funny things — she gets intimate and reveals these darker truths — and then quickly takes it back with a joke. So she’s like, I’m not letting you in that much. That’s a fun device. The way this is formatted is so easy to pick up — just pick a paragraph and you can immediately be transported. It’s comforting because it’s true and it’s true because it’s funny. It’s vulnerable too, and that makes it even funnier.
Ziwe Fumudoh: The Onion was the first job that ever paid me to write jokes. That experience was so formative for me as a writer, because it really taught me the value of output and not being precious with your jokes. I started as an unpaid intern there, for a year and a half, in 2013. At the end of my internship, the video staff gave me this. I read it front to back.
You have literally 240 pages by all these brilliant writers collaborating to make a satirical encyclopedia. I find the Onion’s voice to be so sharp, so funny. How do you make light of really serious issues and sort of punch up at people in power? They really take shots at everyone. No one is spared from the barrage of scorn that the writers have for general living beings. As a comedy writer and performer and producer, it really expands my world in terms of what I can make fun of, and also how I can make fun of myself.
The strongest aspect is that the entire page is full of jokes. This is a very large book, and every single aspect of it is a joke. Maybe I’m cheap — I like a book that’s like “buy one, get 1,800 different things.” A lot of it is really offensive, honestly! They inherently push boundaries and sometimes cross the line. But I’m a satirical writer myself, so I really value the wide breadth.
There’s this one joke about Joe Biden, in 2010: “Joe Biden was asked to take down risqué photos of Loni Anderson from the Vice-Presidential Website” — and so, you know, the Onion was kind of the genesis of “Joe Biden as a folksy hero.” A lot of these jokes show a really deep understanding of American pop culture. And to watch inside jokes amongst these really tight writers in Chicago kind of transform into this national bit … It shows the importance of media and of comedy writing. The Onion was at the forefront of making fun of these domestic and foreign policies.