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Laugh-out-loud funny classic lit?
May 8, 2006 9:03 PM   Subscribe

Any suggestions for classic literature that offers the hope of belly laughs? I'm looking for laugh-out-loud funny classic fiction, preferably pre-1900. Kind of like this question, but with books instead of movies.

I've been on a classic lit kick lately, and after finishing (and enjoying) a fairly serious, gritty and occasionally dryly funny series of Chekhov short stories I'm in the mood for something lighter. If it helps, I like a lot of modern comic fiction (Terry Pratchett, George Saunders, McSweeney's folks, e.g.), and love when Shakespeare gets madcap. I also laugh out loud at Patrick O'Brian's comedy of manners stuff in the Aubrey/Matin books, but for some reason I'm skeptical when friends use that to recommend Jane Austen for laughs. Open to Greek/Roman stuff, too, as long as it doesn't require a knowledge of G/R history (which I don't have) to get the jokes.
posted by mediareport to Media & Arts (62 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
(Er, that should be Aubrey/Maturin)
posted by mediareport at 9:06 PM on May 8, 2006


Jane Austen is only funny for women, I think.

Dickens? Diary Of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith? Anything by Jerome K Jerome?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:10 PM on May 8, 2006


Interesting, "humorous classical novels" on Google gets no results. I read The Pickwick Papers earlier this year, by Mr. Dickens, and laughed often. I was surprised to find it reminded me a lot of Monty Python.

Sections of Don Quixote, especially in the first part, are also quite madcap. And if you count Mark Twain as classic, you've got Huckleberry Finn.

Here's one guy's Top Five (not necessarily classic), of which I heartily recommend the first two — I've read almost 90 books by P. G. Wodehouse, and much of Evelyn Waugh's output. Scoop is brilliant.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:17 PM on May 8, 2006


Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. It's quite madcap -- the father of the brothers especially.

It's not pre-1900 but I don't think I've laughed so much during a book as I did while reading Catcher in the Rye.

De Sade's Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue has plenty of sick humor.

Don Quixote.
posted by Aghast. at 9:18 PM on May 8, 2006


Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is post 1900, but it satirizes earlier authors like D. H. Lawrence. An orphan arrives at a farm populated by her strange relatives and decides that she has to fix everything up.
posted by gnat at 9:23 PM on May 8, 2006


As I recall, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales can be hilarious in terms of references to people's bums etc. But I read it a long time ago, so I could be mistaken.
posted by misozaki at 9:24 PM on May 8, 2006


Also, comedies by Oscar Wilde are pre-1900.
posted by misozaki at 9:25 PM on May 8, 2006


I really like Jerome K Jerome's "three men in a boat" (1889). You can find it on the internet (project gutenburg among other places). (Also, I was led to it by Connie Willis' "to say nothing of the dog", which is modern, but sounds like you would like.)
posted by advil at 9:28 PM on May 8, 2006


Gargantua and Pantagruel.
posted by nicwolff at 9:29 PM on May 8, 2006


Well, it's not pre-1900, but P.G. Wodehouse started writing in 1902. You can even get much of his work over at Project Gutenberg for free, if you do not mind reading on a screen or printing things out.
posted by fings at 9:30 PM on May 8, 2006


p.s. here's a link for "three men in a boat".
posted by advil at 9:33 PM on May 8, 2006


Rabelaisian refers to "coarse or uproarious humor" so Rabelais' books must be extremely funny to some people. I understand that it has lots of humor about body orifices and fluids -- grotesque humor.
posted by Aghast. at 9:39 PM on May 8, 2006


I second-third-whatnot the Rabelais. Maybe Swift, maybe Pope, maybe Aristophanes, maybe Chaucer if you can get past the language.
posted by box at 9:49 PM on May 8, 2006


Back in high school my English class read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and we all thought is was racy and pretty hilarious, especially read aloud.
posted by tula at 9:53 PM on May 8, 2006


I remember laughing a great deal at (with?) Vanity Fair, and I normally hate Victorian lit.
posted by occhiblu at 9:54 PM on May 8, 2006


Wodehouse absolutely seconded. Dickens and Wilde, too. Lewis Carroll perhaps. I'm reading Vanity Fair right now and Thackeray's got plenty of comic zest.

Maybe too recent, but you might like the early New Yorker writers from the '30s and '40s. Especially James Thurber, Dorothy Parker (though her reviews outshine her fiction), and Robert Benchley.
posted by quarked at 9:56 PM on May 8, 2006


Large parts of "Life on the Mississippi" and "Roughing It" are quite funny. (Mark Twain again.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:57 PM on May 8, 2006


Fielding's Tom Jones for sure, and most Chaucer stuff (read aloud). But I can't recommed Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne enough. Postmodern humor before modernism even existed.
posted by maxreax at 10:06 PM on May 8, 2006


That Moliere really pumps my nads.
posted by Guy Smiley at 10:28 PM on May 8, 2006


Candide by Voltaire is a hoot. And I second Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. And oh God yes, Tom Jones! Also Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. Oh, and Chesterton.
posted by LarryC at 10:29 PM on May 8, 2006


Dickens' The Pickwick Papers and (not pre-1900 but good none the less) Anthony Burgess The Wanting Seed
posted by jne1813 at 10:35 PM on May 8, 2006


The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas is a great read, and laugh-out-loud funny as well as a rollicking adventure novel.
posted by Manjusri at 10:49 PM on May 8, 2006


Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. Anything by Twain, though his later stuff is dark. Swift, especially A Modest Proposal. Any of Shakespeare's comedies. Voltaire's Candide. Harris' Song of the South, politically incorrect as it may be, is often quite funny, as are most tales rooted in trickster mythology. JM Barrie, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll and E.E. Milne have their moments of laugh-out-loud humor too.
posted by ab3 at 11:22 PM on May 8, 2006


Seconds here for Candide and Don Quixote.
posted by Opposite George at 12:34 AM on May 9, 2006


Anything, anything, by Mark Twain.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:12 AM on May 9, 2006


For a lite and funny read, Mark Twain's "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" is a serious hoot. When I read it, I had a library copy with illustrations, which added much to the humor. I don't know if the illustrations were part of the original or not, but I liked them, and they fit the spirit of the humor perfectly.
posted by Goofyy at 1:44 AM on May 9, 2006


Wow misozaki recommended the two that came to my mind.

As I recall, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales can be hilarious in terms of references to people's bums etc. But I read it a long time ago, so I could be mistaken.
Seconding Canterbury Tales, though most people tend to hate it (inverted phrasing, older English, etc). If you can manage to get through it though, it's pretty rewarding/funny.

Also, comedies by Oscar Wilde are pre-1900.
Importance of Being Earnest!!!! Literally made me laugh out loud.
posted by mittenedsex at 2:17 AM on May 9, 2006


Jerome K Jerome, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, Chaucer, Swift, and Maldoror spring to mind.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:07 AM on May 9, 2006


Tom Jones didn't do much for me, but Fielding's The Historical Register For The Year 1736 was laugh out loud funny, and a quick read, to boot!
posted by kimota at 3:19 AM on May 9, 2006


'Moby Dick' is quite funny in parts.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 4:32 AM on May 9, 2006


The high-society scenes in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend are hysterical.

I also thought James's Washington Square was pretty hilarious.
posted by saladin at 4:40 AM on May 9, 2006


Wodehouse of course, and also Bennett's The Grand Babylon Hotel. It's just a tiny bit (2 years) late for inclusion under the pre-1900 rule, but oh man is it worth it.
posted by picopebbles at 4:41 AM on May 9, 2006


Jane Austen is only funny for women, I think.

This is crazy! I would read Pride and Prejudice; it's hilarious from the first page to the last. Really. (And one of the greatest novels ever written, etc.)

I'll also second Wilde, Dickens, and Cervantes, obviously--but I'll add to the list Henry Green, an English novelist writing in the 40s and 50s. His novel Loving is probably one of the funniest (and best) novels I've read in years. He is like a more Modernist, working-class version of Evelyn Waugh.
posted by josh at 4:50 AM on May 9, 2006


I just read a book called "Scaramouche". Sorry, I forget the author, but it was set in pre-revolutionary France and was so, so funny. I went looking around to see if anyone had made it into a play; someone had, but reviews were mixed.

The main character starts out as a young lawyer and ends up being a Commedia dell'Arte actor, then a fencing instructor, then, of course, a revolutionary. That's the least of it.

I very much recommend "Scaramouche". If enough people read it, maybe I'll get to see the movie once it's made.
posted by amtho at 5:40 AM on May 9, 2006


I think what you're looking for, I mean what most fits your description, is Tristram Shandy.

I also think Jane Austen is really great and really funny, although not really the laugh out loud kind (for the most part).
posted by OmieWise at 5:41 AM on May 9, 2006


Definitely with Josh on Pride and Prejudice. I read it the first time in high school and for whatever reason, it wasn't nearly as funny then as it is now. I was inspired to pick it up again after watching the Keira Knightly version of the film this weekend.
posted by phoenixc at 5:43 AM on May 9, 2006


amtho: Rafael Sabatini is the author of Scaramouche and a whole bunch of other swashbuckling novels. "He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad" - and there was a 1952 movie version.
posted by nonane at 5:51 AM on May 9, 2006


I'm almost done with Boccaccio's THE DECAMERON (tenth day, fourth story!), and have been laughing out loud pretty damn regularly.
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:06 AM on May 9, 2006


h.h. munro aka saki. you can (sadly) get all of his work in one volume, even.

jerome, twain, wilde and wodehouse, agreed.
posted by dorian at 6:37 AM on May 9, 2006


Oblomov. My wife and I took turns reading it to each other and literally had to stop because we had tears of laughter rolling down our faces.

Twain, of course, and Wilde—"The Importance of Being Earnest" is perhaps the funniest play ever written. I saw it just the other day (the great movie with Edith Evans et al) and laughed as hard as ever. Boccaccio too.

You people recommending Austen and Henry Green have an odd definition of "belly laughs."
posted by languagehat at 6:38 AM on May 9, 2006


Sorry, I meant to link that: Oblomov.
posted by languagehat at 6:39 AM on May 9, 2006


Balzac! I find Pere Goriot to be a complete and total laugharama.
posted by clockwork at 6:59 AM on May 9, 2006


Pickwick Papers. The Decameron.

You people recommending Austen and Henry Green have an odd definition of "belly laughs."

Yeah. Some of these suggestions are jaw-dropping. Moby Dick? Henry James? Candide?
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 7:40 AM on May 9, 2006


Three Men In A Boat (to say nothing of the dog).

Wickedly funny.
posted by cptnrandy at 7:41 AM on May 9, 2006


fugitivefromchaingang: If you've never read Washington Square, I think you'll be surprised by how funny (and un-James like) it is. I know I was.
posted by saladin at 7:44 AM on May 9, 2006


Vanity Fair is hilarious: full of subtle and not-so-subtle wit. Dickens has his moments, though it's not his intention to maintain the comic hijinks. Austen can be funny, too, but again it's more of just periodic observations of manners. (Pride and Prejudice has many funny moments and great comic characters, though.) I believe that most classics have certain comic elements that many people miss because they approach them with the wrong attitude.
posted by jdroth at 7:45 AM on May 9, 2006


oh and also kingsley amis, esp lucky jim.
posted by dorian at 7:56 AM on May 9, 2006


Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. Post WWII. Very British, very, very funny. And a second for P.G. Wodehouse.
posted by theora55 at 8:24 AM on May 9, 2006


okay, so preview would have bene a good idea.
posted by theora55 at 8:24 AM on May 9, 2006


I've been reading a lot of pre-1900 literature lately. Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy both have totally hilarious passages, but they can be few and far between in these very long books. I suspect it's more satirical than a modern reader can appreciate; a lot of the humor in both books concerns specific contemporary events.

I found that one way to get a real appreciation for the comedy in these books is to skip right to the A&E/BBC adaptations. They tend to be long enough to still capture the full scope of the work, but focus on the parts that a modern viewer can appreciate. The 1997 miniseries for Tom Jones, in particular, is incredibly enjoyable and much closer to the book than the 1963 movie.
posted by nev at 9:08 AM on May 9, 2006


Frederick Marryat's Midshipman Easy is on the top of my list for goofy, laugh-out-loud classic literature. If you like Patrick O'Brien, it'll help you "get" some of the jokes. Up for some period non-fiction as well? James Gardner's autobiography Above and Under Hatches is pretty funny at times!
posted by Gable Oak at 9:34 AM on May 9, 2006


Another Henry Fielding suggestion: The Tragedy of Tragedies: or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great.
posted by Ohdemah at 10:06 AM on May 9, 2006


I would propose O. Henry, whose Ransom of Red Chief is still one of my all-time favorite American humor stories. I should note that not all of his stories were humorous; he was better known for his surprise endings, as in his Gift of the Magi.
posted by Lynsey at 11:01 AM on May 9, 2006


And what dorian said about Saki....
posted by Lynsey at 11:02 AM on May 9, 2006


Stephen Leacock's Nonsense Novels (ca. 1911) is quite amusing. I think it's available from Project Gutenberg. Agree with the Wodehouse suggestions, and would add S. J. Perelman to the list of early New Yorker writers.
posted by ChromeDome at 11:08 AM on May 9, 2006


Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman is very Monty-Pythonesque.
posted by nancoix at 11:33 AM on May 9, 2006


Zeno's conscience by Italo Svevo made me laugh out loud. Also I second Tristam Shandy.
posted by sic at 12:31 PM on May 9, 2006


I seem to remember Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (18th-century play) as being funny when we read it in college.
posted by komilnefopa at 12:54 PM on May 9, 2006


Thanks, y'all; these are great, and much more than I expected, so I'll be keeping this list handy for a while. I probably should have mentioned I've read Wilde, Carroll, Chaucer and a few others. Thanks especially to the folks who nudged me in the direction of Candide: I started it today and have been laughing a lot, starting on page 2, when Candide's true love watches Pangloss "giving a lesson in experimental physics" [cough] to the maid. I'm halfway through it, and it's just the kind of hoot I was looking for. Re: the others, I'm embarrassed to admit Twain hadn't even occurred to me ("Letters from Earth" is an old fave), and Three Men in a Boat, Oblomov, Svevo, Wodehouse, Waugh and the rest sound like great places to go next. Thanks again!
posted by mediareport at 6:29 PM on May 9, 2006


Guliver's Travels. Also seconding Three Men in a Boat and its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel.
posted by blue grama at 8:11 PM on May 9, 2006


The Golden Ass by Apuleius is pretty funny, though possibly not as funny as the English title suggests.
posted by rjs at 12:30 AM on May 14, 2006


I cannot believe a single person has not recommended Catch 22. Probably the funniest, yet down to earth and human novel you'll read for a while. Greatest read I've had since leaving high school.
posted by taita_cakes at 12:01 AM on July 15, 2006


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