Aug 26 2009 10:13am

We are not amused: My love/hate relationship with funny fiction

In the Get Real thread, Rob T. suggested that I might review other funny crime books. My reaction was to shudder. I hate funny fiction. But of course, I don't, because I like Dortmunder, and Westlake's comedy caper novels generally. I'm just very very picky about it.

I hate things that are trying to be funny, rather than letting the humour bubble up from underneath. I hate things where there are jokes that require being outside the frame of the novel to get. I loathe puns—I mean I quite like puns as they naturally arise in conversation, but I hate it when you have a character whose name is a pun, or where the characters makes puns. Even when I adored Spider Robinson uncritically, I found the pun cascades at Callahan’s excruciating. I generally hate things that don’t take themselves seriously and make me feel they’re making fun of me because I do take them seriously. I didn’t notice the “fit hit the Shan” line as a pun when I read Lord of Light (I doubt I’d heard the American expression about shit hitting the fan when I first read it) and it's a very good thing because that’s the kind of thing that ruins my reading experience. To this day I think of that as something like the notion that Aslan is supposed to be Jesus, an extraneous annoyance I wish nobody had pointed out.

I hate Discworld. I like Pratchett’s juveniles a great deal, and I like Good Omens, but I find Discworld completely unfunny. I’ve given it a fair try, having read the beginnings of all the ones people say are the best, but they leave me cold. I’ve often tried to figure out why they tend to irritate the heck out of me when so many other people love them, but I had to settle for emigrating. I don't find Wodehouse funny either.

I generally don’t like satire much, unless it’s done very well. I hate Mary Gentle’s Grunts, because it strikes me as mean-spirited. Galaxy Quest understands what's good about what it’s making fun of as well as what’s ridiculous about it. I think good satire has to love what it skewers, and that doesn’t happen often enough.

It’s not that I’m a grouch with no sense of humour. I laugh a lot. I have even written things that make people laugh. But I don’t like extraneous added funny bits, I like humour that arises naturally from situations. I don’t like jokes—and in fact if you tell me a joke more complicated than “What's brown and sticky?” (A stick!) I'll probably spend ages trying to figure out a context in which it could make sense and therefore be funny to me. (I have a couple of stories, the one about the ham and the one about the jellyfish, that came from doing that.) If you give me solid characters and have them doing funny things and taking them seriously, I will laugh. I'm much more likely to be amused by a funny bit in a serious novel—the oatmeal and blue cheese dressing in Shards of Honor gets me every time. Similarly I smile just thinking about the getting Christened sequence in The Long Ships.

I think everything that I think is considered to be humorous writing and that actually amuses me fits into that category—John James, Robert Sheckley, Bob Shaw. The only possible exception is Douglas Adams. Adams does have jokes and his world is absurd, but I think on the whole he does treat his characters seriously, even when he’s being ridiculous. They’re not just there to be funny. Marvin and the terrible pain in the diodes down his left side, and Arthur with his terrible quest for a cup of tea are plaintive as well as amusing.

There’s probably a lot more funny stuff out there there that I would like if I didn’t cringe when I saw the covers. I’d be interested in recommendations, but I’m reluctant to ask for any—do please bear in mind what I’ve said here.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Russ Gray
1. nimdok
John Scalzi's The Android's Dream is pretty funny. I think it might meet your requirements. Agent to the Stars is also good. Both novels have strong characters and interesting premises, but are very funny at times.
Paul Howard
2. DrakBibliophile
Your comment about Adams 'taking his characters' seriously is IMO the key.

I hate authors/writers who create characters to be laughed at. Lucas and C3PO is a good example.

Humor in stories works best for me when it is the humor that the characters experiences in their situation.

I'll admit that I have a hard time finding mockery and ridicule funny so when an author/writer uses it in a story, I get a bad reaction.

One of the 'funniest' scenes I ever read was in one of Fred Saberhagen's Sword Novels. A circus owner was trying to protect one of his female employees while a bunch of mercenaries were laughing their heads off. Saberhagen had the mercenaries literally die laughing. The only survivor didn't know what was so funny about the circus owner's actions. Which is why he was still alive.
Rob Hilton
3. Blue_Mage
Not terribly sci-fi-ish, but I have much love for Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series. Something about Spec Ops just amuses the bejeebers out of me.

I should also say that Mycroft is my single favourite character in the series. The engineer in me loves him, the way he thinks (or doesn't) and all the random things he comes up with.

Oddly enough, I tend to find Pratchett fairly tame. The ones I think you'd have even more difficulty with are Rob Grant and Robert Rankin. As much as I enjoyed Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, it was very over the top and The Witches of Chiswick was downright painful.
Natalie Luhrs
4. eilatan
I thought I was the only person in the world who hated Discworld. I can see how other people find them funny, but they don't strike my funny bone at all--and I've read a lot of them.

I like humor that isn't mean-spirited and it seems to me that that's hard to do. I do better with funny moments, like the blue cheese and oatmeal you mention from Shards of Honor. There are bits in Brandon Sanderson's books that completely crack me up but they're completely in character and make sense in the context of the book, they're not there just to be there.
Adam Parsons
5. Belement
I'd second Blue_Mage on recommending Fford, been lucky enough to meet the man in person at a book signing here in Melbourne several years ago. Other than the Thursday Next series I'd also recommend his Nursery Crime series.

There is actually a cross-over between the two series.. which is only due to the fact that, when writing the first three Next books, the Nursery Crime ones hadn't actually been published at the time, and Fford didn't actually consider that eventually he would have the Nursery ones published.
6. DemetriosX
I find it interesting that you like Adams, but have problems with Discworld. With the exception of the first three or four books, Pratchett takes all of his characters seriously, far more so than Adams. I can't think of a single relatively important character who serves less literary purpose than, say, Zaphod Beeblebrox. I find no real stylistic differences in the humor between Pratchett's juvies and the Discworld books.

Perhaps, the problem is that you've "read the beginnings". Discworld books often start slowly, with long panorama shots and philosophical maunderings, before getting down to business. Maybe you should try reading at least half of one of the later ones. If you like his other juveniles, then maybe a Tiffany Aching book. In any case, the Discworld books are always (excepting those first few) ABOUT something. There's more depth in any two pages of Pratchett than in the entire corpus of Douglas Adams' work.
Jon Evans
7. rezendi
I can't recall offhand if this has ever come up in conversation: how do you feel about Three Men in a Boat?
Bill Siegel
8. ubxs113
To channel Jack Black: Why would someone with no interest in humor in fantasy writing be writing for a fantasy website about humor?
Jeff LeBlanc
9. Jeff_LeBlanc
Great post, Jo. This is something my wife and I have been discussing for quite some time.

For me, Connie Willis often manages to pull off funny sf. One of my favorite bits is the seance scene in To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Before I saw Blue_Mage's comment, I was about to mention how utterly unfunny and insufferable I find Jasper Fforde's writing -- for all of the reasons you list above. I have friends who are crazy about those books, the preciousness of it all just makes me cringe.
Samantha Brandt
10. Talia
Yeah, I agree with DemetriosX - Pratchett does indeed take most of his characters seriously (with a few exceptions that are purely comic foil). Certain characters, in particular Vimes and Captain Carrot, for example, he even spends a fair amount of time fleshing out.

But if it's not your style of humor it's not your style of humor, I suppose. Can't say I "get" it necesarily as I absolutely adore Pratchett, but to each their own.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Jeff LeBlanc: We're clearly on the same page here. After many recommendations from friends who love it, I started The Eyre Affair and totally agree: insufferable and cringeworthy.

I love Connie Willis -- and Rezendi, I like To Say Nothing of the Dog and tried again to read Three Men and a Boat because of it (the first time was because Heinlein mentioned it) and still found it irritating.
p l
12. p-l
Oh, you've struck a nerve with me. The Discworld books have never done it for me at all. Like you (I think), I tend to go for wit rather than jokes/comedy. For me, a satisfying funny read is one of Kelly Link's better stories, or a novel by R.K. Narayan (check out A Tiger for Malgudi if you specifically want fantasy). I'd also recommend Steven Millhauser's latest collection, Dangerous Laughter, which is not an overtly funny book at all. It just overflows with wit, bubbling out of unexpected places.
Tim Nolan
13. Dr_Fidelius
If you're not a fan of puns, especially character names as puns, Jasper Fforde is definitely not for you. I like bad wordplay considerably more than the notional next man, but Jack Schitt? Yech.

For non-genre stuff, Three Men In A Boat is outstanding.

For funny SF & Fantasy, Jack Vance springs to mind. I find his work hit and miss but at his best he's brilliant.
"Your methods are incorrect. Since I entered the chamber first, you should have dealt first with my affairs."

The clerk blinked. "The idea, I must say, has an innocent simplicity in its favor."

However, for my money the cream of comedy writing is in Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung books. The first three can be had very cheaply and (due to their age) can be browed online. Both Vance and Bramah depend on immersion for their full effect, but these quotes might give you a flavour.
“Although there exist many thousand subjects for elegant conversation, there are persons who cannot meet a cripple without talking about feet.”

“There are few situations in life that cannot be resolved promptly, and to the satisfaction of all concerned, by either suicide, a bag of gold, or thrusting a despised antagonist over a precipice on a dark night”

Cabell and Lafferty make me laugh a lot too, but they don't sound like your sort of thing.
Tim Nolan
14. Dr_Fidelius
Oh, one more - I laughed myself sick reading Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomy.
Tikitu de Jager
15. tikitu
Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell might fit, but I assume you know it. Straying a bit from the genre corner, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon is hilarious. (So is The Third Policeman, also surreal rather than sf/fantasy, but it's trying so hard you might not be into it. It has jokes.) A Scanner Darkly has some marvellous comic moments. John Crowley can be pretty funny while taking things very seriously, at least in Little, Big, and the AEgypt series, but only in isolated flashes. I got a lot of laughs from the recent The Manual of Detection.

Dr_Fidelius: that first Bramah quote is fantastic. I think you've convinced me.
Nathan Horn
16. CaptCommy
While not really the hardest of Sci-Fi, I certainly consider Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut to be pretty hilarious. It's a very dark humor, and might cross the line of being too mean and mocking for some people, but I really enjoy it. Might be worth looking in to at least.
Cathy Mullican
17. nolly
I like puns. When they're natural, and don't break the mood.

I'm reading Lord of Light right now, for the first time. "Fit hit the Shan" did not belong. It's not funny book, and it stuck out like a dandelion on a golf course. (Between that and some of the gender stuff, combined with the florid prose, I suspect finishing this one is going to be a chore for me.)

I hesitate to recommend any of the books I've found funny to you, because I'm not sure there's enough congruence of taste. I don't think you'd enjoy the Thursday Next books; they don't make any sense at all if you stop and think about them, really.

You might like A. Lee Martinez; his books aren't really silly/funny; they're set-ups that one expects to be silly/funny which he proceeds to take absolutely seriously. (Giant robot cab driver turns PI to rescue a little girl...)
René Walling
18. cybernetic_nomad
@ubxs113 Jo _is_ interested in humour, I think you completely missed the point of her post.

I think many people find different things funny -- I've enjoyed some Diskworld novels, but don't go gaga over them, while Hitchhiker's Guide still makes me laugh. In general, in find surreal situations funny and a novel set on an imaginary world is just too disconnected from everyday life for me to see how surreal the situation the characters are in is. Hitchhiker starts with something that must have happenend countless times (Arthur waking up to see his house is about to be destroyed) and it quickly becomes a very surreal situation (Arthur lying in the mud in front of the bulldozer and Ford asking the contractor to take his place while they go to the pub to talk things over) before anything SFnal even starts to happen, and then it takes off from there -- I need that initial situation I could be in to for the humour to work for me.

About loving what you satirize: I'll recommend the Cineverse books by Craig Shaw Gardner -- you do have to love B-movies to enjoy it.

And as far as funny crime fiction is concerned, I heartily recommend Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh (Jo: I'm lending you my copy next time we see each other)
19. CMPalmer
I wouldn't say that I like funny fiction either, although there are several good books and authors that I like who happen to be funny.

I completely disagree about the Diskworld books, but with one caveat: I love Diskworld, but I don't particularly find them funny. I smile a lot at some parts, but I rarely laugh out loud. I don't like the early ones very much - the ones that are parodying sword-and-sorcery books and D&D. The series achieved greatness, in my opinion, when it became satire and satire is a kind of "comedy" in the classical sense and isn't something you laugh out loud at. I can't remember laughing at a scene in a Diskworld book in a long time, but there are many scenes are insightful, emotional, and poignant because Pratchett's characters are strong and he uses the stories as commentaries and summaries of human foibles and eccentricities.
20. diesel
This is a very insightful review. I couldn't get through the Discworld books either, but read all the Hitchhiker's books twice. Pratchett is a little like the guy at the party with the lampshade on his head -- it's funny, but not for very long, and you feel like you don't want to encourage him. Adams is the quiet guy in the corner making barely audible but razor-sharp observations about the goings-on.
21. Buraac
I only scanned the comments (short on time), but I can't believe no one has mentioned Christopher Moore, author of 'Bloodsucking Fiends', 'You Suck', 'A Dirty Job' and seven or eight others. I share many of your views on so-called humorous fiction, but I find him absolutely hysterical. He is another author that takes his story and characters very seriously, and allows the humor to bubble up. It never feels forced however, because he seems to have figured out that if you as an author simply refuse to pull any punches and write what would likely be done and said if say, a thrift shop owner became an agent of Death, then it often is quite funny. Simply being unafraid to write exactly what comes to mind is a huge advantage imo.

An example of one of his supporting characters is the Emperor: a homeless man who believes he is the Emperor of San Francisco (and Protector of Mexico), and is treated by all the city as such. The best part is, the character is based on a historical figure.
22. GoblinRevolution
Wow, it is almost as if you share a brain (or at least a sense of humor) with me. The list of things that I don't find funny is so long that it might as well be "anything that everyone else finds funny" and then put in exceptions.

Notable exceptions be Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocaplypse and most episodes of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.
23. Brian3
That's true of anything, though, isn't it? It's very hard to make that sort of gesture -- now I am about to amaze you -- work. You don't feel related to, apart from being the object that the person making the gesture is trying to affect, and so you don't feel very sympathetic towards the whole project.

There are certainly emotional contexts in which it can work. Mostly, as far as I can see, they have to do with how much of a relationship is otherwise implied, and how disarming the situation is. Someone you like does their party trick, for example, or someone you're attracted to tries to impress you. But it's hard to get that from a book.

If someone's trying to show you how attractive they are, it tends to be about them, and you feel a bit like one more audience member. Too, you feel on the spot about clicking with it right here and now, which takes you away from actually responding. If you're watching them get dressed to go out, though, or doing something everyday, it's unforced, and feelings emerge naturally.

Laughter, in particular, is largely a way of social bonding, so if you're feeling too distanced, it's not likely to work. I'm not sure why people find it amusing to listen to stand up comedy, but I would guess it has much to do with the experience of being in an audience, which is to say, in a pack, and being presented with someone whose relationship to the pack needs to be negotiated.

For what it's worth, the beginning of Good Omens struck me as hilarious while the rest of it struck me as shtick. It invited you to share its fondness for its characters, and the humor emerged from its telling you all about them. It didn't much matter if a joke didn't work, because you didn't feel someone was just standing there telling you jokes, anyway. That's something that Neil Gaiman is very good at, having outgrown a tendency to be arch, and, while I couldn't say why, for me Terry Pratchett tends to reach for effect while Gaiman pretty much stays in center. The rest of the book seemed to be a bit more Pratchett and Gaiman trying to do Pratchett. That's just a casual impression, and I'm sure that better informed opinions exist.
24. CMPalmer
I really is weird how much different types of humor polarizes opinions.

To follow up with what I said before, I find Pratchett completely re-readable. Some of them I enjoy more on re-reading and I usually find small things that I missed or that I interpret different ways.

On the other hand, as much as I loved the Hitchhiker's Guide books, they fall flat to me on re-reading. To me, the best part of Adams' books are the jokes, most of which stuck with me forever and became memes of popular culture (42, anyone?), but the story and the characters are trivial and inconsequential. That's kind of a pattern for me - the funnier (as in LOL) the book is, the less likely I will want to re-read it or enjoy it upon re-reading it.

I think the characters, theme, and story are what makes a book great. I have no emotional connection with Ford Prefect or Zaphod Beeblebrox or Arthur Dent even though I remember almost everything they said in the books. I do, however, have an strong emotional connection with Commander Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, and Death.

For the record, I thought The Eyre Affair was moderately funny, but had no desire to immediately read the rest. I like Three Men in a Boat and both laughed out loud at it and uncomfortably cringed at parts. I love Lord of Light, but hate the "fit hit the Shan" line (it's so jarring). I like Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books even though they have become pure comedy (they occasionally make me laugh uncontrollably). And, as much as I like Gaiman and Pratchett, I didn't care much for Good Omens. Go figure.
Tim Nolan
25. Dr_Fidelius

Glad to make a convert! I'm with you on A Scanner Darkly by the way. I sometimes miss the humour when I read Dick, but on second glance he's wickedly funny.


I've had so many people recommend Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocaplypse to me. I have read two other Rankins that I found pleasant but not great, but I'm willing to try a couple more. He bowled us all over at Picocon this year so I have a lot of goodwill stored up.
Tim Nolan
26. Dr_Fidelius
Oh, and in case there's anyone here who hasn't seen it, I present to you a wonderful short film based on a Terry Bisson story: They're Made Out Of Meat.
27. MKUhlig
Humour is such an indiviual reaction. People can think they have a great sense of humour but if you disagree with their particular taste you have no sense of humour. When I analyze what I laugh at or not, there never seems to be a infallible predictor.

As others have commented above especially about the Pratchett/Adams comments - it seems Jo's arguments about why she likes one, but not the other could apply not matter which side you come down on.

I do find at times that if someone insists I read (or go see) something that is "really hilarious", I go into it with a chip on my shoulder. Maybe it comes from - "well if everyone already thinks this is funny and I am late to the party, I will take up a contrarian view as a defense for not having discovered it early enough."

Or maybe I am right and it really isn't funny!
Marcus W
28. toryx
As others have mentioned, Connie Willis does it for me. I think she's probably made me laugh harder than any other writer aside. She's just brilliant with the funny.
29. Nick Mamatas
I think Steve Aylett's funny.

A lot of humorous novels do tend to the elbow-nudge "eh eh get it" type of thing, which is too tedious to even drive me batshit.
- -
30. heresiarch
For my money, one of the funniest writers I've read is Neal Stephenson. Cryptonomicon made me laugh out loud more than most Discworld books*, mostly because the humor is so unexpected. "...most of the introductions zoom through Randy's short-term memory like a supersonic fighter blowing past shoddy Third World air defense systems." The worst (and best) part is how tightly most of the humor intertwines with the story. Very few are throwaway funny lines--most of them ("Did I tell you about the lizard?") don't make any sense outside the context of the story.

*For the record, I'm with CMPalmer @ 19. Discworld, especially the good later stuff (Nightwatch, Monstrous Regiment), strikes a similar emotional balance for me as Connie Willis: humor as a sweetener for a lot of emotional wrenching, rather than light entertainment.
Jeff LeBlanc
31. Jeff_LeBlanc
Nick @29:

I think it's the nudge-nudge, wink-wink stuff that grates the most. It makes me imagine the author standing off to one side saying, "Wasn't that funny? That was *me*! I wrote that! Pretty clever of me, don't you think? Doesn't it make you want to hug me?" It's annoying enough when the bit was actually amusing. It makes me start throwing books across the room when the bit actually sucked.

I'll laugh if it's funny. I don't need the author to provide me with a laugh track.
32. Jeff R.
Am I really the first to mention Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys in this thread?

(Also: Minister Faust's Space Age Bachelor Pads of the Coyote Kings is much like a Neal Stephenson book with the comedy dial turned to the maximum, admittedly at the expense of some of the other dials...)

And I'll second the Christopher Moore recommendation as well. Any of his books, although possibly stay away from Fool unless you've read and enjoyed several other of his first, since that may stray too close to the story of thing that annoys you.
Geoffrey Dow
33. ed-rex
One of the few meant-to-be funny novels I've come across that actually was funny (to me) is Bradley Denton's Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede. He does what you asks in that his characters take their situations very seriously indeed; the events can be funny only to the reader.

Also, I find Kim Stanley Robinson very good at character-based contextual humour. It's strangely rare to find in fiction the sort of bon mots that occur regularly in real life and Robinson excels at it.
34. CarlosSkullsplitter
Reading Pratchett for the humor seems to me a little like reading Tolkien for his depiction of a more Earth-friendly society. It's a common and influential reading, but it misses the point, I think.

The Discworld books are similar to caper novels, much like Westlake, but with a strong moral message and some 'character growth', which I find a little grating. I can also live without the puns and the pop culture references -- and a character named Colon? you think that's funny? welcome to New York City, Mr. Pratchett.

I don't think I've laughed even a little reading a Pratchett novel.

But they're plotted like Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch books, the plot threads combining and resolving in unexpected ways, and they have a solid science fictional sensibility in their world-building. And I like his ambition in recasting contemporary issues in low fantasy terms.

A.S. Byatt compared them to the Oz books, and I think that's a useful analogy.
Chris Meadows
35. Robotech_Master
I'm surprised nobody's brought up Harry Harrison yet. Harrison is a remarkable talent in that he seems to do both humorous and serious stuff with equal (and awesome) faculty. (Kind of like Asimov in that respect, I suppose.) On the serious side: West of Eden, Make Room Make Room!, Deathworld (well, mostly serious). On the humorous side: The Stainless Steel Rat (the early ones are the best, but the later ones are still okay), The Man from P.I.G., Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (not to be missed!!), Bill the Galactic Hero (which I've never read, but probably should).
36. Buraac
@ Jeff R.

You're absolutely right, though it's an important distinction that while Gaiman is funny, his humor lies more in his quirky narration than outright jokes or "lines".

But, to your point, the jazz band in the hospital? I listened to that book rather than read it, and Lenny Henry reading that scene was hysterical.
Richard Fife
37. R.Fife
Speaking of funny about not mentioning, no one is going to mention Piers Anthony? I'll grant he writes a little on the juvenile/YA side, and he is an absurd writer (his entire world of Xanth is actually based on puns), but I think he does a semi-decent job of making his characters serious (at least as serious as they can be in a world of puns).

I am a fan of Christopher Moore as well, although I have only read a few of his books, but for my money, I think the most hilarious books I've read are from David Eddings.

Yep, that's right, Eddings. He's not trying to be funny, the world is very serious with steep stakes, yet he has characters who have a habit towards sarcastic wit or unconventional world views that make for hilarious situations.
Soon Lee
38. SoonLee
Humour is a funny thing.


Re: the Discworld books.
Pratchett's writing has evolved over time and a comparison of his earlier with his later books makes it abundantly clear. The early books were much more slapstick, but in his recent ones (see "Going Postal" & "Making Money"), the humour comes more from the characterisation and he doesn't write to the punchline anymore.
zaphod beetlebrox
39. platypus rising

Since this post originated from a discussion about a "funny crime book" I'd heartily recommend The Herring Seller's Apprentice by L.C. Tyler. I did win it in a competition a couple of months ago and was surprised at how much I liked it, because I generally prefer my crime fiction a bit darker.

It is suffused with gentle humour and sharp wit - never mocking and always affectionate - about writers and agents, literary aspirations and the constraints of commercial fiction, the clichès of crime fiction and those of "literature" and generally human foibles and delusions that may complicate our lives or make them more bearable.
The humor comes mainly from the remarkably candid, detached and autoironic narration of the main protagonist (a writer, or rather three, since he publishes with different pseudonyms crime, historical and romance novels) , and the bussinesslike, no-nonsense attitude of his agent, friend and co-protagonist Elsie.

"I once tried to give Fairfax an interest in Berlioz (I must have been reading too much Colin Dexter). Elsie had the blue pencil through that before you could say `Morse'. `Don't bother to develop his character,' she said. `Your readers aren't interested in character.' "

There's a real mystery, which gets solved in the end, and underneath the lightness there's surprising depth and an undercurrent of melancholy.
Above all,it IS NOT a metafictional, oh-so-clever and "punny" book in the style you could expect from Pratchett or Fforde.
I don't always share your tastes, but I'd be very surprised if you didn't enjoy this one.

You may not like the cover.
40. Nick Mamatas
Somebody Owes Me Money also by Westlake, but not one of his series novels, is also funny while dealing with a serious plot. Amateur sleuths in over their heads have the means and ability to crack wise.
41. R. Emrys
It sounds like we have very similar tastes* in humor. Especially the thing about not being mean-spirited--I don't want to have to turn off my empathy to appreciate what I'm reading. On those lines, I second the recommendation of Agent to the Stars. It's one of the few science fiction books I've read that takes characters seriously and sympathetically regardless of their competence or intelligence (which covers the entire range). And it's funny until it punches you in the gut, which is a thing I like about the Miles books as well. Also second the recommendation of Anansi Boys.

*Caveat: I did like the Eyre Affair, being willing to forgive the "cute" bits for the sake of the Rocky Horror Shakespeare nights, plus a truly impressive villain. And I'm a complete sucker for footnotes.
Tex Anne
42. TexAnne
Not fantasy, but brilliant: Victor Hugo's narrative voices tend to have a very dry wit, while never minimizing the characters' humanity or the awfulness of what happens to them. I don't know if it comes through in translation--OTOH, your local library probably has half a dozen versions to choose from.
Rob Munnelly
43. RobMRobM
Vonnegut - yes (with a special shout out to his short story "The Big Space F*ck")

Zelazny - yes as long as your taste in humor is smart alec-y.

Jordan/Wheel of Time - As the WoT re-readers would attest, Nyneave's internal monologues are pure comedy gold.

Out of genre: Rita Mae Brown (especially Six of One but most of hers are hilarious; the early Fletch and Flynn books by Gregory MacDonald; and Carl Hiasen (especially Skinny Dip, in which the main character gets thrown off of cruise ship by her slimy husband, she survives and begins to psychologically torture him).

44. LouW
I thought The Eyre Affair was a bit dry, but enjoyed the sequels more.

Not genre: How do you feel about PG Wodehouse? I mention this only because of those Beagle Book ads that appearred in old (I think) Galaxy and If magazine ads in the early 1970's. Always thought it was odd to advertise those in sf.
Stephen W
45. Xelgaex
My reaction to Pratchett is basically the same as CMPalmer and CarlosSkullsplitter's. I rarely laugh at the books. And if I had started with The Colour of Magic I probably wouldn't have read the rest. But my first Pratchett was Monstrous Regiment instead. In his later books Pratchett is still not laugh out loud funny, but his social commentary can be insightful. My favorites are probably the Tiffany Aching books though. I'm not sure why but possibly it's because he seems to be taking his world the most seriously in that series.

My approach to Discworld is mainly to see the world as one built such that the ridiculous is true, so I don't spend a whole lot of time laughing at how silly it is because that's just the way things are, if that makes sense. (I have much the same approach to Thursday Next.) Even so, to me they aren't the best books ever, even though I've read nearly the full Discworld series (only two I haven't read I think). Just an enjoyable light read. But if I couldn't get past them not being particularly funny I probably wouldn't enjoy them either. A case of mileage varying, I suppose.
46. Rob T.
Wow! I'm thrilled and honored to have inspired a short essay from a favorite writer, and moderately appalled to have induced said writer to shudder. Your attitude toward "funny fiction" reminds me of mine toward "new age" music, which I mostly can't stand even though I appreciate meditative qualities in other music I enjoy (e.g. "impressionist" and "minimalist" classical music, Javanese gamelan, certain styles of jazz-fusion). For me calmness in music is one flavor among many rather than a staple food, and it seems to me as though humor in fiction might be that way for you.

With that in mind--and having read the rest of your essay--I'd like to withdraw my implied recommendations of Carl Hiaasen and Sharyn McCrumb. I suspect McCrumb's "Jay Omega" mysteries, which shed an unflattering light on sf fandom, would especially rub you the wrong way. (Galaxy Quest, on the other hand, valorizes fandom as much as it satirizes it.)

As for Hiaasen, he has a bit of a cruel streak akin to that of the Coen brothers. On the plus side, his novels often revolve around ecological issues and feature crooked developers and/or politicians as villains. (Hiaasen's editorial columns for The Miami Herald typically focus on real-life versions of these figures.) You might start with his juvenile novels Hoot, Flush, and Scat, which tone done the ick factor a bit.

I'm sorry you "hate" Discworld, and second SoonLee's point about Pratchett's writing evolving. Surely it's not a coincidence that the juveniles are among Pratchett's more recent books. Nonetheless, there is a definite distinction between Pratchett's humor and that of Bujold; where Bujold's protagonists usually seem aware of the humor in their situations, Pratchett's rarely have that awareness.

For me, Neal Stephenson's humor is one of his major virtues, though whether one considers him a funny writer probably depends on whether the first Stephenson novel one read was Snow Crash. (And also whether one finds Snow Crash funny in the first place; I know at least one reader who doesn't.) I appreciate that he's been challenging himself and his readers with each new book since The Diamond Age, but am grateful that he hasn't dispensed with the humor entirely. ("Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor.")

I hesitate to recommend anything in particular, but wonder what you might make of John Nichols's The Milagro Beanfield War, a mainstream novel with very mild fantasy elements. I've gotten friends and relatives to laugh from reading this aloud. You might try the early portions of the book introducing Amarante Cordova and Jose Mondragon to see if the book's for you. (If you've seen the movie, try to forget about it while reading the book; one would almost think Robert Redford had no idea the book was funny.)
47. Anne Zanoni
diesel @20
I like your description of Adams. My favorite Adams has always been Dirk Gently, and I've lately addicted a friend, to her great delight -- and despair, what with _Salmon of Doubt_ being the last scrap of Dirk we'll ever get.

I can't put my finger on why I can't get into Pratchett. Aside from _Good Omens_. :>

if you try Christopher Moore, I also recommend his early books first. Skip _Fluke_. _A Dirty Job_ was excellent until near the end, where suddenly the weird got very overpowering, and not in a good way. Anna Genoese says Moore, like Neil, "writes amusing stuff with weird woo-woo things happening." After _Lamb_, the balance just got iffy. :/

Tom Lehrer's music is rather like Christopher Moore's writing, humorously speaking. How's that?

48. DBratman
Peter Dickinson's "Flight". It's a very sad story, but the account of strange and even gruesome events told with a lofty academic detachment makes it one of my favorite stories.

I love Zelazny being a smart-alec. Otherwise my tastes are quite close to Jo's.
49. JaniceG
When I wanted to start reading Pratchett to see what all the fuss was about, everyone kept handing me The Colour of Magic which I didn't like it at all, not being fond of slapstick humor. Then they gave me Wyrd Sisters and I thought, better but still eh. However, finally someone gave me Mort, which I absolutely loved, and then the Night Guard books. (I think that Night Watch is a terrific book on its own.) The Death and Night Watch series are much less "pun-ny" than the others, which I think helps a lot.

As for genre humor authors, I'd also recommend George Alec Effinger. His parody of van Daniken in Pulphouse 8, "The Riddle of the Czars, is one of the funniest stories I've read, and I also like his "Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordperson" stories for laugh-out-loud funny. Nearly all of his work has some touches of humor.
50. sunjah
For parody that loves what it skewers, how about Brust's The Phoenix Guards? LeGuin had a delightful Star Trek send up (one of the shorts in The Compass Rose) I laughed and laughed. Years ago, it was though....
Carl Rigney
51. cdr
Those match up pretty closely with my own tastes.

Hmmm, what about Walter Jon Williams' (sadly out of print) Drake Majistral "licensed burglar" SF novels: The Crown Jewels, House of Shards, Rock of Ages? Westlake's Dortmunder novels remind me of those.

Did you like John M. Ford's How Much For Just the Planet? humorous Star Trek novel?
52. DemetriosX
Another name that nobody has mentioned, but whom Jo almost certainly won't like, is Esther Friesner. She doesn't necessarily do a lot of puns, but she does tend to write to the punchline and more comically than comedically.
53. OtterB
I also don't always like things that are deliberately, heavy-handedly "funny", and never like things that are mean-spirited in their mocking. The best humor grows out of the characters and situations, and requires you to like other things about the books so that you get familiar enough with the characters and situations to recognize the funny when it occurs.

I haven't been able to get into the Jasper Fforde books. I like Connie Willis in general but haven't been able to finish "To Say Nothing of the Dog." I recently tried to reread both the Hitchhiker books and Cat's Cradle and couldn't do it. I do like some Pratchett, though, especially the later books where the humor seems more integrated with the societal observation.

I also remember the oatmeal & blue cheese dressing from "Shards" with amusement. Bujold is good at those sorts of moments, the comic relief in otherwise-serious books without descending to slapstick. The scene from Barrayar where she "went shopping" in the capital is like that to me. (OTOH, I have never liked the dinner party scene or the bug-butter scene from Civil Campaign).

Over in other genre, I enjoy the character-based humor in the J.D. Robb "In Death" books, but you have to have read enough of them to appreciate the recurring motifs.
54. hobbitbabe
I don't like puns as the point of a story in a book, either.

Yesterday I laughed out loud at several things I was reading. In fiction, I think I laugh at the same kinds of things as on LJ - characters' wry internal-dialogue comments about other characters, or characters being very themselves, or small children's conversation if very well done.
Estara Swanberg
55. Estara
There are some incredibly beautiful, in-character and sarcastic funny exchanges between hero and heroine in Martha Wells Death of the Necromancer, which is also an excellent fantasy novel.
56. Ed Erwin
I might be the only one, but I find David R. Bunch quite funny. Funny in the way that Samuel Becket is funny: so sad you just have to laugh.

I 2nd "Anansi Boys". The funniest thing I've read in years.

Throw in Jonathan Lethem, Matt Ruff, and Don Webb for good measure. In all cases, not so much jokes and puns. Just funny things that happen, and funny descriptions of unfunny actions.

Heck, just see the list here:
57. monzee
Tom Holt, Falling sideways.
58. Jim Henry III
I'll second the recommendation for Peter Dickinson's "Flight"; it's one of my favorite pieces of short fiction, which I reread fairly often.

A couple of funny historical novels with minor fantasy and steampunk elements that I haven't heard talked about much are Andrew Drummond's An Abridged History and A Hand-Book of Volapük. They're set roughly around the same time and place, late 19th-century Scotland, but otherwise unrelated in characters and plot. They share certain narrative elements, such as unreliable, comically un-self-aware first-person narrators. Drummond has a third novel out which I haven't read yet.
59. Alayne L. McGregor
I can't stand mean-spirited humour -- if I see it on a TV show, the channel gets changed. In a book, the book gets closed and returned/sold.

Re Scalzi's _Agent to the Stars_: I tried to read it several times, and kept getting stuck fairly quickly. The characters seemed too stock, and I got bored. But YMMV.

Re Pratchett: his YA Tiffany Aching books aren't really designed to be funny (other than the touches provided by the Wee Free Men). I found them actually quite serious, and with a Strong Message (notable even among YA books). I like adult Pratchett and P.G. Wodehouse for their recognition of the absurdity of life -- but if you don't like a slightly detached POV, I can see that that would not appeal to you.

Really funny books: I still laugh at Nelson Bond's _Lancelot Biggs, Spaceman_, but that may be more a case of childhood love. On the other hand, Kim Stanley Robinson's _Escape from Kathmandu_ has honestly hilarious passages that flow out of the story. You might like that one.

And I recently loved _And Peakie lived happily ever after_
by Lavinia Russ, a mainstream, coming of age book that was published in 1968 and is set about 40-50 years before that. There are some really funny passages in that, but the heroine has no intention of being funny. You can probably get this one via inter-library loan.

And one of my favourite funny short stories is "The Virgil Strike" in _Just Patty_ (aka _Patty and Priscilla_) by Jean Webster (yes, who also wrote Daddy Longlegs). The title is self-explanatory.
61. paintedjaguar
Old thread, but I'm surprised that no-one got around to mentioning Thorne Smith, of Topper fame. My first (and best) Smith read was The Night Life of the Gods (1931), when I was in my teens, and the first couple of times I read it resulted in literal tears of laughter, although maybe you had to be there. Think screwball comedy flicks from the 30's/40's... lots of outrageous goings-ons, boozing and general naughtiness, with large helpings of self-consciously witty dialogue and a wry chaser (I hate puns myself, but couldn't resist).

By the way, I want to mention how much I've enjoyed Jo Walton's various threads on these pages, especially the musings on Heinlein and Bujold.
62. Dr. Thanatos
Funny tongue in cheek can work if done well. Examples (and I know I'm dating myself with these):

The Witches of Karres by James Schmidt (but not the sequels)
The Compleat Enchanter by DeCamp and Fletcher Pratt
but not The Warlock in Spite of Himself (humor did not hold up on late re-read)

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