A genuinely funny book is one of life's simplest pleasures, but finding the real stand-outs is never as easy. We asked some leading lights of comedy and literature to nominate the books that make them laugh out loud, and here are the resultsMore
It is a gift to the satirist to live in turbulent times but there still remains the task of encapsulating them. In Vile Bodies, an ostensibly superficial comic novel (Waugh wrote to Harold Acton, "It is a welter of sex and snobbery written simply in the hope of selling some copies") Evelyn Waugh brilliantly, hilariously, unflinchingly but always humanely pinions a society which is in thrall to gossip and decadence, traumatised by war and financial catastrophe yet unable to stop itself rushing headlong into further and deeper cataclysm. This is a book as much for our age as for Waugh's. Buy it
I had come to loath Bill Bryson, but on holiday a couple of years ago The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid was the only book around. After three pages I was laughing aloud. When was the last time a book made me do that? Actually, 1989, The Lost Continent, Bryson's first book. In between, he had become hugely successful, but his books were increasingly lazy, stuffed with stereotypes, and crushingly formulaic: cosy chuckles for tedious old farts.
The Thunderbolt Kid captures the hilarious innocence of a time when men had flat-top hair cuts that left them "looking as if they were prepared in emergencies to provide landing spots for some very small experimental aircraft". There was an unbridled enthusiasm for all things atomic (from cocktails to motels and, of course, bombs) and unending culinary innovation, (spray-on mayonnaise, frozen salads, liquid instant coffee in a spray can).
The set pieces, such as Mr Milton diving disastrously from the high board ("He hit the water – impacted really is the word for it – at over six hundred miles an hour, with a report so loud that it made birds fly out of trees up to three miles away."), or the young Billy walking in on his parents having sex, still make me snort helplessly. I always put the book down happier than when I picked it up. Buy it
(Review by David Mills)
Tristram Shandy is a lesson to stand-up comedians in keeping a joke going: it's basically an incredibly protracted shaggy-dog tale, or 'cock-and-bull story' (to quote the title of the film version, which I was planning to hate on principle, except it turned out to be pretty good).
The joke is that Tristram (the narrator) keeps trying to tell the story of his life, but keeps getting distracted by millions of other thoughts, and goes off into so many digressions that the author Laurence Sterne pretty much died while he was still writing it.
It's impossible to describe and a lot of people find it impossible to read, but I loved it so much that I nearly came to blows with someone at college who slagged it off. In the end I backed out of the fight, as I didn't want to explain to everyone that I had a black eye because of a misunderstood 18th-century literary classic. Buy it
(Review by Mark Watson)