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Open Book's Funniest Book

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Fiona Couper Fiona Couper 17:15, Friday, 11 November 2011

Mariella Frostrup

Open Book's presenter Mariella Frostrup

Between now and Christmas, Open Book is on a mission to dispel the gloom that's all around us by celebrating the enduring pleasure of classic comic writing. Mariella Frostrup and her guests will celebrate funny books, funny writers and the much under-rated virtues of laughter-inducing literature.

She'll be engaging the talents of some top writers and comedians to help uncover Open Book's Funniest Book, and asking listeners about the book they'd recommend to put a smile back on people's faces.

In the five Open Books leading up to Xmas, listeners can follow a mini history of funny humour, when Mariella, with the help of academic John Mullen, romps through centuries of comic writing.

In the programme this week is ex-Python Terry Jones on the enduring chortle power of Chaucer - raunchy, risque and strangely contemporary. Coming up are Fiona Shaw on Shakespeare, Jenny Uglow on the 18th century, Roy Hattersley on the 19th century and Ronald Harwood on the 20th century.

Mariella will also invite listeners to join her for Open Book's Funniest Book balloon debate, happening in the Radio Theatre (recorded 8 December and on Radio 4 in an Open Books special on 24 December). She'll be joined by Jo Brand, Tony Parsons, A L Kennedy and John Sessions amongst others as they try to convince the audience that their book is the most consistently rewarding funny read.

Their choices are:

And each week our panel will take it in turns to come onto the programme to tell us more about their funny writer and give some background to their lives. Too often maligned as a sub-standard genre, Open Book wants to elevate comic writing to its rightful place.

Fiona Couper is editor of Open Book and Bookclub


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Paranoia in the Launderette by Bruce Robinson (Bloomsbury, 1998) is laugh-out-loud funny from the start to the brilliant ending line "..They had the knife, I had the pants, and with everything still filthy, I was escorted out of the launderette's door...". It might only be a short story but has great comic clout, never fails to give me back my sense of humour and perspective.

  • Comment number 3.

    The book that has made me laugh out loud the most is Flying Under Bridges by Sandy Toksvig. The other book that is also a belly laugh is My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell.

  • Comment number 4.

    Tom Sharpe's Wilt. Laughed till it hurt my ribs! I did see a film version of it but it did not the book any justice.
    Agree with My Family and Other Animals, though as it was a set text at O Level it is slightly tainted.

  • Comment number 5.

    I remember years ago laughing out loud at David Niven's 'The moons a balloon'. More recently I really enjoyed Mark Haddon's 'A spot of Bother' and this summer I laughed out loud at 'Starter for ten' by David Nicholls.

  • Comment number 6.

    P.G. Wodehouse must be the most prolific writer of great humour. Others in his class (in quality, if not in quantity) include Donald Jack for his "Three Cheers for Me" and his other books about First World War ace Bartholomew Bandy, and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and other books.

  • Comment number 7.

    I would like to put forward "The Great Cham" by Michael Baldwin published by Secker & Warburg 1967 but now out of print.

    Michael Baldwin never seemed to get the glory he deserved. He was very prolific in many areas. He wrote probably wrote the best book about teaching poetry "Poetry Without Tears" and presented one of the best TV programmes about poetry. In addition he wrote many novels and poetry which had a gritty edge.

    "The Great Cham" is about a secondary school head who manipulates all around him. Some notable examples are imprisoning a HMI inspector; putting paint stripper in the paint that the caretaker's paint who is laying perfect white paint on top of perfect white paint and thinks of himself as the personificaton of the school.

    The minor characters of the book are equally entertaining. There is as a pair of teachers who in the staff room plot horrible deaths for the Cham. He gets he own back when he traps them in the boiler room with the thermosat stuck on high. He phones them and asks "Is it a good death"- the very phrase they use. And who can forget Gomshall of 5B who is the bain of all teachers but who is bested by the Cham.

    My wife and I were so besotted with his book we even considered stealing it and paying the fine as we had tried hard to get it legally, We did not, of course, but were delighted to find it for sale in a discarded books sale at our local library.

    It is a treasure and will promote hugh belly laughs- do your self a favour read it!

  • Comment number 8.

    A Bullet in the Ballet, by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon is one of the funniest books I know. I re-read it whenever I just want sheer pleasure. It is a glorious mxture of detective fiction and ballet. The stiff and proper English detective is thrown among the maddest (and most incompetent) of Russian ballet companies when Petroushka is shot dead mid-performance, and a riot of misunderstanding ensues.

    As a regular at amateur theatre I know how totally obsessed about the completely trival you can become, and how the real world ceases to matter. When this clashes with life, you have to remind yourself to laugh!

    Read this and enjoy. Now where has my copy got to?

  • Comment number 9.

    I would like to recommend "The Evolution Man or, How I Ate My Father" by Roy Lewis first published in 1960.

    This is a novel written by Ernest, a Homo Sapiens or perhaps a Homo Erectus (but I would happily stand corrected as to the exact nomenclature) and set in a rapidly evolving world where the protagonist has a father with an incurably enquiring mind which leads, amongst other things, to the acquisition, and training, of fire.

    There is Uncle Vanya who is rigidly stuck in an earlier age of tree-dwelling and "considers botany and zoology the whole content of a scientific education", but who will happily come down to enjoy the benefits of a warm fire and cooked mammoth. There is also the wandering "Scottish" Uncle Ian who reports back on the development of, amongst other early forms of hominid, Neanderthals who insist on burying their dead which is "too metaphysical" for him. Father demands that all the children should evolve, which includes slapping them to make them walk upright and "become toddlers" and develop new ideas, he wonders if they are in "the middle of the Pleistocene" but "doubt(s) if we've got beyond the Early Pleistocene yet".

    The main delight is in the author's use of anachronistic language and concepts and his ability to depict a range of characters within an apparently tiny tribe. There are knowing little jokes scattered throughout like wondering what will come of " 'hairy apes and hairless apes miscegenating in Palestine in the Pleistocene?' 'Bearded prophets living on locusts and honey in the Holocene' " replies Ernest.

    This description may make the novel sound a little heavy-handed but it isn't, that is my fault. Every page makes me smile and laugh and I find myself going back to read it time after time. I handed my copy to a visitor who wanted a little something to read before she slept, she came down late the next morning saying that she hadn't gone to sleep until she'd finished it and that she'd texted her son in New Zealand to recommend that he get hold of a copy.

    I can say no more than that.

  • Comment number 10.

    Agree re PG Wodehouse but was also unable to breath reading the footnotes section of Jonathan Coe's House of Sleep.

  • Comment number 11.

    Caitlin Moran's new book; "How to be a Woman" has had me laughing out loud (genuinely!) and I think it is something everyone should read (man or woman). It is a moving biography written in a refreshingly humorous style. I will write a full review on my blog once I finish the book.

  • Comment number 12.

    I mean 'breathe'

  • Comment number 13.

    I'm a melancholy soul, so not overly fond of comedic books.

    David Lodge's 'Deaf Sentence' made me laugh and cry in equal measure. It is a very poignant, but perfectly balanced with funny, book about the troubles of a middle-aged man as he gets older and loses his hearing. It gave me many laughs out loud in recognition of dealing with my own father, but more importantly helped me feel much more sympathetic to his hard of hearing plight. Highly recommended.

    On a much more light-hearted note, but quite topical with the 'Benton' video going viral on YouTube, any dog lover will hugely enjoy Roy Hattersley's 'Buster's Diaries'. A humourous, warm and beautifully observed gem to equal the work of Thurber.

  • Comment number 14.

    have laughed hardest at Byron's 'Don Juan' and William Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch' - smiling now just thinking about them

  • Comment number 15.

    1. Lucky Jim - especially the scene where Jim and the horrid Bertram's gorgeous girlfriend secretly change the sheets and hide the cigarette-burnt table in the attic. I was helpless the first time I read it, and still laugh many years later.
    2. My Family and Other Animals - which has been mentioned already so I won't go on about it - just READ it!
    3. Any of Lawrence Durrell's slim volumes of short stories about diplomatic life. Some of these stories are guaranteed to reduce you to helpless, sobbing laughter.

  • Comment number 16.

    "The good soldier Schweik" by Hasek;
    It achieves the impossible in making WW1 comical and and with irony worthy of any Englishman.
    Written by a Czech who did his National Service in the 91st Regiment of the Austro Hungarian Empire I think any soldier would recognise the absurdity of the situation described by his book.
    For a sheer light hearted delight ( not always associated with this author) could I also mention a short story by Somerset Maugham "The Verger"

  • Comment number 17.

    Cold Comfort Farm - every word a joy. Stella Gibbons manages to have her cake and eat it: she pokes fun at the literary world in laugh-out-loud ways and still manages to bring the novel to a shamelessly romantic close. She delivers prose that is both tight and hilarious. A timeless classic of comic fiction.

  • Comment number 18.

    Mrs.Caudle's Curtain Lectures: written by Douglas Jerrold and first published in 'Punch' iin 1845.
    'The lectures are a war of attrition between the irresistible force of Mrs. Caudle's tongue and the stamina of her poor husband's tortured ears.' The wife sees herself as martyrdom personified, a label that the husband has earned. Nothing is too trivial to not be worthy of a tirade. The writing is wonderfully evocative, one feels like an eavesdropper in the room with the pair.
    Each lecture (taking just a few pages) is unfailingly funny, and I think , that together, they are ideal for a 15 minute radio slot.

  • Comment number 19.

    Funniest books - two: Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse; remember having to leave the University Library for laughing too loudly over this book; brilliantly funny about the myth of The North. Second one, The Serial by Cyra McFadden, about alternative types in 70s San Francisco, a marriage falling apart amid the zen mediation and rolfing sessions.

  • Comment number 20.

    My recommendation for funniest book is Janice Gentle gets Sexy by Mavis Cheek. The story of a spinster romantic novelist told by her publisher to go beyond the bedroom door.

  • Comment number 21.

    The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith is my favourite funny book. I read it again and again. There are so many really funny bits but I'll just mention how afronted Pooter is when he meets his grocer at the mayor's ball.

  • Comment number 22.

    Peter Kay's The Sound of Laughter is not highbrow or considered 'readerly', but during a Summer where I spent three months with a broken leg and had nothing much to laugh about, the garden was at last filled with the sound of MY laughter. Kay's witty tales and observations about life really made me feel better.

  • Comment number 23.

    I also agree with Peggythepirate that Diary of A Nobody is very funny indeed. I was disappointed that it ended so quickly.

  • Comment number 24.

    Ian Macpherson's The Autobiography of Ireland's Greatest Living Genius (Fiachra MacFiach) is the funniest book ever. Complete book published 2011 - so it's a new kid on the block. Website is hilarious too. www.irishgenius.me

  • Comment number 25.

    "The British Museum is falling down" by David Lodge is pretty good.


    I found "Any fool can be a dairy farmer" by James Robertson achingly funny as a teenager.

  • Comment number 26.

    Hello everyone

    Thanks for all the great suggestions.

    This thread is now closed for comments but you can still leave your suggestions over here on this more recent post from Fiona, Open Book's Editor:

    All the best


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