Six Funny American Novels (and Harpo Speaks!)

I am the editor of the Lowbrow Reader, a comedy zine from New York, as well as its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader, which was recently published by Drag City. Only by using Cracked magazine as a benchmark would one mistake the Lowbrow Reader for a literary journal. Within our pages, the words “Rodney” and “Dangerfield” are considered hallowed. Yet we have always sought out laughs across platforms; over the years, as we move further away from the glories of adolescence, this has increasingly extended to literature. Below, in no particular order, are my favorite comedic American novels. Excluded are beloved writers who traffic predominantly in nonfiction (Royko, Frazier); witty Englishmen (Amis, Amis); and Mark Twain (who, in this context, would have seemed akin to praising Shakespeare). Finally, I would like to hold a spot open for Exterior Signs of Wealth, the long-awaited debut novel of Fran Lebowitz—New York City’s foremost humorist and procrastinator. Whenever I spot Lebowitz walking around town, I want to yell, “Go inside and get back to work!” I propose that all New York residents heckle her in a similar fashion; otherwise, she’s never going to finish the thing.

The Magic Christian by Terry Southern

At the end of the day, I suppose Terry Southern’s masterpieces are Flash and Filigree and the Dr. Strangelove screenplay. But there is no book that makes me laugh like The Magic Christian, Southern’s episodic novel from 1959. It is plotted more like a novelty book that you might find buried in a bookstore’s humor section than it is a conventional novel. There is no real plot and only one true character: Guy Grand, a shadowy billionaire who spends his fortune playing mean-spirited pranks on the American public—kind of like Sheldon Adelson, only funny. Southern’s humor and prose are extremely particular, bordering on the fussy. Grand pays off a championship boxer to throw his fight “in the most flamboyantly homosexual manner possible.” He converts his popular daily newspaper into a veritable dada exercise, in which he “gradually put forward the policy of misspelling the names of cities, islands, and proper nouns in general.” Every time I read the book, I get the strange sensation that, given the opportunity, Terry Southern would have been Guy Grand.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Ignoring its author’s canonical status, Portnoy’s Complaint is more broad and guttural than anything Mel Brooks was working on during the same period. It is immersed in themes endemic to contemporary American comedy—psychiatrists, Jewish mothers, sexual humiliation, and, of course, masturbation—and even concludes with a punch line. Without Portnoy’s Complaint, I’m not sure we would have seen Seinfeld’s “The Contest” episode or certain mordant, Jewy novelists (definitely Shalom Auslaunder; maybe Gary Shteyngart). We unquestionably would not have been given the gift of American Pie, which, oddly, outright stole its trillion-dollar set piece from the novel. I often wonder whether Philip Roth has seen American Pie. For all we know, he’s the kind of fan who has watched all of its sequels, even the direct-to-DVD ones like The Naked Mile, and walks around the house quoting lines about Stifler’s mom. But I suspect not. While I am a big fan of Roth’s recent work, I cannot remember the last time he cracked a joke. Even the whiz-bang-pop of The Plot Against America has little room for humor. It is bizarre that somebody funny enough to have written Portnoy’s Complaint—and, in a different satirical vein, Our Gang—would grow so solemn with age. Divorce must have done a real number on the poor guy.

Stern by Bruce Jay Friedman

Bruce Jay Friedman’s debut novel, published in 1962, is about Jewish assimilation, a young marriage, and the anxiety inherent in the shift from city to suburb. Mostly, however, it is about the titular protagonist’s fear of a neighborhood meathead who bullied Stern’s wife and employed an anti-Semitic slur. One of the coolest and most contemporary features of the book is that throughout the story, the neighbor is referred to as “the kike man.” The author also unveils his hyper-sexualized take on the Jewish mother, which is expanded upon grotesquely in his equally bananas second novel, A Mother’s Kisses. As with many Friedman characters, Stern is an eccentric nebbish in a Gene Wilder mold. (Years later, the novelist scripted the middling Wilder-Pryor hit Stir Crazy.) He is also a bona fide obsessive compulsive, unable to keep his mind off seemingly trivial issues, which renders Friedman perhaps the most direct forerunner to my favorite contemporary comedian, Larry David.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Because I never attended graduate school, I feel uniquely qualified to praise Thomas Pynchon. As with watching Don’t Look Back, reading The Crying of Lot 49 makes me feel as though I lived through the 1960s: not the corny ’60s of Woodstock or the Merry Pranksters, but a stupendously hip period where the world was ripe for ridicule. (I assume that both Pynchon and Dylan avidly read Terry Southern.) I bought my paperback copy of The Crying of Lot 49 cheap and used many years ago; turning its pages, I swear I can still smell the previous owner’s marijuana.

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

“After leaving San Miguel he spoke to her through a small megaphone,” Portis writes toward the end of The Dog of the South. “She had asked him to repeat some remark—on just one occasion—and after that he pretended to believe she was deaf. He rolled a piece of cardboard into a cone and taped the ends, and he pretended to believe she couldn’t hear him unless he spoke through it, directly into her ear from a foot or so away.” This is third of five novels by the Little Rock journalist-turned-novelist. I think it is his drollest work but, truthfully, you can’t go wrong with Portis. He writes about the stupid and berserk with a deadpan air that seems overwhelmingly American. He remains best known for his second novel True Grit, due partially to the awful John Wayne movie and partially to the great Coen Brothers movie. Yet True Grit is perhaps the least Coen-like of Portis’s novels; the others all have shades of Big Lebowski.

I was initially hipped to Portis by my friend Jay Jennings, who gave me a copy of Masters of Atlantis that he had fished out of the “free bin”—a dumping ground for unwanted promotional items—at a magazine where we were then employed. What kind of a lunatic would part with a Portis book, I will never know, but the gain was mine. And get this! Jennings just edited Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, a collection of shorter pieces by the writer that is being published by Butler Center Books this fall; illustrations by Lowbrow Reader regular Mike Reddy appear throughout the book.

What Happens Next? by Gilbert Rogin

A few years after Jennings introduced me to Portis, he e-mailed offering an essay to the Lowbrow Reader about a very different under-the-radar comic novelist, Gilbert Rogin. The seemingly innocuous message led me down a vicious rabbit hole. In the ’60s and ’70s, Rogin had published three stunning books: a collection of short stories (The Fencing Master) followed by two superior novels (What Happens Next? and the melancholic Preparations for the Ascent). The writing was effortlessly experimental and very ahead of its time. Chapters from all three books had initially appeared as short stories in the New Yorker, where Rogin had published prolifically until suddenly, at the end of the ’70s, his byline disappeared from the magazine forever. It was a real mystery. Before long, I tracked Rogin down to a Manhattan address not far from my own. (He had given enough money to the Obama campaign to warrant a public listing.) I became friends with the elderly author, who is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. The reasons for Rogin’s exit from fiction are varied, but boil down to two factors: A sports journalist, by the late ’70s, he had risen to the top of Sports Illustrated’s masthead, and his hands were full; concurrently, he became infuriated and discouraged when a New Yorker editor passed on a short story, “My Masterpieces.” We ended up publishing Jennings’s excellent Rogin appreciation in Lowbrow Reader #7, alongside “My Masterpieces.” (Both pieces now appear in the Lowbrow Reader book.) And in 2011, Jennings and I helped Verse Chorus Press publish a new single-volume edition of the two novels, bringing Rogin back to print for the first time in decades. His writing still seems ahead of its time.

Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber

Harpo Marx boasts the sharpest comedy mind here, yet this is the least uproarious book. And given that Harpo dropped out of school in the second grade, his elegantly written and wildly entertaining work probably owes a significant debt to his collaborator, Rowland Barber. Although it is a memoir, Harpo Speaks! reads as a fantastic novel, set in a rapidly changing world and dispatching its hero to highly intimidating locales (Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, the Algonquin Round Table). In a weird way, Harpo Speaks! reminds me of The Adventures of Augie March. Published in 1962, just two years before the author’s death, the book marks the final masterpiece from the funniest performer of his era.

Jay Ruttenberg is the editor of the comedy journal the Lowbrow Reader and its new book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader (Drag City).