MIND MELD: The Funniest Writers in the History of SF/F
For this week’s Mind Meld, we wanted to go towards the light side. Fortunately, Mike Resnick had offered up this question:
It’s not all Adams and Pratchett! Read on to see some the wittiest writers.
Robert Sheckley at his best, say from 1958 to 1969, was in a class by himself.
Others would include George Alec Effinger, Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown, Ron Goulart, Terry Pratchett, Doug Adams, Phil Klass (William Tenn), Esther Friesner, John Sladek, and in all
I enjoy Tom Holt’s books, which tend to throw an ordinary everyday sap into a chaotic situation they’re ill-prepared for. Each novel is a voyage of discovery, and you never quite know where you’re going. Norse legends cop a hiding in most titles, and you usually end up Thor from all the laughing.
Robert Rankin’s humourous novels have insanely memorable and inventive titles, such as the Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse and The Toyminator, and he’s amassed quite a cult following. New books sprout at regular intervals.
Jasper Fforde has a number of funny books out, starting with The Eyre Affair and blazing a trail of destruction through literature and nursery rhymes alike. Thursday Next deserves a toast, too.
I discovered Terry Pratchett’s work fairly recently (2003), since I refuse to start on any series until I can get my hands on book one, and despite playing The Colour of Magic computer game in the 80′s it was another 20 years before I got hold of the novel. I enjoy the Vimes Discworld books the best, any anything with DEATH in it. Still only read about a quarter of them though. I’m planning to get to the rest over time. YOU HOPE.
Hitchhiker’s Guide… I saw the 80′s TV series first and read the first two books much later. Douglas Adams was a comic genius, but I’m afraid I’ve not read past the third HHG novel yet. The Dirk Gently books didn’t click with me, unfortunately.
I read the Red Dwarf omnibus by the team of ‘Grant Naylor’ a few years ago, and started watching the TV series for the first time late last year. Up to season three now, but I preferred the novel. When you’re reading, there’s no such thing as cheesy special effects
You’ll notice my list is comprised entirely of British authors, but I’m not going to apologise for that. It’s my UK and Australian upbringing, allied with whatever I came across in school and public libraries during my childhood. I was a huge fan of shows like Not the Nine O’Clock News, Minder, Fawlty Towers and so on, and I wanted something along the same lines in my reading.
Yup, that’s it.
And if you want someone from Back When, I’m going to say James Thurber. The Wonderful O, The Thirteen Clocks, The White Deer, all fantasies, all funny, even if not LOL-type funny, but the best funny, the funny that makes you -think.-
Which brings me to yet another icon, Waly Kelly. Sorry, but I’m going to man the ramparts and declare that Pogo counts even if it’s a comic strip and not a novel or short story. Imagination, humor, and the talent for making people -think- even while they’re laughing are not such common qualities in this world that we should ignore them just because they give us words -and- pictures.
And NOW that’s it.
Oh that’s easy. Me. I walk down the street and people start sniggering. I even had the pall-bearers dropping the coffin and pointing and rolling about laughing last week. I’ll never wear that hat again.
If you mean ‘whose writing is funniest’ that’s a much harder question. The reason it’s so hard to answer well is that one man’s humor is either boring or offensive to others. And there are cultural differences too. Brits do scatological humor. There is something hilarious about the serious and necessary exercise of bodily functions, see (which really mystifies Germans). Well, it’s funnier than UK weather, their other important topic. Americans turn pale if you mock men’s private parts. At least my editor did. Priapism just wasn’t funny to him. And South Africans tend to go ‘huh what?’ and like pie-inna-face humor, because we’re thick.
To write great humor with a broad appeal is, for this reason, not an easy thing. Few authors really manage it, and fewer editors are sure if it’ll work. A writer who gets it right is a jewel. One who manages a little more – to weave humor into a great story is an entire diadem.
So: this is obviously my personal list and comes with the caveat that I find Roald Dahl and Tom Sharpe hilariously funny, and obviously miss just what is so funny about the Three Stooges.
Top of my list comes Terry Pratchett. Not only does he manage to be funny, but his satirical take on society shows glimpses of an underlying serious man. As great satirists do, he manages to expose the ridiculousness of various social mores. On that line I’d recommend Eric Flint’s Philosophical Strangler. The humor is a little dark, but very clever. Like Pratchett I was still picking up new things to laugh at the 3rd time through. Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide books cannot be unmentioned, if merely for pan-galactic gargleblasters, and the babelfish. To go further back, Eric Frank Russell’s twist in the tail-ish shorts are sadly less well known than they should be. And I loved some of Harry Harrison’s efforts – The Technicolor Time Machine, Bill the Galactic Hero. Of course humor is often at very least mildly offensive to the status quo – so some of the politically correct attempts and imitations of what is was rebellious, but is now PC are pretty dull. It hasn’t done humor any good the last while. I think the new writer to watch is Australian writer Simon Haynes with his Hal Spacejock books.
A lot of S.F. writers have written humorous books or stories, and frankly a lot of the ones known for humor don’t excite me that much. But Fred Brown was awesomely clever, and sometimes downright hilarious. Most of the time he was funny in a kind of light or droll manner. So, even though there were a number of funny stories by Murray Leinster and Henry Kuttner and Keith Laumer, Douglas Adams, and so on, for me, Fred Brown was my favorite.
I suppose everybody will mention Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, so I won’t bother.
Actually, most of the SF writers I considered to be the funniest are dead, which probably says more about me being old than about anything else. R.A. Lafferty first made a reputation as a humorist (although he’d go on to do other kinds of things) with his early stories that we’re collected in Nine Hundred Grandmothers, still some of the funniest SF stories ever written. Avram Davidson could write a funny story, and even stories that weren’t ostensibly “funny,” like the Dr. Ezsterhazy stories, were dotted with really funny lines and bits of business. Some of John Sladek’s stories were very funny, particularly his pastiches of the work of other writers. George Alec Effinger wrote some funny stuff, although his humor veered more into surrealist/absurdism than that of most of these other writers. Tom Disch could be bitterly funny in a black ironic way. Although I was never as enthusiastic about his work as most other people I know, Robert Sheckley could certainly be considered to have made the bulk of his reputation as a humorist, and in retrospect can clearly be seen as the major influence on Douglas Adams (also dead).
Neal Barrett, Jr., Howard Waldrop, and, to some extent, Terry Bisson, produce stuff that’s more Gonzo, Weird, and Eccentric than strictly comic per se, but all of them are capable of writing laugh-out-loud funny scenes; I still think that the first Barrett story I bought, “Perpetuity Blues,” is flat-out hilarious, and you can still get a chuckle out of some of my friends by mentioning a boy tying celery to a cat. Connie Willis, although she’s written some very bleak stuff indeed, is also capable of writing funny stuff such as her print versions of Screwball Comedies, such as “Blued Moon,” and “Ado” and “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” are pretty funny as well. Paul Di Filippo has done some brilliant and funny homages, and his F&SF column is usually quite witty. Albert E. Cowdrey has done some funny fantasy, like the recent “A Skeptical Spirt,” which seems to me to be the kind of stuff that Thorne Smith might be writing if he had survived into the 21st Century. Esther Friesner has proved in stories such as “Blunderbore” that she can be very funny as long as she can avoid becoming too coy. Kage Baker is not a humorist per se, but there’s a sly wit that infuses everything she writes, and I think that parts of The Anvil Of The World and knockabout farces like “Mother Aegypt,” “The Empress of Mars,” and “Maelstrom” are quite amusing. Of course, I also think that Bruce Sterling and Jack Vance are often really funny in a deadpan, ultra-dry way, and nobody would think of them as “humorists” either.
Funniest writer who ever worked in sf was the late great Donald E. Westlake, who died last Christmas eve in Mexico. Unfortunately he didn’t do enough sf. He preferred to work for PAYING markets.
I believe when you look up “funny SF writer” in the encyclopedia, you pretty much find an essay about Douglas Adams that strongly implies all other SF/F writers are grim pedants who will murder you if you ever question the logic of the Star Trek universe.
Adams *was* possibly the funniest writer in SF, but plenty of writers who are not strictly humorists manage to make us laugh. One of my faves is L. Sprague de Camp, who was so often effortlessly hilarious in his stories it makes me murderous with jealousy, since whenever I try to be funny in my Cates novels I end up getting a lot of puzzled emails from readers, wondering if I’m back to drinking in the mornings (answer: never stopped).
One of my favorite de Camp series is The Novarian Series (The Goblin Tower, The Clocks of Iraz, The Unbeheaded King, et. al.). Filled with wry jokes and humorous situations, my favorite bit is probably the tiny god that the main character begins to worship after stumbling over a devotional statue. Having had no worshipers for centuries, the god is weak and feeble, peevish and self-pitying, and the whole idea still makes me laugh when I think of it today.
The Same Old Names spring immediately to mind: Douglas Adams, Robert Asprin, Terry Pratchett, Spider Robinson. Rudy Rucker, Robert Sheckley, the short stories of Frederic Brown. Christopher Stasheff (especially Saint Vidicon to the Rescue). Esther Friesner, of course. And there are classic titles like David Gerrold & Larry Niven’s The Flying Sorcerers, Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson’s Hoka stories, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books, and Keith Laumer’s Retief series.
In fantasy, Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom of Landover books are a hoot, as are Glen Cook’s Garrett Files series and Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame series (especially the more recent books). Leslie What wrings humor from the Greek gods in her book called Olympic Games. For sheer silliness there’s Nick O’Donohoe’s Gnomewrench series, and for total off-the-wall weirdness, anything by Robert Rankin…but especially The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse.
And the champion laugh-out-loud fantasy, forty years old but still going strong, is the Harvard Lampoon’s parody Bored of the Rings. Just looking at the map will leave you in stitches (I am especially fond of “Land of the Giant R” and “The Shortcut (known to but a few)”.) Used copies are available all over the place, and it’s well worth the effort to get one.
On the sf side of things, The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz is full of laughs. J.D. Austin has two books that can only be called interstellar romantic comedy: Bobby’s Girl and its sequel, Meet the Thradons! Robert Rankin’s Nostradamus Ate My Hamster is bizarre and hilarious. Then there’s Brian Herbert, the son of Frank Herbert — early in his career, before he became a prisoner of the Dune Industrial Complex, he wrote a very funny book called Sudanna, Sudanna. There aren’t a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but rather a slow trickle of chuckles that build upon one another until by the end of the book you’re out of breath. But what do you expect of a book in which the main character keeps losing his head? (No, literally…in high winds, it flies right off his shoulders.)
Speaking of Frank Herbert, no survey of sf humor would be complete without another classic from long-ago, Ellis Weiner’s parody Doon. Read it and soon you, too, will be controlling your friends with the Boni Maroni Cook Voice: “Get out of the kitchen! It’ll be ready when it’s ready!”
Lastly, I’d like to mention two unlikely books that rank among the funniest, silliest, and most absurd things I’ve ever read. Both are novelizations of old TV shows, published in the 1960s, readily available online as used books…and borderline sf/fantasy to boot.
The first is Jack Sharkey’s The Addams Family. Maybe you were a fan of the show or maybe not…but this book is a steady stream of laughs both clever and absurd. From the arrival of the family in their new house (complete with disembodied-hand servant Thing) to Uncle Fester’s aborted second hitch in the Army (he first served under Ethan Allen in the Green Mountain Boys), and with many a hilarious detour in between, this book is an overlooked gem.
The second novelization is William Johnston’s Get Smart! This is the first in a series, but the others aren’t nearly as funny. In this adventure, Agents Smart and 99 are on the trail of six invisible guinea pigs (and the mad scientist who made them invisible). Their quest takes them on the cruise ship the Queen Edward (her father wanted a boy) where they operate incognito (which is not, as Smart and others first believe, some exotic form of mushroom) to defeat the evil agents of KAOS.
Some Mind Meld questions are more difficult to answer and some are easier, but this is the easiest yet. And the answer is: Douglas Adams. Ask me another.
Some names that come to mind are Robert Sheckley, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, and of course Frederik Pohl. Some are quietly funny, some hilariously so, but they all share the quality of looking at the world with clear honest vision and stating what they see in a fresh and memorable way that awakens the senses of the reader; that is, they are all satiric in some way, holding up a mirror to society and making us laugh at ourselves.
The name that immediately comes to mind is Henry Kuttner, especially his tales of Gallagher, the mad drunken inventor. L. Sprague de Camp, especially The Incomplete Enchanter. Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat and the broad satire of Bill, the Galactic Hero. Of course Douglas Adams is the modern avatar of sf humor. Cory Doctorow is funny, too.
I wrote one comic novel, The Hemingway Hoax, though it had a dark edge to it.
Humor is pretty subjective. In my opinion Douglas Adams is the funniest and wittiest. I strive for his level on every book I write. I always find it to be a huge compliment when somebody compares my writing to him. I am not there yet, but hope to someday be near there.
I assume readers are already aware of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. (If not, stop reading this moment and get thee to a library. I mean it. Step away from the keyboard and go.)
I’m gonna have to throw out a vote for good ol’ William Shakespeare. He was writing before SF/F existed as a genre, but a lot of his stuff certainly qualifies. Fairies and witches and sorcerers? Oh yes, he was one of us. Not only that, but a lot of his work was damn funny, full of puns and innuendo and humor ranging from subtle to vulgar. You don’t get most of that in high school English class, and it can take a bit of work if you’re not used to reading Shakespeare, but it’s worth it. Bill Shakespeare: come for the literary masterpieces, stay for the penis jokes.
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