William Shakespeare might be one of the greatest writers in Western literature, but you sure as hell wouldn't want him to roast you at your bachelor party. Even by the low standards of the 16 th century-when, keep in mind, poking bears with sticks was considered the pinnacle of hilarity-the Bard's fumbling attempts at humor were cringe-worthy. Here's a gem from Hamlet:
Hamlet : Whose grave's this, sirrah?
First Clown : Mine, sir.
Hamlet : I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in't.
See, because you lie in a grave, but also-wait for it-the clown is lying. That sound you just heard was your sides splitting.
Still, just because poor Will never got the hang of a punchline doesn't mean you should lump all literature together as joyless slogs. Below, we've outlined a few of the funnier classics in the canon that'll get a chuckle out of you. Forsooth!
John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press; 416 pages; $14.
A schizophrenic masterpiece of a novel, Confederacy of Dunces focuses on the pompous, bombastic Ignatius J. Reilly-a fat, flatulent blowhard who lives with his mother, masturbates frequently and considers himself the intellectual superior of pretty much everyone around him. (Think of him as the Godfather of Internet Nerds.) More a series of inter-connected stories than a single plot, Confederacy loosely chronicles Ignatius's botched, waddling attempts to find love, get a job and lead a violent one-man revolt against the Modern Age. Around him swirl a group of twisted supporting characters as flawed and unique as Ignatius himself.
A large cult following surrounds Confederacy, due partly to the strange, off-putting charisma of its lead character-you'll never know anybody quite like Ignatius, we promise you-but also because of the tragic life and death of the book's creator, John Kennedy Toole. Unable to find anyone interested in publishing his masterpiece, Toole committed suicide in the late '70s. Only after his death would his mother finally get someone to read Confederacy. It was published in 1980 and praised unanimously as a work of comedic genius. Toole would be posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, and Confederacy would go on to sell more than 1.5 million copies in 18 languages.
Harper Perennial Modern Classics; 336 pages; $14.
As anyone who's read Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, where the author suggests Irish families selling their children to be eaten as a way to fix poverty, can tell you, writers are no strangers to using heavy sarcasm to make a point. Twain takes the irony ball and runs it to the end zone in Letters From The Earth, a collection of dispatches from Satan himself, in which the most evil guy in the universe complains at length about what stupid, mean-spirited little lunatics human beings are.
Published posthumously in 1962, Twain's Letters is a scathing, often side-splitting indictment of the various contradictions us idiot humans live our lives by-from organized religion to law-making to morality, the Lord of Darkness finds himself continually stunned by our short-sightedness and all-around stupidity. Considering this was written in 1909, Letters is a sometimes funny, often frightening look at how little we've changed since.
Simon & Schuster; 464 pages; $16.
A grisly war novel that somehow still comes off as gleefully absurd as anything in The Naked Gun, Joseph Heller' Catch-22 mingles the too-real horrors of war with absurdist, laugh-out-loud punch lines.
Through the character Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier who' decided "to live forever or die in the attempt," Heller picks apart commonly held beliefs about psychology, economics and religion. On the topic of patriotic heroism, Yossarian reasons, "There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." This is also the book that spawned the term "Catch-22"-a mind-bending "damned if you do, damned if you don't" logical paradox that quickly entered the pop culture lexicon after the book' debut.
While the writing is literary and intellectually ambitious, the effect of the novel is, oddly enough, not unlike one of Jerry Seinfeld' better stand-up routines, forcing readers to encounter concepts they'd always taken for granted-like they're seeing them for the first time. The only difference: instead of revealing the underlying absurdity of airplane peanuts and expiration dates, Heller is debunking things like patriotism.
Dial Press; 303 pages; $14.
In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut's fast-paced, free-associating mid-life crisis novel, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout (Vonnegut's perpetual alter ego) is invited to a lecture to speak about his books by Dwayne Hoover, a hot-shot Pontiac dealer in the "asshole of the Universe"-fictional Midland City, USA. The catch: Trout's been published primarily in porno mags and Hoover's going violently insane. Vonnegut even writes himself into the end of the novel in a burst of meta-creativity, ordering around the characters he's created like an all-powerful god in the middle of a meltdown.
The real charm of Breakfast lies in Vonnegut's unique narrative style-an intimate, ironic voice that assumes the reader is from another planet while schooling us on a wide ranging number of topics, from racism to politics to basic human indecency. (Along the way, he somehow finds it apt to draw us a picture of a butthole, so we'll know what one looks like.) Of Third World countries, he writes: "[They] didn't have doodley-squat". They had sold everything that was any good, and there wasn't anything to eat anymore, and still the people went on fucking all the time. Fucking was how babies were made." Elsewhere he describes a Thomas Jefferson High School as being, "named after a slave owner who was also one of the world's greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty." If Vonnegut's singular dark satire doesn't get you, know this: in addition to the butthole, there's also a drawing of a "wide-open beaver."
Penguin Classics; 272 pages; $14.
Jim Dixon is sick of everything. He's taken a job he didn't want because he couldn't find a better one anywhere else. He's almost positive his dickhead boss is about to fire him. He's only dating his girlfriend Margaret, a pretentious-but-hot art-school brat, because he's pretty sure he couldn't find better. Jim's hit a crucial point in his life that should be familiar to every 20-something guy in America at one time or another-he's gotten so used to settling, he's starting to realize his life's on autopilot.
Unlike other novels about younger guys discovering themselves in self-destructive ways (J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys spring to mind), Jim isn't after a Big Answer to it all. There's no fury or frustration in his attempts to deal with a world he doesn't particularly like or understand-just a resigned, "To hell with it" shrug. The comedy comes from the fun he has on the way down. (Stick with it for the hilarious pay-off, where-without spoiling too much for you-involves Jim, drunk off his ass, insulting everyone in the audience during a lecture he's supposed to be giving.)