The ancient Greeks were the first to distinguish between “tragedies” and “comedies”—a distinction we keep to this day. They also deemed tragedy the “higher” form of storytelling, because it can impart moral messages and deliver much-needed catharsis, the release of repressed emotions. This idea that dramatic storytelling is a “superior” art form has prevailed throughout history and is still predominant among critics today. Just look at the gravitas afforded to “serious” actors versus their “comic” counterparts. When was the last time a comedy won Best Picture?
Despite this, a lot of evidence suggests that the quickest way to our heads and hearts is through our funny-bone. Comedy uses humor to connect readers or audiences with their humanity. Far from cheapening great stories, comedy is in some ways more honest than stories that rely on drama and drama alone. By allowing ourselves a sly chuckle or a deep belly-laugh, we are confronted with the wonderful, hilarious absurdity of what it means to be human.
Want to see what I mean? Let’s look at some of the best literary comedies ever printed.
1. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)
Author: Jerome K. Jerome
Read time: 2 hours 6 minutes
Similar to: My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
“What the eye does not see, the stomach does not get upset over.”
This 1889 novel is a humorous retelling of a two-week boating holiday on the Thames. Its characters include Jerome (based on Jerome K. Jerome himself) his two friends, George Wingrave and Carl Hentschel, and Jerome’s dog, a fox terrier named Montmorency. While the novel was first intended as a serious travel guide, the hilarious anecdotes and witty banter shared between the three men steal the show. Despite being published over 120 years ago, Three Men in a Boat is far from dated and continues to be a source of relevant and delightful humor for modern readers.
2. The Canterville Ghost
Author: Oscar Wilde
Read time: 42 minutes
Similar to: Other comedies by Oscar Wilde—try The Importance of Being Earnest
“We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
In this novella, Wilde mixes the Gothic supernatural with his signature razor-sharp wit to create a narrative as funny as it is absurd. The story follows a quintessentially “modern American” family as they discover their new house is haunted by the ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville. The Otis family is surprisingly unfazed by their houseguest: the adults take a pragmatic approach to rid themselves of the ghost, while the children amuse themselves by playing practical jokes. Sir Simon is thus transformed from the frightening apparition of traditional Gothics into a laughable, absurd figure, made pathetic by his continued, fruitless attempts to frighten the Otis family. The novella provides commentary on the interplay between “Old World” England and “New World” America and a hilarious subversion of typical supernatural tropes.
3. Twelfth Night; or What You Will
Author: William Shakespeare
Read time: 5 hours 37 minutes
Similar to: Try Shakespeare’s other comedies Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.”
While A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be Shakespeare’s most well-known comedy, I’d wager that Twelfth Night is the funniest. It follows the story of Viola and Sebastian, identical twins of different sexes,who were separated by a shipwreck. Predictably hilarious hijinks ensue, including a disguise, a love triangle, and many mix-ups. If you are searching for a break from Shakespeare’s bleak, corpse-ridden tragedies, then Twelfth Night’s narrative, complete with raunchy absurdity and trademark punning, may indeed be the play for you.
4. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
Author: Mark Twain
Read time: 44 minutes
Genre: Short Story
Similar to: Other Mark Twain works, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
”To me, the spectacle of a man drifting serenely along through such a queer yarn without ever smiling, was exquisitely absurd.”
Have you ever been stuck in a long, boring conversation? Ever been on the receiving-end of a rambling story, waiting desperately for the conclusion? This is the premise of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the short story that launched Mark Twain’s prolific writing career. In the story, the narrator becomes the reluctant audience for a rambling, long-winded tale involving two men, a bet, and a couple of jumping frogs. If you are seeking a quick read and a light-hearted chuckle, then this is the story for you.