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Literary Laughs: The Best Comic Novels to Lighten Lockdown

Posted on 4th May 2020 by Mark Skinner

If life during lockdown is proving something of a drag, why not raise your spirits with a cracking comic novel? From side-splitting satire to raucously relatable rom-coms and all points in between, cast your eye over this literary litany of guffaw-inducing humorous classics.  

British Belly-Laughs

From 70s' suburbia to 21st century urban madness, these British greats poke fun at everything from adolescent angst to romantic catastrophes.

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Queenie Jenkins’ life seems to be steadily spiralling out of control in Candice Carty-Williams luminous debut, which is by turns hilariously funny, dramatic and tender, with a heroine to root for.
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Townsend’s comic masterpiece rests on immaculate characterisation, wry observation and genuine compassion. The tortured journal of a precious teenager whose genius remains woefully unacknowledged, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ has become a true national treasure.
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The novel that spawned a whole sub-genre, Fielding’s achingly relatable and belly-laugh inducing classic combines romance with farce in a way that still feels refreshing and vibrant. The trials and tribulations of our endearing heroine are sketched in exquisite comic prose as Bridget is forced to choose between dependable Mark Darcy and roguish Daniel Cleaver.
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A wonderfully wry deconstruction of male emotional constipation and trivial obsession, Hornby’s debut novel about a record shop owner and his tangled love life provokes gales of knowing laughter from all genders. Frequently wise and insightful as well as hilarious, High Fidelity is a game-changing work of popular fiction.
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Following her side-splitting – and improbably true – memoir of her 1980s’ nannying days, Love, Nina, Stibbe regales us with her debut novel; a similarly hilarious narrative of life in the suburban 1970s. Endearing, ironic and bursting with quotable lines, Man at the Helm is a tender hearted look at middle class respectability and the torments that it conceals.
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Deliciously light and frothy, O’Leary’s wonderfully uplifting debut is a joyous confection of comic misunderstanding and endearing romance between two residents of the same flat who happen to have never met.
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One of the great architects of literary farce, Frayn excels himself with a dizzyingly constructed tale of mistaken identity and conflicted characters. A distinguished academic and a slippery young chancer swap roles and locations in a richly layered comedy of errors set on an idyllic Greek island.
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Both uproariously funny and scalpel-sharp on the Eastern European immigrant experience, Lewycka’s astonishingly assured debut finds two bickering Peterborough sisters come together to save their smitten father from a gold-digging Ukrainian divorcee. Sly, subversive and wickedly amusing, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a delight from start to finish.
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Making the most of a genius central concept of the Queen’s obsession with a mobile library, this love letter to literature is chucklesome balm for the most jaded souls.
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A groundbreaking novel of a vibrant multicultural London across three generations, Smith’s blistering debut is a glorious, rambling epic that tackles big, contentious themes with a lightness of touch and freewheeling self-assurance. Witty, moving and wise; all human life is in White Teeth.
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Jonathan Coe is a prince among comic novelists and What a Carve Up! is one of his signature books. Trenchant, impassioned and screamingly funny, this vituperative 1980s-set satire centres on the gloriously ghastly Henry Winshaw MP and the havoc his personal and political choices wreak on wider society.
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Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical debut is a riotous coming-of-age tale set in the cultural melting pot of 1970s Britain. Skewering bedsit political agitators, pretentious theatre impressarios and just about anybody else it sets its sharply satirical eye on, The Buddha of Suburbia is a bawdy, brilliant piece of work.
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Classic Comedy

Every bit as chucklesome today as they were decades - or, in some cases, a century - ago, these giants of the genre will never go out of fashion.

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The picaresque adventures of a collection of bumbling Regency gentlemen, Dickens’s vast comic extravaganza is one of the most astonishing debuts in fiction. Cramming countless hilarious episodes into its capacious, joyfully rambling pages, The Pickwick Papers is life-affirming literature to completely lose yourself in.
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A masterpiece of observational wit and side-splitting comic description, Jerome’s timeless tale of a trio of lovable wastrels on a jaunt down the Thames feels as fresh today as it did over a hundred years ago. Boring landmarks, vengeful swans and impenetrable mazes all get hilarious vignettes in this peerless humorous classic.
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The great British novel about class snobbery and overweening pomposity, The Diary of a Nobody gifts the world Mr Pooter, a Victorian gentleman constantly at war with tradesmen, his feckless son and a barrage of inanimate objects. Rejoicing in the absurdity of cringe-inducing social clangers and exquisitely constructed set pieces, this landmark work still retains the power to induce guffaws.
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Elegantly written with divine comic understatement, Delafield’s wry account of the struggles of a 1920s housewife is as light as a feather and exquisitely poised. Enormously influential and endlessly imitated, The Diary of a Provincial Lady endures as a matchless piece of observational comedy.
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Battle is joined in the genteel village of Tilling in E.F. Benson’s masterfully wrought comedy of passive aggressive manners. As Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas engage in an escalating game of social one-upmanship, the smirks turn to hearty laughter with every elegantly described set piece.
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Possibly the most clockwork-perfect plot that Wodehouse ever concocted, The Code of the Woosters fizzes with memorable characters, ingenious slapstick and gossamer light dialogue that feels remarkably effortless. Aunts, cow creamers and ersatz Fascists combine to create a sublime slice of sustained farce.
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Wonderfully upbeat and optimistic, Watson’s rediscovered gem is an inspired call to seize the day as related through the story of a dowdy governess who enjoys and unexpected twenty-four hours of mayhem and mirth with a nightclub singer. Tender-hearted and witty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a truly delightful read.
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Set amidst the snobbery and society of the interwar British aristocracy, The Pursuit of Love mines Nancy Mitford’s own larger-than-life experiences for an exquisitely funny comedy of manners and frothy coming-of-age tale. Deliciously constructed and full of hilariously memorable characters, Mitford’s finest novel is an infinitely rewarding reading experience.
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One of the great comic novels and a beautifully judged satire of post-war Britain, Excellent Women’s elegant prose and deliciously light tone remain as fresh today as they did nearly seventy years ago. A charming comedy of manners, social climbing and a frightfully English type of forbidden love, Pym’s seminal novel is a true classic.
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A vivid picaresque comedy with serious, melancholy undertones, The Lonely Londoners documents the 1950s immigrant experience through the affectionate relationship of a new arrival and a rueful old timer. Masterful character comedy rubs up against an evocative portrait of post-war London in Selvon’s seminal, exquisitely judged work.
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Only the gloriously unorthodox comic brain of Spike Milligan could come up with a novel as ludicrous and yet worryingly plausible as Puckoon. The short, surreal narrative involves a 1920s Irish border town being split down the middle between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the large cast of idiosyncratic characters who are made to dance to their author’s giddily singular tune.
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Mercilessly lampooning a certain type of pompous public intellectual, Burgess’s quartet of Enderby novels are underrated gems of wry comic observation and savagely hilarious satire. Collected here in one volume, Enderby’s misguided exploits will have readers snorting with laughter.
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Hysterical America

The American comic writing tradition has bequeathed untold gems to a grateful world. Here are just a handful of the very best

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Explosive, subversive, wild and funny, Joseph Heller's bestselling novel is a hilarious and tragic satire on military madness, and the tale of one man's efforts to survive it. An absurdist condemnation of armed conflict and a rallying cry against the arbitrary authority of those in power, Catch 22 is one of the landmarks of twentieth-century fiction.
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Ephron’s own marital woes fuel this acidly hilarious novel about a cookery writer’s romantic misadventures. Sprinkled liberally with both delicious recipes and one-liners, Heartburn is a marvel of precision engineered prose and biting, satirical characterisation.
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A worthy heir to Johns Irving and Updike, Greer has fashioned a masterful globe-trotting delight, replete with glorious comic set pieces and withering wit. The picaresque story of a down-at-heel writer fleeing from his ghosts in a variety of colourful settings, Less is a fresh, funny read with real substance.
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Lewd, graphic and filthily hysterical, Roth’s opus to onanism is one of the supreme achievements of the American comic novel and a devastating critique of twentieth century US society. Told through a breathtakingly frank monologue between a sexually obsessed patient and his psychoanalyst, Portnoy’s Complaint is a masterpiece of style and structure.
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Toole’s posthumous cult classic has developed a formidable – and thoroughly well-deserved - reputation for picaresque wit and lively character portraits. The rambling, hilarious saga of Ignatius J. Reilly and his battle against modernity and employment constitutes one of America’s very greatest comic novels.
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An exuberant farce whose absurdity is only matched by its wince-inducing insight into academic narcissism and literary hubris, Wonder Boys is one of the great triumphs of American humour writing, involving dead dogs, Marilyn Monroe and a boa constrictor.
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Wicked Wit

Not all great humorous writing has to be light and fluffy as these examples of dark and provocative satire prove.

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The first American author to scoop the Booker Prize, Beatty spins a web of splenetic black comedy and social satire in this provocative, wickedly funny novel. Turning themes of racism and slavery inside out in service of a devastatingly clever narrative message, The Sellout is brave, biting modern fiction.
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Controversial and crazed, Thompson’s barnstorming road trip across LA is the ultimate gonzo mind-bender, flush with addled hallucinogenic humour and demented vignettes.
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Not just an inventive take on the serial-murder thriller, Braithwaite's blistering debut is also a tender examination of sibling relationships in an oppressively patriarchal society and a story that turns the tables on the woman-as-victim trope.
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Precise, ironic and wickedly amusing, Bainbridge’s jet-black comedy of a works day trip that goes horrifically wrong mixes gasps with laughs on every page. Documenting the desperate lives of Freda and Brenda with savage wit, The Bottle Factory Outing is the crowning achievement of Beryl Bainbridge’s stellar literary career.
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Fantastically Funny

The epic worlds of fantasy and science fiction are ripe for a bit of knowing parody. Just ask the likes of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.

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Hugely influential and wildly funny, Adams’s mind-blowingly imaginative absurdist spin on science fiction makes the transition from radio to novel with consummate ease. Boasting concepts and characters that have passed into the national fabric, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the lasting legacy of a comic genius.

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Good Omens is the result of the kind of dream collaboration that so rarely gets realised. Pooling everything that is so great about Pratchett and Gaiman’s writing into a freewheeling tale of the apocalypse, the antichrist and the disturbingly specific prophecies of a 17th century witch, it is a comic fantasy whose reputation has only grown stronger with the passing years.
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Science fiction as only Kurt Vonnegut can write it, The Sirens of Titan is a freewheeling intergalactic comedy about free will featuring the richest man in the world, a space explorer who knows everything that ever was and ever will be and a stranded robot who has been sending some very singular messages. Ironic, philosophical and deliciously witty, this is the great American humorist on top form.
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Dizzyingly clever and joyously funny, Fforde’s postmodern comedy thriller is a loving homage to literature bursting with wordplay and wit. The first of the Thursday Next adventures, The Eyre Affair channels Douglas Adams and Monty Python into a surrealist stew centring on the sudden disappearance of Jane Eyre.
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Top of the Class

School classrooms and university campuses have proven particularly fertile ground for classic comic novels. The following all receive an A* for hilarity.

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Through its wonderfully chaotic and informal protagonist Jim Dixon, Amis’ splenetic satire calls out the amateurish preciousness of the old university establishment in this quintessential British campus novel.
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Every bit as urbane, loquacious and rip-roaringly hilarious as you would expect from the colossal intellect of Stephen Fry, The Liar is one of the great evocations of Cambridge University in modern literature. Seamlessly blending campus comedy with a skewed espionage novel, this is a hugely impressive debut from a formidable polymath.
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Elevating a picaresque farce into a hilarious literary gem, Waugh’s anarchic debut novel is a biting satire on 1920s society that places a disgraced Oxford student in an ill-advised teaching position at an obscure Welsh school.
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Wonderfully rueful and utterly hilarious, Tom Sharpe’s account of schemes and shenanigans in a venerable Cambridge college manages to skewer both reactionary traditionalists and self-righteous liberals.
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The novel that created the cult of the sexually promiscuous university lecturer, The History Man is also a portrait of loveless marriage, a satire on the vacuity of the Swinging Sixties and a diatribe against the dangers of ‘right-on’ liberalism.
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The king of the British campus novel takes on US university life in this meticulously crafted culture clash comedy which details the consequences of an Anglo-American lecturer swap, brimming with high farce and whip-smart dialogue.
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A winning union of vernacular text and expressive cartoon, the Molesworth tetralogy remains one of the most acutely observed parodies of school life.
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Perfect Parodies

Everybody loves a brilliantly observed spoof. This selection of merciless send-ups will provoke guffaws of recognition.

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Gibbons’s pitch perfect parody of rural melodramas introduces one of comic fiction’s great female protagonists and a host of gloriously eccentric and idiosyncratic characters. As Flora Poste sets about organising her country cousins ramshackle and inefficient lives, Cold Comfort Farm piles sparkling set-piece on set-piece.
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A ribald, marvellously subversive take on The Prisoner of Zenda, the second Flashman novel finds everyone’s favourite cad and bounder caught up in dangerous games of disguise and subterfuge during the tinderbox of the 1848 European revolutions. Ruthlessly skewering the conventions of heroic historic fiction, Royal Flash is a wickedly enjoyable indulgence.
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Mixing riveting mystery with witty characters and rhetorical exuberance, Crispin serves up another brilliantly quirky story of detection. Starring his inimitable amateur sleuth, Oxford Professor Gervase Fen, The Moving Toyshop is filled with humour, atmosphere and intellectual puzzles, destined to entertain.
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Pricking the pomposity and self-regard of both po-faced adventure fiction and stiff-upper-lip mountaineering achievements, Bowman’s delightfully absurd tale of a hapless band’s ascent of the titular peak is brilliantly refreshing. Reaches the very summit of British humour classics.
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A fabulously filthy and uninhibited update of Jeeves and Wooster, Wake Up, Sir! transplants Wodehouse’s archetypes to the hedonistic resort of Saratoga Springs and brings a bevy of thoroughly modern problems to bear upon our dissolute hero and his long-suffering manservant. A masterful pastiche written with verve and snort-inducing comedy.
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A note-perfect parody of Hollywood memoirs, Lever’s hysterical reimagining of the chequered life of Cheeta from the Tarzan films is a marvel of sustained absurdity. With moments of real pathos and poignancy amidst the laughs, Me Cheeta is a future comic classic.
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