A Mix of Funny and Not Funny Might Be On the Money

Anne Tyler (photo by Eamonn McCabe).

There can be a balancing act with novels. One such act is making sure the top book on a towering to-read pile doesn’t fall off — πŸ™‚ — but what I’m actually referring to is how some novels find the sweet spot between serious and comic. Dare they be called “seriocomic”?

When done right, seriocomic novels offer readers the best of both worlds. Gravitas leavened by humor, but not so much humor that the book is perhaps perceived as insubstantial. Also, earnest fiction with a jokey edge can feel like real life — which, as we know, periodically combines the consequential with the farcical.

One such novel is Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1988 book I read for the first time last week. It’s partly a sober, nuanced look at the complexities of marriage — in this case, the marriage of middle-aged couple Maggie and Ira Moran — but also funny. That’s because the good-hearted Maggie is hilariously spacey, awkward, annoying, and intrusive, while the stoic Ira is basically the straight man: his George Burns to her Gracie Allen, or, to keep gender out of it, his Zeppo Marx to her Groucho/Harpo/Chico. And Breathing Lessons features extended scenes — including one at a funeral service — that elicit many uncomfortable chuckles. 

Tyler is also quite seriocomic in The Accidental Tourist, among other novels.

Another author who often takes a funny/not-funny approach is Tyler contemporary John Irving (they’re both 80 years old) in such works as The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Nineteenth-century literary giants Charles Dickens and Mark Twain also offer a seriocomic blend in most of their novels. Think of the memorably amusing Mr. Micawber in Dickens’ semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, and the mix of laugh-out-loud humor and grave anti-war sentiment in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Speaking of Twain, The Gilded Age features a clear divide between uproariously satirical chapters written by Mark T. and okay romantic chapters from Charles Dudley Warner. 

Staying with the 1800s for a minute, Herman Melville doesn’t have a reputation for comedy but was VERY amusing in parts of Moby-Dick and Pierre.

The same can be said for 20th-century author John Steinbeck, who was 99% serious in The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent but quite funny in much of Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday.

Getting back to contemporary writers, Zadie Smith is both highly humorous and dead-on serious in novels such as White Teeth. Margaret Atwood makes the post-apocalypse both devastating and devastatingly funny in Oryx and Crake, which includes some REALLY clever wordplay.

Other authors over the centuries who expertly placed a few or many comic moments in at least some of their novels include Miguel de Cervantes, Voltaire, Henry Fielding, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Colette, L.M. Montgomery, Jaroslav Hasek, J.R.R. Tolkien,Β Bel Kaufman, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Fannie Flagg, Richard Russo, Terry McMillan, Lee Child, Maria Semple, J.K. Rowling, and Liane Moriarty, to name just a few.

Your thoughts on this topic? Seriocomic authors and novels you like?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — which has a Muppets theme πŸ™‚ — is here.

54 thoughts on “A Mix of Funny and Not Funny Might Be On the Money

  1. I have been reading a mystery author, Bill Crider, who writes of a Texas sheriff, Rhodes. It is a “seriocomic” with more “comic” than “serio”. For example, a robber is being thwarted with a loaf of bread on one side of town, while on the other, we have a murder.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Dave, I’m a little late to the party (as always) but can I suggest A Confederacy of Dunces? I recently re-read it and enjoyed it even more than the first time. Although I can’t help thinking that Ignatius was suffering from some severe loneliness, so I felt a little sad too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Susan, and thank you for the comment! “A Confederacy of Dunces” is definitely a seriocomic novel. With the emphasis on comic — it’s hilarious — but there are indeed serious and sad moments. Great mention!


  3. What about “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark?
    A dark humour filled with irony is how I remember it.
    Lol! You cited so many authors, I had to go back and make sure this wasn’t on your list.
    In film we call β€œseriocomic” – “dramedy”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa! It’s been too many years since I read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” for me to remember the details, but glad it has some darkly humorous aspects. I do remember Ms. Brodie being…complicated.

      I like the term “dramedy”!


  4. Hi Dave, I must admit that most of the books I read are pretty miserable. I am currently well into Great Expectations (again) and nothing remotely amusing so far. Rebecca mentioned Shakespeare and I mentioned Chaucer in my comment to her. Chaucer is hilarious but there are also some more serious stories. There were some very funny bits in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and I did laugh quite a bit even though that book is so sad. Even All Quiet on the Western Front had a few funny bits and larks like when the young men crossed the river to visit the French girls. You are right that humour is needed in serious books to lift the tension.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I was surprised it wasn’t in your essay either!! So jumped at the chance of mentioning it πŸ˜€ I’ve only read one others of hers – ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ – and I don’t think there’s much cheery to mention in that book – although an excellent read!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, Sarah, a major omission by me. πŸ™‚ “So Much for That” is actually one of my favorite 21st-century novels — and I love its amazing conclusion.

      You’re right that not all of Lionel Shriver’s work is seriocomic; she can be almost completely serious in some novels. I’ve read four of her books, also including “The Mandibles” and “The New Republic.”

      Liked by 2 people

  6. One that springs to mind for this week is ‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver. To take on disability, dying, cancer, suicide (the list goes on) and to make it about the people rather than disease or ‘unwellness’ brings some humour to this novel.
    I also thought about Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’. These monologues often begin in quite a lighthearted way but then we realise the themes he’s dealing with are loneliness, ageing and death.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! “So Much for That” is a GREAT example. I’ve read it, and can’t believe I forgot to mention it. It is indeed an excellent novel that’s both sobering (including its indictment of America’s very problematic profit-driven healthcare system) and at times absolutely hilarious. And, yes, very character-driven. Ms. Shriver is also expertly seriocomic in a number of her other novels, including “Big Brother.”

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I suggest Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Gormenghast as two books that combine the serious and funny. Terrible things happen, such as murder, arson, and suicide. Steerpike is a purely evil character. But then there are Dr. Prunesquallor and his sister Irma and the Professors. Some really funny scenes there. Irma’s attempt to make herself a more impressive bosom by using a hot water bottle, for example.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. It’s very difficult, as Rebecca says, to read wrist cutters. I think there’s humor to be found in the direst of situations and a book that balances that act, especially one where we laugh and cry, can make both things devastating. I was thinking of how in Nicholas Nickleby there’s Wackford Squeers running the most terrible regime. But his name and the hall’s and the scene where he is taking a lesson is hysterical but then wham it cuts later to Smike and it’s throat clenching. A great post again on a very worthy subject

    Liked by 7 people

  9. Another great conversation starter, Dave. Humour and tragedy takes a skilled writer to bring together. Who better than William Shakespeare, in his plays The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice. It is very difficult to read books that focus solely on the tragedy of life. When humour is introduced, there is respite in the midst of sadness. And because I could not resist, I must include a quote.

    β€œNow I will believe that there are unicorns…” William Shakespeare, The Tempest

    Liked by 7 people

  10. Hi Dave, a nice theme again! One might take the position that a great novel almost by definition will combine the tragical and the comical of the “condition humaine”. That aside, an example of what I would call a light-reading (i.e. not a “great”) novel which is both very funny and slightly unsettling is My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. A novel which is brimming with horribleness (Smyrna! The 1968 Detroit Riot! Segregation!) and humor alike, and which I do count among the great novels (thank you Dave for hinting at it it when I mentioned The Virgin Suicides in a comment to an earlier post in your blog), is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’m mentioning these novels knowing that countless others will be mentioned in comments to follow. I’ll be on the lookout for reading suggestions!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Dingenom!

      Very true that many great novels combine the serious and the humorous — especially if one defines humor widely (not necessarily LOL funny).

      So glad you liked “Middlesex”! It indeed mixes serious and comic elements in an impressive way.

      I’m looking forward to the other comments, too! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

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