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Our sense of humor—what we find funny, and where we find it—has changed significantly over the years. We used to get more of our laughs in cartoon form, whether it was The Simpsons, Doonesbury or The Far Side. Popular human humorists used to joke about family—Erma Bombeck tackled Motherhood in 1983; Bill Cosby took his turn with Fatherhood three years later. Before his retirement in 2004, syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry tackled parenthood, politics and exploding toilets.
But some not-so-funny things happened on the way to the new millennium. A Supreme Court—settled presidential election, 9/11, then the war in Iraq brought out a new bite in humor and restored satire to its customary place as cultural (and political) commentary. The bestselling humor books of 2002 and 2003 were rather blackly so: Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country? flanked Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. These titles, and the viral growth in cable television, which brought new commentators—and platforms—to the fore, laid the groundwork for the extraordinary success of Jon Stewart's America (the Book), which sold 1.5 million hardcover copies in 2004. Last year, fellow Comedy Central funnyman Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!), nearly matched Stewart's figure.
Jamie Raab, publisher at Grand Central Publishing, which produced Colbert's tome and Stewart's (under Warner Books), says that she knew at first glance that the material would transition successfully to book form. “They were true to what the comedians do on television but formatted to work quite brilliantly on the page,” says Raab. What did surprise her was the sheer volume of titles sold: “I think the market for humor is going to expand in the next couple of years because things in the real world are kind of grim,” she says. Or, to paraphrase a November Grand Central title by Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur: Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit?
Publishers turning out humor titles today may not wholly share the general public's malaise: The category has grown considerably since Stewart and his fellow Daily Show writers turned out their version of history; there are now an additional 450 titles to the annual output, according to Bowker. (See table, below.) Just as notable is the breadth of talents that have been launched along the way. Topping the charts: David Sedaris's clever, outré tales of social and familial dysfunction, popularized first on NPR's This American Life and in the pages of the New Yorker. Little, Brown released Me Talk Pretty One Day in 2000; the paperback sold 400,000 copies the next year and an additional 200,000 the year after. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, released in hardcover in 2004, sold 600,000 copies and beat out the late George Carlin's When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? for the year's bestselling humor book. This week, Sedaris's When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which had an initial print run of 650,000 copies, marks it fifth week on PW's bestseller list—alternating between the top two slots.
Two other book's on PW's nonfiction list typify the “hybridization” of today's humor books—melding comedy with memoir, social commentary or even religion. Chelsea Handler's Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea marks its 10th week on our list following its April publication by Simon Spotlight Entertainment. After a 45,000-copy first printing, the second book from the host of E!'s Chelsea Lately is up to 234,000 copies. “Chelsea performs her comedy every night on her show and tours extensively performing stand-up,” says SSE publisher Jennifer Bergstrom. “She's not afraid of being judged because her writing comes from her personal experiences. And no matter how unique those experiences are—like lying to her entire middle school by telling them that she has been tapped to play Goldie Hawn's daughter in the sequel to Private Benjamin to gain popularity, or growing up with a dad who pees on the family's front lawn 'like a German Shepherd'—readers can relate.”
Lewis Black's Me of Little Faith has 108,352 copies in print after three trips to press; it had a three-week run on PW's list. The Yale School of Drama—educated funnyman is a writer at heart, says Jake Morrissey, executive editor at Riverhead Books; his appeal is his strong point of view. “I think the kind of humor that's worked in the last decade or so has been less general and more specific in tone,” says Morrissey. “It demands of the audience an intelligence and connectedness to the world around us that previous humor writing didn't.” Black's essay collection, Morrissey says, is not an ad hominem attack on religion, but rather an examination from all aspects of life. “We live in a time when we're exposed to televangelists asking for money on TV and pundits sitting on Sunday talk shows discussing the faiths of different presidential candidates. What irritates [Black] most is hypocrisy.”
“Interest in books of humor essays has been with us since James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, or further back, to Mark Twain,” says Bruce Tracy, editorial director at Villard. “I do think that somewhere around the rise of Sedaris writers and editors and publishers and booksellers began thinking of humor as a more commercially viable genre.”
And whether from Thurber, Sedaris or others, short takes are a still-relevant means of examining life's more absurd moments. “It could be argued that regular novels are easier to sell than short stories because the stories may require a reader to recommit,” says Tracy. “But with humor, it's different—you commit to a writer's sensibility.” In September, Villard will publish Clothing Optional, an essay collection by Alan Zwiebel, who has won Emmy awards for his TV writing (he was one of Saturday Night Live's original writers) and whose 2006 novel, The Other Shulman, won the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
A current SNL writer, Simon Rich, has also found his voice in this short form. He received a two-book contract from Random House before his Harvard diploma, in 2007. (Several of the essays from Rich's first book, Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations, were first published in the storied Harvard Lampoon, of which he was president in 2005.) “Simon's able to look at slices of life and broad cultural things and find humor in them,” says Jane von Mehren, publisher, trade paperbacks and Modern Library at Random House, who says Ant Farm has more than 30,000 copies in print. Rich's follow-up, Free-Range Chickens, will be released next month.
“There's no hard or fast rule for success with a humor book,” says St. Martin's executive editor Elizabeth Beier. “With so much great stuff pushed at us all every day, the bar for the types of humor books that can work has gotten higher.” Last month St. Martin's published What Would Kinky Do? How to Unscrew a Screwed-Up World—a collection of previously published essays as well as new material from Kinky Friedman, songwriter, humorist and former candidate for Texas governor whose work includes the music album They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.
“These are difficult times, and what makes shows like the Daily Show and The Colbert Report so brilliant is that they take on serious issues with a sense of humor,” says Brian Tart, publisher of Dutton, which in October will publish More Information than You Require, by writer and Daily Show “resident expert” John Hodgman. It's the follow-up to Hodgman's first book, The Areas of My Expertise, a collection of trivia, reference material, all of it enobled by being completely fabricated.
A standup comic with universal appeal is Jeff Foxworthy, who Villard's Tracy calls “a comedy legend” and whose syndicated weekly show, The Foxworthy Countdown, is carried in more than 220 markets across the U.S. “He speaks to a between-the-coasts sensibility that's so specific and so identifiable,” Tracy adds, which is one reason the publisher will be compiling his three bestselling “redneck dictionaries” into a single volume, Jeff Foxworthy's Complete Redneck Dictionary, for November release.
The Political Process: Jokes Aplenty
Few well-known, working humorists today are as prolific—or versatile—as Michael Moore, who penned the earlier-mentioned bestsellers in between provocative films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine and Sicko. This summer, the Oscar—winning director's first book in five years tackles the American democratic process. “He's a genius... [he] knows exactly when to stop pounding the podium to get people to laugh,” says Raab of Grand Central. Though the release of Mike's Election Guide is timed for the political conventions this August, Moore's commentary reaches beyond this cycle, detailing and/or deriding the political process with questions, lists and riffs on Kinky Friedman's philosophical question: “Who Would Jesus Vote For?”
Another standard-bearer for political humor is MAD magazine, whose editors will release MAD About Politics: An Outrageous Pop-Up Political Parody through Palace Press International's Insight Editions in September. The book, chockful of pop-ups, inserts, booklets and posters, offers up MAD mascot Alfred E. Neuman as a presidential possibility. “In the face of all the overwhelming political frustrations and the circus the presidential arena has become, there's always MAD magazine's response: 'What, me worry?', ” says Jake Gerli, director of acquisitions for Palace Publishing Group. “When you look at the amount of caricature of candidates in recent memory, Alfred seems just as qualified and as relevant.”
But with round-the-clock cable TV and Internet coverage of the campaign delivering a new gaffe a second, we don't have much time for recent memory. Though the early primary season feels like history, we do remember the gems. When Mike Huckabee toured the country with hopes of earning the Republican nod last fall, it was hard to find a rally at which the Arkansas governor was not flanked by martial arts hero and Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris. In short order, Gotham Books acquired The Truth About Chuck Norris: 400 Facts About the World's Greatest Human from Ian Spector, a then—19-year-old Brown University undergraduate who'd created the “Chuck Norris Fact Generator” on his personal Web site. Gotham president and publisher William Shinker says that the key to capitalizing on this type of moment is to zero in on a trend, determine whether or not it has staying power, and to get it out into the marketplace as quickly as possible. The Truth About Chuck Norris, Shinker notes, has sold 170,000 copies after 13 printings.
Another of Gotham's election-themed books, due in August, has a more obvious target but a more innovative title—taken from the author's popular blog, barackobamaisyournewbicycle.com “It's tough to say what makes anything funny,” says the book's editor, Patrick Mulligan. In this case, the premise was simple: When writer and Web programmer Mathew Honan's wife, an avid cyclist, was trying to articulate exactly what excited her about Obama's candidacy, Honan found the perfect metaphor: Barack Obama is your new bicycle. Five hours later, he'd created a simple Web site; within two weeks, three million users had checked it out. Subtitled 366 Ways He Really Cares, the Gotham book “is basically a collection of nice things that Barack Obama has done for you,” says Mulligan. “For example, he's saved you some dessert.”
Fireside pokes fun at the Republican nominee with the print version of Joe Quint's popular blog, 72 Things Younger than John McCain, which will be released on August 29 (McCain's 72th birthday). “This is a very serious time in America—shouldn't there be something that helps us laugh a little bit?” asks Fireside publisher Mark Gompertz. “Obviously you have to tickle the funny bone first, but the other thing you have to do is surprise.” In addition to the book's clever captions, “there really are facts worth collecting,” says Gompertz. For example: the Jefferson Memorial is actually younger than John McCain. “It was in the works, but the statue wasn't dedicated until seven years after McCain was born,” says Gompertz. Other pop-culture icons that followed the Arizona senator: Alaska, McDonald's and Bugs Bunny.
Fireside's other politically themed book—also Internet-informed—is Obamamania: The English Language Barackafied. The paperback, which was released July 1, takes a page from the Slate editors who had so much success with the six-book George W. Bushisms series. Since launching their Encyclopedia Baracktannica in February, more than 800 readers have written in with their own words. Among them, “Obamalaise—the emotional hangover resulting from repeatedly watching 'Yes We Can' montages.”
The only way publishers today seem to be willing to laugh at their current president is by bidding him adieu. Goodnight Bush, a parody of the bestselling children's classic by Margaret Wise Brown, arrived, unsolicited, into the mailbox of Little, Brown's editor-in-chief Geoff Shandler. “I opened it up, read it, thought it was brilliant, and everyone else here did too,” he says. The book, published in May—featuring a “quiet Dick Cheney whispering 'hush' ”—has already been reprinted three times.
Jason Rekulak, editorial director at Quirk Books, says he receives one or two humor book proposals a month and is constantly turning them down. He felt differently when he saw Pardon My President: Ready-to-Mail Apologies for 8 Years of George W. Bush, by Seth Grahame-Smith. Among the manufactured mea culpas: some for Harry M. Whittington (“I'm sorry Dick Cheney shot you in the face”), the people of France (for “Freedom Fries”), and the city of New Orleans. “I like that this book both works as a historical document and closes the story on the presidency,” says Rekulak. “But he'll probably do something this summer that we'll wish we could squeeze into the book!”
Take My Blog, Please
“There's a lot of funny out there for free, so when I look at a humor book proposal now, I'm merciless: the concept and execution had better be rock solid and there better be a clear market and/or a really nice author platform,” says David Cashion, executive editor of Abrams Image, which in May published a title that nods to one of the most successful examples of Web-related content—The Facebook Book. “Facebook is so huge that it really transcends its online-ness,” says Cashion. “It's part of the cultural vocabulary now, and the book is the next logical step of humorous social commentary in the tradition of titles like The Preppy Handbook and The Hipster Handbook.”
This month Random House released Stuff White People Like by Toronto native Christian Lander, who created a similarly named blog that, according to the LA Weekly, has received as many as 720,000 hits in a single day. “It grew so big, so fast,” says von Mehren. “It was the kind of humor where you want to say, 'Have you seen this? Have you heard this?' ” She says the book expands on the blog's basic premise—a largely pop-culture inspired list of, well, you can guess (some examples include panini, Restoration Hardware and David Sedaris)—and offers a variety of new material.
“For some authors, the Internet is a great marketing tool,” says Michaela Hamilton, editor-in-chief of Kensington's Citadel imprint. “If they have a following, the following will buy the book.” One of Citadel's success stories has been Tucker Max's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, inspired by a blog of the same name and first published in 2006. The book has been on the New York Times printed bestseller list every week this year and will be reissued in January.
Later this fall, Citadel will release The BBook of Geek: The Only Geek Humor Book You'll Ever Need, by Brian Briggs of Bbspot.com, which, according to the publisher, receives two million page views from about 600,000 readers every month. To woo loyal blog readers away from the screen, the book promises to “simultaneously poke fun at and celebrate every subject close to a geek's heart—from The Matrix to MacGyver, from Linux to Stan Lee.” Until then, the trivia hungry can chew on this month's Underrated: The Yankee Pot Roast Book of Awesome Underappreciated Stuff by Geoff Wolinetz, Nick Jezarian and Josh Abraham, based on—you guessed it—yankeepotroast.org.
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|SOURCE: R.R. Bowker's Books In Print database.|
|Humor includes ISBNs classified in the Humor section of BISAC. It does not include the Fiction/Humor subject or the CGN (comics & graphic novels) section (but note that humorous comics/cartoons are included under the subject HUMOR / Form / Comic Strips & Cartoons).|