Ruth Goodman – How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts
This book is hilarious and edifying. Not least because it actually is a how-to guide, complete with instructions on how to cuss, insult, gesture rudely, properly bow, and more. It is also a delightful offbeat history that melds the strange and unfamiliar with the somewhat familiar.
It also provides insight on why different things are considered rude or polite in different times and places. One could take a deeper, Hayekian approach to this book, marveling at how unplanned spontaneous orders can result in ever-evolving systems of manners, language, and customs. Or, seen through the lens of Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature and declining violence over time, we can see how strict formal norms provided protection against unprovoked violence, and how looser dress and conduct codes usually correlated with peace, prosperity, and physical safety. Or one can have a hearty laugh at the truly outrageous stories Goodman shares. Better, one can do all three.
Douglas Adams – Mostly Harmless
The fifth and final volume of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Arthur Dent is finally settling down into a stable life, and even beginning to enjoy it. But then he has to go on one last adventure to save the universe, which is every bit as farcical as one would expect from a Douglas Adams book.
Early on, Adams throws some quality barbs at New Yorkers, such as “In New York, nobody is nice to each other without a reason.” When describing a written message regarding a phone call, “It was a 212 area code number, so it was someone in New York, who was not happy. Well, that narrowed it down a bit, didn’t it?”
Adams also expands the cast. Trillian, another human who escaped Earth’s earlier demolition is joined by her interdimensional analogue Tricia, from a world where she had stayed on Earth, which wasn’t destroyed. Arthur Dent also learns he is a father. He had earlier used sperm donations to fund his interplanetary travels, and Tricia used a sample to havea daughter named Random Dent. Thanks to the vagaries of time travel and interdimensional weirdness, she isn’t quite sure about her age. But she is definitely a full-throated teenager prone to instant mood swings and outbursts, though she does have her sympathetic points.
There is noticeably less joy in this book than in the earlier volumes, something I also noticed to a lesser degree in volume four. The book, and the series, ends with the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself being obliterated, a possible indication that Adams was more than ready to move on to other pursuits.
Douglas Adams – So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
The fourth volume of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. After eight long years, our hero Arthur Dent finds himself back on Earth—better, it’s even in his own time. By now, he is more than ready to resume normal life. This being a Douglas Adams book, this is not going to happen. But unlike the previous volumes, the majority of this book takes place on Earth, and Arthur even falls in love.
Arthur receives a mysterious gift of an immaculately made fishbowl in the mail. He soon finds out the all the world’s dolphins have disappeared. Those versed in Hitchhiker’s lore will know that these two things are related.
Douglas Adams – Life, the Universe, and Everything
The third volume of Adams’ Hitchikers of the Galaxy series. The opening scene is classic. The previous book ended with protagonist Arthur Dent back on Earth, but stranded alone, two million years in the past. This book begins with Arthur winding his way through several solitary years. One day, out of the blue, a spaceship lands. Is he being saved at last? An alien being walks out, holding a clipboard. “Arthur Dent?” He asks. “Yes.” “Arthur Philip Dent?” “Yes.” “You’re a jerk.” With this, the alien walks back into his ship and flies off. It is another two years before Arthur finds his friend Ford Prefect and off they go on another adventure with ex-President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the depressed robot, and others.
Douglas Adams – The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Book 2)
This book is hilarious, and highly recommended. Not quite as famous as the first book, but just as good and very much in the same farcical spirit. Adams’ jokes are constant, yet still often come as a surprise. He had a knack for making the mundane into the epic, and vice versa. Some of the time travel jokes also verge on Abbott and Costello-style humor.
Thomas Edison not only invented the phonograph, he was one of the first to mass-market recorded music, along with his competitor Victor’s Victrola player. Edison also curated the music his company, Thomas Alva Edison, Inc. (TAE), released. His notebooks contain some surprisingly funny negative reviews, such as this gem from during World War I, shared on p. 39 of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sounds Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music:
“If anything would make the Germans quit their trenches it is this…”
The 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat observed, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” I thought of this quotation when looking for a statement from President Trump on his early-term regulatory reform efforts. This is a top quote from a WhiteHouse.gov press release, presumably from its Department of Redundancy Department:
We will get rid of the redundancy and duplication that wastes your time and your money.
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
A clever and wickedly funny novel by two famous collaborators, combining a comedy-of-errors plot with literally irreverent satire. An angel and a demon become good friends, and come to enjoy life on Earth, despite its many foibles. They are dismayed when the time for Armageddon draws near, and scheme behind their bosses’ backs to put a stop it.
Meanwhile, a baby-switching accident at a British hospital leads to the Antichrist being brought up in the wrong town by the wrong family; he turns out to be a normal 11-year old boy, though with some fairly major quirks.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse also put in amusing appearances, though Pestilence retired after modern vaccinations were invented. He was replaced by Pollution, whose youth and incompetence grate on the others. I get the sense Kevin Smith drew more heavily on this book than he should have for his movie Dogma.
The book also contains the famous line, “[C]ourting couples had come to listen to the splish and gurgle of the river, and to hold hands, and to get all lovey-dovey in the Sussex sunset. He’d done that with Maud, his missus, before they were married. They’d come here to spoon and, on one memorable occasion, fork.”
Mike Reiss and Mathew Klickstein – Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons
Reiss has been a writer for The Simpsons for 28 of its 30 seasons, and offers up plenty of Simpsons trivia and inside stories from the writers’ room. Reiss also co-created The Critic and contributed to several well-known animated movies such as Ice Age and has even written children’s books and written jokes for the Pope, of all people. He also discusses what the comedy business is like, what make something funny, and shares funny plenty of stories from throughout his career.
H. Jon Benjamin – Failure Is an Option: An Attempted Memoir
The voice actor and comedian (Archer, Bob’s Burgers) tells funny stories about some of his failures in life. He also gives other humorous examples of failure, including a sexual position based on the Laffer Curve that I shall not describe, except to note that the illustration has properly labeled axes for tax revenues and tax rates.