Reading a funny book can be like a spiritual high – try these for starters

I am no scholar, but on an away weekend to Fez in Morocco a few years ago, I was struck by two whirling dervishes who had kindly agreed to come and whirl in my hotel. Although the practice was not originally intended as entertainment, the custom is still seen as a tourist attraction. Behind it is the ability to induce a state of altered consciousness and I, for one, am right behind that intent and that ability.

My version of this practice is laughing. And, like the act of whirling, it requires no ego, no performance, no competitiveness – just a willingness to worship the god of laughter.

Luckily, I can still remember my first laugh, which offers up a good benchmark. It was one of those really big laughs that forced me off the sofa and on to the carpet. I was in heaven – a parallel universe in which I struggled to breathe and the world stood still for one glorious glimpse of bliss and hysteria.

The reason? Someone had just said the word “bum” on camera. Yo lo se. I was beside myself. Didn’t they know that the word “bum” was possibly the most funny and rude, banned word ever spoken? I laughed until I cried. My mother had to hurry in and say, “Look what you’ve done now, you’ve spilled your milk.” Which was true, I had. On the plus side I hadn’t urinated. Or died.

Ever since, I’ve been chasing that moment. The moment of surrender to getting that out-of-body state of hysteria, bliss, and connection. A place of safety where the present world is shut out and a better world takes over.

But you can’t fake it. You just can’t. The moment someone starts telling me a joke I normally start to feel quite lonely. Am I alone at having to react to the tyranny of someone else’s imposed punchline? Laughter should join. But because I have issues with authority and being a people pleaser since the 80s and before #MeToo, I have to allow for the fact that I will normally fake a polite response, especially if the joke teller is an agent and paying for my salary.

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Nowadays, this occasional glitch on my path to laughter has only helped me relish what the feeling of real laughter does for me. I’ve had time to work out what works. The best scenario for me is spotting someone falling over and then pretending they haven’t. This is my ideal. But because this can only work, at its best, a few times, it’s not realistic to rely on that.

After that, it’s reading funny books by women writers. Because while a clever joke is satisfying, it can be a tad patronizing if it takes a second to see its genesis and feel included. So, my money is on laughing at the breadth of wittily mundane, surreally ridiculous narratives penned by women writers and performers.

Open the pages of any Muriel Spark and get reassured by her waspish ironic narration that’s as hard hitting today as it ever was. “Remember not to think about the reading public. It will put you off.”

Relish the absurdity of Caitlin Moran in How to be a Woman, written over a decade ago. “If I injure myself, and end up in a very formal hospital where they don’t allow slang words and they ask ‘where is the pain?’, I think that rather than say ‘in my vagina’ I would just reply ‘guess ‘ and then faint.”

Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking is still one of the most bold and original pleasures out there. “I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. I’m apparently very good at it and am honored for it regularly. Probably one of the reasons is that there’s no swimsuit portion of the competition.”

Women have been writing funny forever and since the debate about women being funny is so old and frayed, it’s best not to go there.

All funny authors are to be relished, and at this difficult time in the world there’s something to be said for sharing some tried and tested humorous novels and passing it on.

Apparently we have all evolved since the strictures of 80s alternative comedy, when women being on the bill were still a rarity. This makes it especially meaningful to read the biographies of comedians who came through at this time.

I particularly delight in other people’s disasters. Gina Yashere’s CACK-HANDED is hilarious. From female engineer to stand-up comedian her storytelling of her is outrageously funny. While the most recent very, very funny memoir My Month is a Bit of a Life by Georgia Pritchett is such a welcome gem. Particularly because she worries whether the monsters under her bed are comfy enough.

Whenever I start reading any of one the bold, outrageous witty novels that are available right now it feels like I’m shaking hands with the funniest person in the room, or sneezing, or even orgasaming if memory serves.

For the cost of a book or a stand-up ticket we can all reach a spiritual high and it staggers me that we don’t celebrate it more. Laughter is non-binary. It no longer relies on a punchline or requires three people of different nationalities to go into a bar.

It has been said that some men read books mostly by men which, if true, might be a bit unfortunate, if only because I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out.

Thankfully the days of a pink “chick-lit” book cover are largely over, and we are reaching a new era of openness and pleasure. Witty, literary, libertine, self-mocking hedonism and freedom is on our doorstep, if not around the corner.

Labels are so over… aren’t they?

Lately I have been…

Theatregoing…
I went to see cock by Mike Bartlet and was full of excitement to see such full-on bickering and the exploration of labels within relationships. On arrival we were told Jonathan Bailey was not going on, nor was he a poet and actress Jade Anouak. Only the marvelous Phil Daniels from the original cast was fit and well, while copies of the play were available for audience members just in case. The wit and sarcasm of this clever play shone out in the hands and delivery of such stunning understudies, and it made it very moving when they all took their bows. The audience went wild.

Painting…
I have got a new obsession about the wonders and ease of spray paint – no, not for graffiti – but for giving my cheap wicker furniture a “refresh”. The act of spraying on wickerwork is surprisingly satisfying if chemically smelly. I chose a hue called Serenity, which looked blue online but turned out to be an unmistakable green. The friend who sat on the newly refreshed wicker sofa took some of the paint home with her. On her slacks of her.

Topping-up…
on Scandi noir. This time I have been box-setting When the Dust Settles. Such a clever idea. Something happens that’s bad and then all the people who have been involved are followed up and their different stories all end up linking together. The joys of connection and follow-through can be found here – as well as in cricket.

Helen Lederer is founder of Book Prize | Comedy Women In Print entries open in September

@HelenLederer

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