Since 1997, the Thurber House has awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Broadly speaking, it’s an obscure literary award, but to writers of humor, comedy, and satire, it’s a tremendous honor. (It also carries a prize of $5,000.) That might be because it’s handed out by the estate of James Thurber, one of the finest and most prolific of American writers who wrote with being funny in mind. (His works include My World and Welcome to It, The Wonderful O, and The Thurber Carnival, which includes his most famous short piece, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”) Unlike other literary awards, the Thurber Prize considers and recognizes works of both fiction and nonfiction alike. They’ve also got a pretty good track record when it comes to racial, cultural, and gender diversity. Here are some past, notable winners of the Thurber Prize.
1997: Coyote V. Acme, by Ian Frazier
1997: In the first ever Thurber Prize vote, Ian Frazier’s essay collection somehow beat out two more well-known, classic humor essay compilations: Al Franken’s bestselling Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations and David Sedaris’s iconic Naked. (Sedaris would win in 2001 for Me Talk Pretty One Day) Frazier would win again in 2009 for Lamentations of the Father. Coyote V. Acme gets its name from a popular piece Frazier wrote for The New Yorker, detailing Wile E. Coyote’s legal and complaint correspondence with the Acme Corporation, manufacturer of the many faulty products he unsuccessfully used to catch the Roadrunner in all those old cartoons. Other Frazier essays on pop cultural ephemera—a format now beloved by humor sites across the internet—include Don Johnson and “Ode to Billie Joe.”
2004: No Way to Treat a First Lady, by Christopher Buckley
History, sex, and politics converge in this wry and lascivious satire that in the wake of today’s political climate feels like it’s about 1,000 years old. But cynicism is eternal and universal, especially when it’s delivered by Christopher Buckley, the author of Thank You for Smoking, and the son of National Review founder William F. Buckley. After the First Lady of the United States catches her husband, the president, having an affair with a Hollywood starlet. She throws an American historical relic at his head, which kills him, and the plot concerns the trial and its resultant media circus.
2006: The Other Shulman, by Alan Zweibel
Shulman, a middle-aged guy with a lifelong weight problem always joked that he’s lost and re-gained the same 35 pounds since he was a teenager…which added up forms a complete separate person, a.k.a. Another Shulman. That’s his fictional alter ego, until he meets his real alter ego, a guy named Shulman who made all the good choices when our Shulman had made all the bad ones. In this inspirational, relatable tale of personal triumph and self-acceptance, scores are settled in the New York City marathon in this book written by a guy who knows comedy. Zweibel was on the initial writing staff of Saturday Night Live, and in the ‘80s, he co-created the innovative, fourth-wall busting sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
2013: Dan Gets a Minivan, by Dan Zevin
Plenty of books and amusing essays in highbrow magazines have been written by aging dudes trying to come to terms with how they’re grown, responsible adults and not feckless young idiots anymore. But Zevin’s largely autobiographical take is probably the best one. With his life hurtling at high speeds into the titular adult-life metaphor of the title, Zevin (a Boston public radio host) details his journey from boy to man, and from romantic partner to family man, with stops at Costco, Disneyland, and the knee surgery clinic along the way.
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2017: Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
Noah had his work cut out for him when he was plucked from the world of stand-up comedy and a brief tenure as a correspondent on The Daily Show to host the popular fake news show when Jon Stewart stepped down in 2015. He’s proven a worthy and funny choice, and he even matched his predecessor’s feat of winning a Thurber Award—Stewart and the TDS writing staff won in 2005 for America (The Book). Noah’s book isn’t a rehash of that book, though. Far from The Daily Show in book format, Noah wrote a harrowing and yet deeply funny memoir about his long, difficult, and at times, seemingly impossible road to success. Noah had to develop a sense of humor as a kid just to deal with living under apartheid laws in South Africa. The title refers to Noah’s very existence—his father is European, and his mother African, and interracial marriage was against the law in South Africa. Born a Crime is really a book about the power of humor and comedy to elevate and transform…which makes it a very worthy Thurber Prize winner.
What Thurber prize-winning books have you enjoyed?