A Serious Look at Humor in Romance Books

Mark Pottenger


(This was included in an AAR column in 1998.)

I am a man who started reading romance novels a little over 6 years ago after reading mostly fantasy and science fiction for many years. I specifically look for books with humor, which is why I look at regency novels first and the recent Harlequin Love & Laughter series next. I went through all of my sister's books that she recommended as having humor. (She keeps some other authors that she does not recommend to me--good but humorless.) I then started collecting what I could find based on authors already known, blurbs, and personal and online recommendations, creating a somewhat haphazard collection.

I prefer intentional humor to unintentional humor from bad writing.

Regency novels are supposed to be comedies of manners, so that genre is still the first place to look for funny romances. This does not necessarily apply to historical novels set in the Regency, though some are funny.

Since my siblings (sister and one of my brothers) have read hundreds more romances than I have, their recommendations have let me avoid a lot of books without humor. We keep a book list with a scale of one to five stars (*) for humor level, no stars for books that are not funny, and a negative for "don't bother to read". (We started with a simple recommended or not, added strongly and weakly recommended, then went to the current 5-point scale.) Too much seriousness or unpleasantness can pull down the score (the perceived humor level) of a book even though it might contain some humor. Mostly we mark individual books, but a few authors are so consistent that we have marked the author. Stars on the author don't mean all books are at that level, but the author reaches that level and is consistently good. Most of the marked authors were already collected when we added ratings to the list, but some are more recent discoveries.

Five stars means a book is consistently funny throughout on first and later readings, with the possible exception of the downslope just before the final upslope in the typical sinusoidal romance plot structure (think roller coaster). For the highest rating, the humor should reach laugh out loud strength, not just chuckles. The Mad Miss Mathley by Michelle Martin is one of the best examples of 5-star humor. Some of the books we read before expanding our scale to 5 stars might be rated differently now, but I have not tried to go back and reassign ratings since this list has been strictly for personal use until this year.

Our ratings are simple scores. People who prefer labels to ratings might consider: snicker, groan (puns), giggle, chortle, chuckle, laugh, guffaw, oh my god!, belly laugh, laugh till you cry, laugh till you cough (in some cities).

Humor is very individual. I don’t believe any two people in the world will always find all the same things funny. I have given stars to books my brother gave none to, and vice versa. Since very few people have unlimited book budgets, my suggestion for anyone looking for humor in romances is to find someone with a similar sense of humor who has read and rated more or different books. The easiest way to find out how similar your senses of humor are is to compare lists. For the visually inclined, this comparison could literally be done as a graph. Pick 5 to 10 titles you have both read and write them in a column in order of your own scores for them. Draw a horizontal axis with the scale of scores you use (-1 to 5 for me). Mark your scores beside each title in one color and draw lines to connect the points. Mark the other person’s scores in another color and draw lines to connect those points. (Or use a spreadsheet and let it make the graph.) The two lines give you a rough idea of how compatible your senses of humor are. If you and the other tend to agree on ratings on books you have both read, your senses of humor (and graph lines) are reasonably congruent. The next best guide is a parallel sense of humor—the two lines parallel each other but one of you consistently gives higher ratings than the other. If your high ratings tend to hit the other’s low ratings and vice versa, your senses of humor are mostly perpendicular—such a person can still be a guide as long as you remember to choose the opposite of what they recommend. Other degrees of agreement of senses of humor might be called tangential, acute, oblique or scattered. These differences make it harder to use the other as a guide, though there might be useful subsets (agreeing about conversational humor, disagreeing about situational humor, etc.).

BTW, this technique for finding out what sort of guide a reviewer is for your tastes can also be applied to overall romance ratings, sensuality ratings, or any other score used in reviews.

For real thoroughness, a humor score for second and later readings can be interesting. Some humor (mostly based on surprise) is only funny once. The best humor is funny at every reading. Fortunately, most of the humor in most of the romances I have read is funny on every reading.

Many romance books are both stronger romances and funnier on second and later readings. I think many romances that incorporate too much of other genres (history, mystery, suspense, etc.) are actually more enjoyable as romances and humor on a second reading. The other material is known and doesn’t get in the way of spotting the romance and humor. I enjoy Garwood and Quick and some other historical and romantic suspense books, but most of them are better after the first reading because the suspense is out of the way. This also applies to switcheroo romances like Heyer’s Sprig Muslin, Regency Buck or Cotillion—once you know who will get together in the end you can notice details of their earlier interactions you might have ignored on first reading. (Switcheroo romances are ambiguous or deliberately misleading for much of the book about who will end up together.) I still don’t like a historomance or mysteromance or switcheroo as much as a straight romance or comedy of manners because the other material usually hurts the Romance Quotient, but they can be enjoyed more when I know what to expect.

I think readers’ expectations in approaching books have a lot to do with how well they like the books. For example, anyone who has read Heyer regencies would expect to find a lot of humor in any previously unread Heyer book. That is part of the reason I did not particularly like An Infamous Army on first reading—I expected a romance and found a military history. On rereading An Infamous Army recently due to some remarks on the Heyer list, I had different expectations. I saw more romance and humor than I remembered from the first reading, and skimmed the military history I wasn’t interested in rereading. For the same reason, I always read back cover blurbs before reading books, and I prefer the blurbs that identify the hero and heroine because that lets me pay special attention to (root for) those characters from the beginning.

A consistent author is a blessing for readers like me. Having first encountered Krentz under her Quick pseudonym, I also read her as Krentz, James, and Castle. Her style is different under each name, but the names let me know roughly what level of humor, sexuality, etc. to expect. Uneven authors are more of a challenge. I have rated books by Susan Elizabeth Phillips at every score from 0 to 5. I first read Nobody’s Baby But Mine, a recommendation from an online list. I gave that 5 stars for humor. I then bought as many of her other books as I could find, and encountered widely varying levels of humor. Even more uneven is Johanna Lindsey, with books ranging from very good to downright nasty.

Sometimes book titles give a hint at the humor level. I look for books with words like headstrong, impetuous, impulsive, madcap, wild, hoyden, minx, charade, disguise, impostor or masquerade in the title or blurb. Those words frequently indicate a book with humor.

Showing the importance of rereading some books, I was pleasantly surprised by my most recent rereading of Frederica. My memory of previous readings was dominated by what I saw as diminution of the heroine—a shift from independent to dependent. This had overshadowed my memory of the humor level, which is quite high. I don’t know how strong most people’s memory for story details is, but memory from earlier readings seldom spoils the humor in a romance for me.

Too much angst, frustrating characters (you want to shake some sense into them), a gothic atmosphere, poor writing, poor copy editing, or any number of other aspects of a book can overwhelm any humor that might be present. On the other hand, properly placed humor can lighten a book that might otherwise be unreadable or unappreciated. I believe the ending of a novel determines much of the overall “feel” of the book that we remember later. Since most romances have happy endings, this is a factor in their enjoyment. Even some books that are pretty poor overall are somewhat redeemed by a good ending. If a book starts well and goes downhill, it is much less likely to be kept or reread.

If one is really obsessive (or academic--a possible college project?), humor in romances can also be classified by type. A lot of humor is based on incongruity and unusual juxtapositions. Heyer's Black Sheep is a great example of conversational humor. Heyer's Sprig Muslin is situational humor. Dara Joy's High Energy has wonderfully funny characters. Another excellent example of character humor is Kasey Michael’s The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane, including a secondary character who speaks only in quotations/aphorisms (with citation). (This character, Lucinda, is also in The Playful Lady Penelope and is a ghost in The Haunted Miss Hampshire.) Character clashes are probably one of the most used sources of humor in romance, especially between hero and heroine (e.g., Heyer’s Sylvester). Knocking the stuffiness out of a character is another variation with rich potential for humor, as shown in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy and Kasey Michaels’ recent Indiscreet. Cultural clashes can produce humor, as shown in Garwood’s The Lion’s Lady and most of her Scot books (The Bride, The Secret, etc.), and several of Rebecca Paisley’s books. False impressions and mistaken identity also offer room for humor, as shown in Susan Andersen’s Baby, I’m Yours or Sheila Rabe’s An Innocent Imposter. Situational humor could be divided into slapstick/pratfall or milder forms. Wounding the hero produces a special subset of humor (not a wounded hero in the angst sense, more in the banana peel sense). Many books by Barbara Metzger, such as Lady in Green, do painful (but funny) things to the hero. (I used to call this battered men humor, but wounded heroes sounds better.) Metzger’s recent Miss Lockharte’s Letters actually battered the heroine instead of the hero (a bit too much for my taste). All the above categorizations are oversimplifying, since most books include multiple types of humor.

For years I considered the pun the highest form of humor, since it was the only form I knew that was not based on someone’s pain or discomfort (most situational humor is). Since I started reading humorous romances, I now consider conversational humor the highest form. I’m sure whole books could be (must have been) written on the nature of humor, but I normally don’t analyze it while reading—I just enjoy it.

Romance books in a series often (but not always) get better as the series progresses. Sometimes, with authors whose first books make a series, it can be a sign of the author’s increasing skill. Increasing reader familiarity with the characters and situations can also make later series books seem better. I use the word series somewhat loosely, including any set of books with any connected or continuing characters. Here are 4 examples of series in which I think the last book in the series is the best or funniest and one (Evanovich) with all books at a high level:

Allen, Sheila Rosalynd (regency/ghost)

The Reluctant Ghost

The Helpful Ghost

The Meddlesome Ghost**

The Passionate Ghost***

Evanovich, Janet ***** (contemporary)

Back To The Bedroom*****


Wife For Hire****

The Rocky Road To Romance*****

Hooper, Kay (contemporary/spy)

In Serena's Web**

Raven On The Wing***

Rafferty's Wife**

Zach's Law**

The Fall Of Lucas Kendrick**

Unmasking Kelsey***

Outlaw Derek*

Shades Of Gray*

Captain's Paradise*

It Takes A Thief*

Aces High****

Jensen, Emma (regency)

Choice Deceptions*

Vivid Notions***

Coup De Grace****

What Chloe Wants*****

Krentz, Jayne Ann (paranormal/future)




Humor is not incompatible with sex. Classical Regency Romances, in the genre established by Georgette Heyer (with very early precursors by Jane Austen), are expected to be comedies of manners. They will usually not have any explicit sex, though they can have varying degrees of sensuality and sexual tension. Most other genres of romance (historical romances set in the Regency or any other period, contemporary, romantic suspense, paranormal, futuristic, etc.) typically do have explicit sex to varying degrees. I have found plenty of funny romances in all the sub-genres (with the least in paranormal/futuristic). Some Regency purists posting online seem to think explicit sex spoils a comedy, but I have not found that to be the case. Inappropriate sex (not justified by characters and plot) spoils a book, not explicit sex. I have even read a few books with deliberately (vs. accidentally) funny sex scenes, though I can’t remember any titles to cite at the moment. All of Heyer’s regencies are examples of humor with no explicit sex. Several of Cindy Holbrook’s regencies (A Rake’s Reform, Lord Sayer’s Ghost, The Actress & the Marquis) are examples of excellent humor with very high sexual tension but no explicit sex. Julie Garwood’s The Lion’s Lady and Amanda Quick’s Ravished are examples of historicals set in the Regency period with excellent humor and explicit sex.

So far, I have only found one Web site with a list of funny romance books: Favorite Funnies at AAR. The lists at All About Romance also mention humor within the various categories. If there are other sites or lists devoted to funny romance books and I have just missed them, please let me know the address(es).

I know I am not the only person who looks for humorous romances. I have seen comments from other people on various lists with similar interests. I would like to request that all reviewers of romances mention the humor level in their reviews. A formal scale would be especially helpful, but even a mention in the body of a review would help.

I am including below the 4 and 5 star humor level books from the haphazard list I described earlier.

andersen, susan: baby, i'm yours****

anston, linell: lady elizabeth****

barnett, jill: dreaming****

barnett, jill: wonderful****

barnett, jill: just a kiss away****

blayne, sara: theodora****

bond, stephanie: irresistible?****

bond, stephanie: wife is a 4-letter word****

brockway, connie: my dearest enemy****.5

bryan, beth: a managing female****

buck, gayle: a chance encounter****

carmichael, jeanne: a moment of madness****

carroll, susan: brighton road****

chater, elizabeth: a season for the heart****

chenier, blanche: the wayward heiress****

christenberry, judith: a cowboy at heart****

christenberry, judith: my daddy the duke****

christenberry, judith: wanted: christmas mommy****

clare, cathleen: lord montjoy's country inn****

clark, gail: bachelor's fare****

clark, gail: the right honourable viscount****

collier, leona: change of heart****

crusie, jennifer: anyone but you****

crusie, jennifer: charlie all night****

crusie, jennifer: trust me on this****

crusie, jennifer: what the lady wants****

dalton, emily: beauty and the beastie****

dalton, emily: a heavenly houseguest****

damon, lee: laugh with me, love with me****

darcy, clare ****: elyza****

davis, suzannah: heatcrazed!****

desjardien, teresa: borrowed kisses****

devon, marian: escapade****

devon, marian: miss kendal sets her cap****

dodd, christina: lady in black****

dolan, charlotte louise: three lords for lady anne****

dunn, carola: a lord for miss larkin****

edghill, rosemary: two of a kind****

enoch, suzanne: the black duke's prize****

evanovich, janet *****: back to the bedroom*****

evanovich, janet *****: smitten*****

evanovich, janet *****: wife for hire****

evanovich, janet *****: the rocky road to romance*****

evanovich, janet *****: the grand finale*****

evanovich, janet *****: ivan takes a wife*****

evanovich, janet *****: manhunt****

evanovich, janet *****: naughty neighbor****

evanovich, janet *****: thanksgiving****

garwood, julie *****: the lion's lady*****

garwood, julie *****: the bride****

garwood, julie *****: the secret****

gladstone, maggie: the love duel****

gladstone, maggie: the reluctant debutante****

hendrickson, emily: the rake and the redhead****

heyer, georgette ****: black sheep****

heyer, georgette ****: frederica****

heyer, georgette ****: the grand sophy****

heyer, georgette ****: sprig muslin****

heyer, georgette ****: sylvester (or, the wicked uncle)****

hines, charlotte: the earl's fancy****

holbrook, cindy *****: the actress & the marquis*****

holbrook, cindy *****: the country gentleman****

holbrook, cindy *****: lady megan's masquerade****

holbrook, cindy *****: lord sayer's ghost*****

holbrook, cindy *****: my lady's servant****

holbrook, cindy *****: a rake's reform*****

holbrook, cindy *****: the reluctant bride*****

holder, samantha: miss rowland's resolve****

hooper, kay: pepper's way****

hooper, kay: aces high****

hooper, kay: rebel waltz****

jensen, emma: coup de grace****

jensen, emma: what chloe wants*****

jones, melissa lynn: out of the common way****

joy, dara *****: rejar****

joy, dara *****: high energy*****

keith, vivian: wayward angel****

kerstan, lynn: a spirited affair****

kirkland, martha: the marrying season****

kirkwood, valerie: rent-a-friend****

krentz, jayne ann ***: orchid****

krentz, jayne ann ***: the pirate****

krentz, jayne ann ***: a woman's touch****

lindsey, johanna: gentle rogue****

lindsey, johanna: you belong to me****

lindsey, johanna: man of my dreams****

linz, cathie: too sexy for marriage****

logan, leandra: santa and son****

lovelace, jane: eccentric lady****

lynson, jane *****: the duke's downfall*****

mackeever, maggie: strange bedfellows****

maclay, charlotte: accidental roommates****

martin, michelle *****: the mad miss mathley*****

maxwell, emily: an easter disguise****

mckeone, dixie: daughters four****

mckeone, dixie: the winter picnic****

mcwilliams, judith: in good faith****

mcwilliams, judith: not my baby!****

mcwilliams, judith: polished with love****

metzger, barbara ****: an affair of interest

metzger, barbara ****: christmas wishes

metzger, barbara ****: cupboard kisses

metzger, barbara ****: lady in green

metzger, barbara ****: lady whilton's wedding

metzger, barbara ****: a loyal companion

metzger, barbara ****: minor indiscretions

metzger, barbara ****: miss lockharte's letters

metzger, barbara ****: my lady innkeeper

metzger, barbara ****: a suspicious affair

michaels, kasey: the tenacious miss tamerlane*****

michaels, kasey: indiscreet****

michaels, kasey: sydney's folly****

michaels, kasey: to marry at christmas****

nelson, judith *****: beau guest****

nelson, judith *****: julianna****

nelson, judith *****: kidnap confusion****

nelson, judith *****: the merry chase*****

nelson, judith *****: patience is a virtue*****

nelson, judith *****: two hearts trump****

northan, irene: the marriage brokers****

paisley, rebecca: a basket of wishes****

paisley, rebecca: heartstrings****.5

paisley, rebecca: midnight and magnolias****

paisley, rebecca: moonlight and magic****.5

peters, clarice: samantha****

phillips, susan elizabeth: nobody's baby but mine*****

phillips, susan elizabeth: it had to be you****

porter, cheryl anne: the great escape****

proctor, carol: the drawing master's dilemma****

quick, amanda *****: deception****

quick, amanda *****: ravished*****

quinn, julia: brighter than the sun*****

randolph, ellen: the rushden legacy****

raye, kimberly: gettin' lucky****

reece, jean *****: the primrose path*****

roberts, meg-lynn: love's gambit****

ross, joann: i do, i do...for now****

sebastian, margaret: the young lady from alton-st. pancras****

simmons, deborah: the vicar's daughter****.5

smith, joan: an infamous proposal****

smith, joan: kissing cousins****

tetel, julie: the temporary bride****

thompson, vicki lewis: going overboard****

thompson, vicki lewis: one mom too many****

thompson, vicki lewis: operation gigolo*****

tucker, bonnie: hannah's hunks*****

woodbury, leonora: game of hearts****

woodbury, leonora: the runaway countess****

anthologies: regency quartet****

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