Columns > Published on June 27th, 2016

John Swartzwelder Is The Funniest Writer You're Not Reading


As my exciting story opens, I am being punched in the stomach.

And thus begins the career of Frank Burly, and thus begins The Time-Traveling Detective, the first novel by John Swartzwelder.

True Simpsons nerds will probably recognize the name John Swartzwelder. Swartzwelder is credited as having written more episodes of The Simpsons than any other individual, 59 in total, beginning with season 1's "Bart the General" and ending with season 15's "The Regina Monologues."

But when it comes to humor, it's not just about quantity. It's about quality.

Swartzwelder didn't just write a lot of Simpsons episodes. He wrote the best ones. Just in case you don't believe me, a brief list of Swartzwelder-penned episodes (with quotes):

"Itchy & Scratchy Land": Attention, Marge Simpson, we have also arrested your older, balder, fatter son.

"Homer The Great": Why won't those stupid idiots let me in their crappy club for jerks?

"Radioactive Man": My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

"Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment": To alcohol! The cause of... and solution to... all of life's problems.

"Homer To The Max": Nobody snuggles with Max Power, Marge. You strap yourself in and feel the G's.

The more you look into it, the more difficult it becomes to separate Swartzwelder from the core of what made The Simpsons great during the period when the show was at its greatest. Hobos, carnies, the Prohibition era, and basically, anything old-timey—all of these are Swartzweldian touches, and all of them are deep in The Simpsons' DNA.

And yet, for all he's given the world, there's not much information out there regarding the man himself. Other than one story that surfaces time and again. It goes like this:

Swartzwelder was eventually allowed to write The Simpsons away from the office, an unusual setup which was accommodated partly because his scripts came in so close to finished, partly because Swartzwelder insisted on chain smoking. Swartzwelder took to working in a diner booth until a smoking ban was passed in California, at which point Swartzwelder purchased his favorite booth and had it installed in his home.

Since leaving The Simpsons behind, it would seem Swartzwelder has been putting that diner booth to good use, writing over a dozen novels, many of which feature slow-witted detective Frank Burly.

Now, these novels are pretty atypical. Wikipedia calls them "absurdist." I call them fucking bonkers.

Frankly, Swartzwelder writes the funniest books I've read in a long, long time. It's my opinion that John Swartzwelder is the funniest working writer today. I know humor is subjective, and Swartzwelder's jokes aren't for everyone. And hey, you know what else isn't for everyone? Being right about comedy.

But that's enough from me. Here are some of my favorite Swartzwelder passages pulled from his many books.


Let's start with this bizarre, stupid chapter opening:

I didn't have to go far to realize this was no ordinary money cave.

How about this bit on the rigors of police work:

There are all sorts of "procedures" you have to follow before you can actually start blasting anybody. A whole long checklist you have to go through. You don't have to actually get your victim to sign anything before he can be shot; it hasn't gotten that bad yet, but it's getting there. And after you've gone through all your "procedures", and finally gotten to fire off your gun, then there are all sorts of "reports" you have to fill out, and "hearings" you have to attend and "trials" you have to sit through, and defend what you did, even though you can't remember half of what happened now, because you were in a kind of frenzy when you did it, and there was a kind of red mist in front of your eyes, with everybody yelling "He's gone crazy!" and "Somebody take his gun away from him!" and "He's shot the Postmaster!", while you're blasting away in all directions. You have to justify every single thing you did, from the time you started firing to the time you said: "Where am I?" It adds up to an incredible amount of paperwork. And that's if you shot the right guy.

On sleep (take that, Arianna Huffington):

I was sleeping like a baby — waking up every three hours screaming and crapping my pants.

On business:

I told my co-workers: "What we need around here, is somebody with common sense. Right now, all we've got are people who know what they're doing."

On talking to a superior:

I entered the Chief's office, my excuses all lined up and ready (worst excuse first; that's the way to do it)...

Presented for your enjoyment, a Swartzwelder history of the United States:

In 1776 a small group of super-intelligent visionaries—some say they were visitors from space, others say that they just lived around here—created a perpetual Federal Union of the original thirteen colonies—a perpetual Union which lasted for 13 years. Then, when that fell apart, they met again in 1789, with a little less enthusiasm this time, but with the same super-intelligent vision, to create another, more perfect, Union, which lasted for almost 72 years before it blew itself in half, killing a large percentage of us. The buildings we are passing now are lasting symbols of our perfect Union #3--lucky number 3.

On the difficulties of holding onto an arrested suspect while time traveling:

Unfortunately, he got away from me in 1912 when I had to let go of him for a second so I could scratch my ass with both hands. 

On Respectfully Disagreeing:

"That's not the way it happened, asshole," I said, gently correcting him.

On more challenges of police work:

After the chief inspector had arrived and listened to my story, he asked me where the item was that these men were supposed to have stolen. I said that in all the excitement I had forgotten it. It was probably on the sidewalk somewhere, maybe in the Uptown area. Then he asked what proof I had that these two men had ever stolen anything from anybody. I said I didn't need any proof. He said the police department did. I said well that's the police department's problem, isn't it? And he said yes, that has always been a big problem for the police department.

On violence:

Fortunately, most people aren't cops, so my mask wasn't really any of their business, and I told them so, in no uncertain terms. Never mind my mask, I told them. Be on your way. Unless you want a mask up your ass. Or a mask sandwich. Or some other kind of sudden violence involving a mask and you.

On car chases:

...my pursuers thought they'd be able to run down a lumbering truck in no time with their jet-powered police cars, flying motorcycles, and double helicopters. But if you've got a lead foot like I've got and if you don't care about red lights or whether you stay on the road or not, you can outrun just about anything.

So the chase kept on going all over town, with me pushing my truck for all it was worth, and barreling around corners on eight wheels, with the cops following me on two, and yelling at me over their bullhorns to stop. But I don't think they really wanted me to stop—at least not right away. This was way too much fun for them. This was what they had become cops for. I could hear them giggling over their bullhorns and telling each other how great this was. And it was great, too. (I wish somebody had been filming that chase. Me and the cops could have shared a cool million dollars, if the producers of the film didn't screw us out of our shares, which they probably would, now that I think about it. Thieving bastards.)

About halfway through the chase I temporarily lost my pursuers by cleverly rolling end over end down a hillside when they thought I was going to stupidly stay on the road.

And one of my favorite scenes, after traveling through time, an attempt is made to sink the Titanic in order to win a $100,000 bet. This is a long one, but totally worth it:

Once the betting slip was safely in my pocket there was nothing for me to do but sit back and relax and wait for the boat to start sinking and the money to start rolling in. The only problem was I couldn't remember what exactly had caused the Titanic to sink in the history books. And the farther we steamed across the Atlantic without incident the antsier I got about it. The Titanic was supposed to run into something, I remembered, but what? Could we have already missed it somehow, whatever it was? Maybe my arrival here from the future without a ticket had altered history enough to cause us to miss it. So not only would I lose my bet, it would be all my fault, too. The more I thought about this possibility the antsier I got. With $100,000 at stake I couldn't afford to get this wrong.

I finally decided the best thing to do was to just start running the boat into everything. Then we'd be sure to hit it, whatever it was. Of course I'd have to clear my idea with the captain first. Fortunately, he and his employers were just as anxious to get this bet over with and start spending their winnings as I was, so after a quick phone call to them he said okay, sport, let's go.

At my direction, we began running the ship into reefs and rocks and every other navigational hazard we could find. We rammed into lighthouses, backed over fishing boats, and drove up on beaches and knocked over those lifeguard things.

Everything we hit was either severely damaged or destroyed, but the Titanic steamed away without a scratch every time. I knew it was waterproof, but now I was finding out that it was unbreakable too. The captain said that all of the parts that went into building it were just too big to break, that's why. How do you sink something like that? What a ship.

I insisted we keep trying, at least for awhile. For $100,000 I figured I should get at least 100 crashes, maybe 100,000. The captain didn't mind. He was supremely confident in his ship. Plus, he'd never had so much fun in his life. He said he wished he'd met me before.

But after we had wrecked a coastal town in France and one of our passengers had shot Teddy Roosevelt and we found ourselves hiding in fogbanks and telling all the passengers to keep their voices down for God's sake, as police boats patrolled slowly back and forth within 100 yards of us, and we could clearly see the cops looking at a wanted poster with a drawing of our boat on it showing me and the captain on the deck jumping with excitement, we realized that maybe we'd gone a little too far with all this.

Finally, the phrase that's currently a frontrunner for my tombstone:

When I'm trying to be funny, you'll know it. Because you'll be laughing your ass off.


A good percentage of these quotes were pulled from the three titles listed below, but you can find all Swartzwelder's books here. Also, if you're a signed copy person, here.

I'm open to debate. Who are you putting out there as the funniest working writer? Prove it, smartypants, if your pants are so smart. Comment with a quote.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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