The Most Underrated McSweeney’s Humor Pieces of All Time

I love the short, conceptual humor piece: A 300–800 word article of funny writing that exists for no other reason than to be read and cause laughter. McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is, arguably, the best purveyor of the genre. Since the late 1990s, McSweeney’s has published writing for people who appreciate an intellectual and literary slant to their humor, dashed with liberal amounts of silliness — the perfect mix.

Happily, I’ve published several things in McSweeney’s, which is great because I’m such a fan of what they do.

With all due respect to McSweeney’s most popular pieces, today I celebrate not the pieces that went viral but rather the ones that should have.

If I were dictator of the internet, these pieces would get one billion views each. So, here they are: a dozen underrated McSweeney’s pieces that I just love.

1. A Professor’s Opening Lecture for “Intermediate Killer Shark Genre” by Sam O’Brien

The unhinged professor who specializes in shark cinema is pitch-perfect in this hilarious gem by Sam O’Brien. I can also picture this piece as a live, comedic sketch — but then why mess with perfection?

2. Welcome To Hoodwink, The Advertising Agency That Is Not An Advertising Agency by Katie Brinkworth

From tumor rats to giant hair piles, each sentence carries delightful little surprises. This piece is one reason Katie Brinkworth is one of my favorite writers on McSweeney’s.

3. Failed Role-Playing Scenarios by Wendy Molyneux

A premise so ingenious it makes me slap my forehead for not thinking of it myself.

4. Henry David Thoreau Can’t Take Much More of These Goddamn Steam Whistles by Coleman Larkin

Sometimes a piece of satire makes a completely necessary point — grouchy Luddites always complain that the world is changing too fast — and makes it in the most enchanting way: by having Henry David Thoreau rant about steam whistles.

5. “Liquor Before Beer?” The Ultimate Drinking Cheatsheet by Sam Weiner

Sam Weiner turns the classic “beer before liquor” saying into a crazy list of drinking aphorisms, complete with a mini-narrative about a senator named Jerry. A 100% perfect, wouldn’t-change-a-damn-thing list.

6. My Hobbies by Ellie Kemper

A beautiful example of how a short piece can explore a loveably absurd character rather than a super-specific gamey comedic premise.

7. My Lies, Translated by River Clegg

River Clegg spins social anxiety into comedy gold. I think it’s a mark of a smart piece that the narrator here is sympathetic and disarmingly relatable despite being borderline misanthropic.

8. It Was I Who Flipped Over the Risk Board Last Night by Colin Nissan

The narrator’s frustration with his over-zealous, board-gaming roommate is a masterclass in taking something that basically doesn’t matter in the real world (a game of Risk) and heightening it to hilarity.

9. Here Are All The Ways I Could Have Died Today by Seth Reiss

This piece is just what it sounds like: Seth Reiss imagines various ways he could have died.

I’ve read this one out loud to numerous friends, dates, and acquaintances, just to see how they react. You could call it my litmus test for a great (i.e. fucked-up) sense of humor.

10. Five Beautiful Dead Bodies Every Actress Dreams of Playing by Erica Lies

Like many great humor pieces, this one takes something seemingly niche and offbeat — unknown actresses playing dead bodies in films — and turns it into great satire.

11. A Hypnotized Person Tries To Have Sex With a Chair by Chris Okum

I’m not going to describe this gloriously weird monologue by Chris Okum. Just read it. Then read his other pieces. Then contact Chris Okum on my behalf and tell him to write more stuff.

12. I Am A New Meme by Dan Dillabough

How do you give a voice to an abstract cultural phenomenon like a meme? Dan Dillabough’s piece nails it, feeling both grand in scope but also diving perfectly into the zany subcultures where internet memes do their thing.

Alex Baia contributes to McSweeney’s and runs Hyoom.com where he publishes humor, essays, and interviews with amazing writers.

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Humor writer, book junkie, optimist. Words in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, Slackjaw. I’ll send you some treasure: hyoom.com/newsletter

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