If you ever want to know what was going on in Simon Rich’s life during any given few-year span, pick up whatever he was writing at the time.

“All the stories I write are very autobiographical, which people are sometimes surprised about because the stories tend to be about subjects like robots and pirates and time-traveling aliens,” he tells Mental Floss. “I just try to find the most entertaining metaphors I can to kind of dramatize the actual, boring, real-life experience that I’m going through.”

The former Saturday Night Live writer has spent the last 15 years or so translating everyone’s favorite drudgery mantra, Life is hard, into something more like this: Life is hard, but it can also be pretty funny, especially if you toss in a monster or a misguided Bible figure. Rich has also adapted a number of his works for the screen, including the Seth Rogen-starring 2020 film An American Pickle (based on the novella Sell Out), and TBS's Daniel Radcliffe-starring anthology series Miracle Workers (whose first season was based on the novel What in God's Name, and whose second season grew from the story “Revolution”).

In his latest short story collection, New Teeth, Rich focuses on the many relatable troubles and triumphs of parenting and family life at large. There are pirates trying to co-parent a stowaway; a hulking human-ape hybrid navigating work-life balance after getting shunted from alien defense to middle management; an adult woman struggling with resentment toward her less-than-perfect adoptive parents (wolves); and so on.

The protagonists are often clueless to an endearing degree, which, true to his autobiographical tendencies, reflects how Rich feels about our “very confusing, baffling, disorienting” world. “I’ve always felt a lot of empathy for characters that know less than the reader, and I’ve always identified with those characters personally more than I’ve identified with smart characters,” he explains. “When I’m going through my day-to-day life, I feel much closer to Homer Simpson than I do to Chandler from Friends.”

Unwitting though his characters may be, the process of creating them is almost clinically intentional. “I’m a cards-on-a-corkboard kind of guy,” he says. “I think if anybody saw the steps before the writing of the story they would be like, ‘Whoever wrote this is extremely boring and a nerd.’ It’s a lot of color-coding.”

Rich’s natural assiduousness is apparent in his own reading habits, too. He appreciates everything from Henry James to Stephen King—and, of course, plenty of comedy. Read on to find out which funny and satirical works are mainstays in Rich’s personal library (which is also color-coded).

These entries have been edited for clarity.

1. The Road to Wellville // T.C. Boyle

Penguin Books/Amazon

“One of my biggest writing heroes is T.C. Boyle ... [N]ot everything he writes is technically funny—he writes in a wide array of genres, ranging from sweeping epics to contained domestic fiction—but when he wants to be funny and satirical, he really pulls it off. His funniest novel in my opinion is The Road to Wellville, which is a satire of early 20th-century health fanatics, and it has one of the funniest antagonists in all of his books: a maniac in charge of a health spa. Boyle is somebody who manages to really ground you in reality even when he’s transporting you to a very strange place.”

Buy it: Amazon

2. The Magic Christian // Terry Southern
Grove Press/Amazon

“This is a popular choice among comedy writers, but I have to say it anyway: The Magic Christian by Terry Southern. It’s about a billionaire who uses his money to pull pranks to entertain himself, and there’s very little story. It really, truly is just constructed as a list of pranks that he’s pulled on people. And it’s hilarious. Uncompromisingly funny. I’m a big Terry Southern fan.”

Buy it: Amazon

3. Being There // Jerzy Kosinski

Grove Press/Amazon

“This book is about a gardener who has never left his estate where he works, and then through circumstances, he’s forced to enter society after a lifetime of living entirely in this bubble. Because he’s a good-looking, well-spoken, clean-shaven guy, he starts getting increasingly powerful in society, despite the fact that he has no awareness of what is happening and no knowledge or skills pertaining to anything outside of gardening. Everyone interprets everything he says about gardening as a grand metaphor for society, and he basically just climbs the ranks, despite being completely ignorant and naive in every conceivable way.”

Buy it: Amazon

4. Ripley Under Ground // Patricia Highsmith

W.W. Norton & Company/Amazon

“Muriel Spark and Patricia Highsmith—I’d put them in a similar category because they’re so cruel in their satire that it almost becomes horror. I actually think the Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith are really funny. There are elements of dark satire in all of them, even though they’re technically capers. One’s about art fraud [Ripley Under Ground]. It’s about a fraudulent painter and it’s still a crime novel, but there are great elements of satire.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Et Tu, Babe // Mark Leyner

Vintage Books/Amazon

“Mark Leyner writes a lot about a character named Mark Leyner, who’s a megalomaniacal writer. One of my favorite scenes is from Et Tu, Babe: He teaches creative writing classes, and if anybody turns in a story that is good, he gets to work destroying that person so that the story can never be published and he can retain his dominance over the literary world.”

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature // Neal Pollack

Harper Perennial/Amazon

“It’s basically a series of fake journalistic pieces written over the course of the last century. The conceit is that Neal Pollack is a globe-trotting, super award-winning journalist who has access to every important thing that ever happened and these are his writings. And it’s just a great parody of the form.”

Buy it: Amazon

7. How I Conquered Your Planet // John Swartzwelder

Kennydale Books/Amazon

“Another one is How I Conquered Your Planet by John Swartzwelder—he’s a legendary Simpsons writer. His characters often are extremely ignorant in a way I try to emulate to the best of my ability. He’s got a series about a detective named Frank Burly, who is constantly trying to make sense of the world around him and getting nowhere. And that was a big inspiration for the short story in this collection 'The Big Nap,' where I’ve gone a step further and made a detective character a literal baby who truly knows nothing. That’s a bit of a Swartzwelder homage, that story.”

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8. The Magic Kingdom // Stanley Elkin

Dalkey Archive Press/Amazon

“Stanley Elkin is so funny. I think the funniest Stanley Elkin novel I’ve ever read is called The Magic Kingdom, and it’s about a group of terminally ill children who go on a trip to Disneyland. It’s not as cynical as it sounds, but it’s close.”

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9. The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle Treasury // Betty MacDonald

HarperCollins/Amazon

“These are children’s books, but they’re so good ... I absolutely love the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, they’re hilarious. And The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle Treasury is what I have, which is a massive collection of them. I thought those stories were just fantastic.”

Buy it: Amazon