Review of "Humour Books" for Independent on Sunday, published / by Rich Hobbs

In the nine long, long years I’ve been writing an annual review of the season’s

"humourous" books you may have noticed a general underlying theme

emerging. Although if you have, it implies you remember my scroogish

grousings from year to year; you may, indeed, cut them out, paste them down

in a scrapbook, then index and catalogue them under F for funny in your vast

cuttings library contained in cardboard boxes beneath your bed.

In which case, then you’ll love The Simpsons Beyond Forever , edited by Jesse

L. McCann (HarperCollinsEntertainment, £9.99), The World of Edward Gorey

by Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin (Abrams, No UK Price) and The Carry On

Companion by Robert Ross with a foreword (foreworded is forewarned) by

Phil Collins (Batsford £12.99). These books, put bluntly, are for people who

like lists and cataloguing their bogies, and for whom everything about being

alive, including laughter, is so terrifying that the closest you can safely come

to it is to stick just to understanding the context. But anyone who needs to

know that Rod Keys was the film editor on Carry Ons Cowboy, Don’t Lose

Your Head and Screaming will never quite realise why Kenneth Williams

crying "Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it Infamy!" in Carry On Cleo is one of

the sublimest moments in British cinema. Likewise, The Simpsons is the

funniest, best written programme on TV, and I don’t need some nerd pointing

out the best bits in every episode in Seasons 11 and 12. But maybe you do, and

I suppose these "paralax" humour books serve a function, although with a

morbid surrealist like Edward Gorey the very last thing you want or need is an


Other obsessives can now buy Tragically I Was An Only Twin: The Complete

Peter Cook, edited by William Cook (Century, £17.99), which will have to do

you until next year, when they’ll be selling his DNA in sachets so you can

recreate the man himself and have him pissed as a fart saying "cunt" in the

corner of your living room.

Anyway, as I was saying, my perennial theme has been a despair at all those

publishers who, seeking to transcend the differences between media to make a

quick buck, merely transgress. Thus all those bloody awful TV tie-in books.

This year’s chief culprit is Marvellous, Isn’t It? by "Ron Manager" (Headline,

£14.99, and actually Jim Reilly and Paul Whitehouse). As Whitehouse has

been told by Johnny Depp that he’s the funniest man in the world (now Cook

is dust), he presumably thinks he can get away with dross like this. The

tragedy is that he probably can.

Talking of dross, I hope by now most people have forgotten "Celeb", a lame

Harry Enfield vehicle on BBC1 earlier this year, in which Whitehouse’s old

mucker revealed just how washed up he now is. Which is sad. Even sadder is

that Celeb by Charles Peattie and Mark Warren (Masterly Publishing, £9.99),

an anthology of the original Private Eye strip, might be tainted by association

with its TV adaptation. Like Peattie’s other cartoon strip "Alex" (The Best of

Alex 2002, scripted by Russell Taylor, Masterly Publishing £9.99), "Celeb"

consistently brings the four frame gag cartoon strip to a level of near

perfection, so why did it stink up the telly screen? Don’t immediately blame

the corrupting influence of the magic rectangle itself: after all, Ron Manager’s

quite funny on TV, unlike in print. It’s simple. It’s because the natural karmic

divisions between media have been broken and transgressed. [stet itals]

I don’t want to get too voodoo here, but there’s a third instance, which in

many ways is the saddest of all. Ralph Steadman is the most original and

inventive British graphic artist of the 20th century. His books on Freud,

Leonardo and God remain the best of their kind it’s likely there will ever be.

Why, then - dear God, why - has he written DooDaaa: The Balletic Art of

Gavin Twinge; a Triography (Bloomsbury £20.00)? Essentially, this is a

multilayered conceit, but the consequent impenetrability of the conceited

layers in already obvious from the title: the idea is that Steadman gets a bloke

called Raphael Stead (are you following the gag here?) to write about a

whacky and zany artist called Gavin Twinge (pronounced "Twange"). There’s

lots and lots and lots of (usually just plain dippy) stuff about ART (with

mentions of the "Weightchapel Gallery" and "Tite Britain", geddit?) and drink

and being whacky and zany and arty and manic, and about 5 pages in I was

screaming at the bludgeoningly unreadable madness of it all. If only Steadman

had realised that his (often rather wonderful) brand of manic rage can’t cross

the media barrier into text, and had given us his graphic biography (or

triography); if only he’d listened to what Hunter Thompson is quoted saying

on the dust jacket: "Don’t write, Ralph - you’ll bring shame on your family".

Shameless might be a word to describe Simon Bond and Howard Marks’ 101

Uses of a Dead Roach (Arrow, £5.99). This has a flimsy cardboard cover

which, while a bit too stiff for a roach, will be perfect for the beermug method.

I suspect you’d have to be stoned to find this remotely funny or, indeed,

produce it.

Neither Ronald Searle (Ronald Searle in Le Monde, University of Chicago

Press, No UK price), Mac (MAC 2002: Cartoons from The Daily Mail, Robson

Books, £5.99) nor the unarguably cool Peter Brookes (Peter Brookes of The

Times, Little Brown, £14.99), all in their different ways masters of their art,

require external stimuli, I suspect. Also worth looking at is The Embarrassing

Parents by Victoria Mather and Sue Macartney-Snape [stet] (John Murray,

£9.99): as a cartoonist Macartney-Snape is up there with Posy Simmonds and

Nicolas Bentley in being able to capture an entire social class with a

fractionally raised right eyebrow. There’s also, as always, the highly

dependable Spectator Cartoon Book, edited by Michael Heath (Profile Books,


Cartoons apart, the best books I’ve been sent this year have very little in

common. Indeed, Frederick Crews’ Postmodern Pooh (Profile, £9.99) is like

nothing except its predecessor 40 years ago, The Pooh Perplex. As in that

book, Crews brilliantly harpoons the advocates of the latest schools of literary

theory. However, if gags about Post-deconstruction aren’t your bag, try Ian

West and Steve Gladdis’s refreshingly ludicrous and boneheaded How to Play

Air Guitar (Chrysalis, £6.99) which comes with its own inflatable guitar.

Equally silly is Charlie Brooker’s Unnovations (4th Estate, £6.99), a spoof

Innovations Catalogue which had me and my teenage children helpless with

laughter at its mixture of foul-language and deeply sick and frankly deranged

ideas, like the "Kissmammal 2000"... Alas, as this is a family newspaper I can

say no more, apart from "buy this book". And finally, tony and me by georg

bush [stet] (by James Parsons, Scribner, £9.99) which purports to be the results

of President Bush’s "Crayon Therapy" under the care of Washington

psychiatrist Dr Parsons, revealing a fascinating insight into the presidential

psyche. It’s a pretty obvious gag, but as any self respecting humourist knows,

you always go for the obvious gag first. In this case, Parsons has produced a

simple, highly effective and also very funny little visual satirical masterpiece.