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

Many years ago I read an Isaac Asimov short story in which a vast computer

(and as this was the 1950s, it was the size of Montana) was programmed to

uncover the mysteries behind human beings’ capacity for laughter. After many

months of grinding away, it finally revealed that our species’ sense of humour

was actually part of a massive controlled experiment by aliens, which, once

exposed, was immediately abandoned, and no one ever laughed again. [stet


I mention this for two reasons. First, looking at some of this year’s batch of

"humour" books I felt pretty much the same way. But more significantly, it

points up a quality of humour which we ignore at our peril. Humour is a

fragile thing and cannot endure careless handling. Analyse it, explain it, or

worse still venerate it and you kill the whole thing stone cold dead.

None of which has prevented Orion bringing out The Pythons Autobiography

by The Pythons, a monstrous behemoth of a book retailing for 30 pounds and

weighing not much less, avoirdupois. On the 30th anniversary of "Monty

Python’s Flying Circus" in 1999, I wrote in these pages how Python had

graduated beyond being a cult in the conventional sense to being something

more like a religion, not least because it offered the chance of salvation to

sinners who had no sense of humour but who could attain a kind of grace

through endless repetition (like the catechism) of the Dead Parrot sketch, so

that other people might think they were funny after all. The trouble is, as I

realised when I watched "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" again the other

night, Python itself just isn’t funny any more, and becomes even less so when

you tear aside the veil of the temple and let Cleese, Idle, Palin and co ramble

on about how they met at The Footlights, had a row on location doing "Grail",

bitched about each other all the time and really rather disliked the late Graham

Chapman for being a pissed up old poof. Not only didn’t I laugh, but I

finished the book feeling thoroughly depressed. Then again, maybe that’s the

point. Given its dimensions, this book is probably intended to chained like a

bible in cheese shops, the better to uplift the devoted.

The other explanation for it is publishers’ indestructible belief in (financial)

salvation through faith (in TV). Thus Alan Partridge: Every Ruddy Word

(Penguin/Michael Joseph, £16.99), an unreadable collection of all the scripts

ever broadcast featuring Steve Coogan’s cringe-worthy alter ego. As I’ve

often said, in the absence of braile editions, books of collected TV scripts only

make sense if we imagine that we’re in immanent danger of the Earth letting

of some enormous electro-magnetic fart which will wipe clean every last

videotape or DVD, and the scripts will all we’ll be left with. Until then,

there’s no point, except for obsessives.

The only exception to this rule proves the point. Methuen has reissued The

Dagenham Dialogues (£6.99), from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s 60s TV

show "Not Only... But Also", which first came out in 1971. By that time most

of the original tapes had already been recorded over by the BBC, who then

maintained a policy which evinced a healthy contempt for venerating their

heritage. Indeed, it’s said that their recording of the 1969 moon landing was

wiped when they taped the 1970 European Cup Final over it. So this really is

your only opportunity to savour Pete and Dud in their prime before the

Tourette’s set in.

Nowadays, of course, TV isn’t the only other medium cravenly pillaged by

idle publishers after another quick buck. The internet is a seething cauldron of

dross, ripe for being repackaged, and although I forgive the book editions of

The Onion Ad Nauseum (Vol 14) (Boxtree £12.99) and Historic Framley (Penguin £12.99), both spoof

newspapers which appear on the internet and, in a third degree of separation,

are now books, this is because they are at least funny. Unlike Wearing of this

Garment does not enable you to fly... And Other Really Dumb Warnings and

You May Not Tie an Alligator to a Fire Hydrant...And Other Really Dumb

Laws (both Simon and Schuster, £8.99), from a website set up Jeff Koon and

Andy Powell which has, I’m sure, received millions of hits from bored geeks

surfing for porn. Just looking at the cheesy mugshots of these high school

nerds on the dust jacket, I too wanted to give them millions of hits, but not like


Luckily help is at hand when confronted with mindless drivel like this, in the

form of Talking Dirty: 5000 Slang Expressions for Every Occasion (Cassell,

£6.99) compiled by Jonathon Green, that Dr Johnson of the Demotic. So,

when confronted with the nerds’ books stating the bleedin’ obvious, just turn

to the relevant section and scream "Are the Kennedy’s gun-shy?" or "Do

beavers piss on flat rocks?" in addition to all the phrases you’re already

familiar with. And then you can turn to the pages and pages of expressions for

masturbation, including "double-clicking your mouse" (don’t ask).

A felicitous phrase I coined in an argument with my 15 year old son a few

weeks ago, which I trust will appear in the next edition, was "If shit were

sherbert you’d put Barrett’s out of business!" Please feel free to use this when

considering Michael Gerber’s Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel

(Gollancz, £6.99), A.R.R.R. Roberts’ The Soddit, or, Let’s Cash In Again

(Gollancz, £6.99), Charlie Hamilton James’ The Matewix (HarperCollins,

£6.99) and Shite’s Unoriginal Miscellany by A.Parody (Michael O’Mara,

£9.99). It’s not that I’ve anything against parody, or that the targets here don’t

deserve it, it’s just the soulless contrivance of it all which made my heart sink

deeper and deeper with every book. Nor was it lifted by The Wicked Wit of

John F. Kennedy, compiled by Christina Koning (Michael O’Mara, £9.99), a

respectful and drearily dull tribute to the womanising warmonger 40 years

after his assassination (see above), and which noticeably does not contain the

line "Increased security? I need that like a hole in the head!"

This is all getting too depressing for words, so let’s quickly belt back to Pete

‘n’ Dud’s book, and turn to the Art Gallery sketch, which contains one of my

favourite ever gags.

PETE: Have you seen that bloody Leonardo Da Vinci cartoon? ... I couldn’t

see the bloody joke.

DUD: Well, of course, you know, Pete, people’s sense of humour must have

changed over the years... I bet, when that Da Vinci cartoon first come out, I

bet people were killing themselves. I bet old Da Vinci had an accident when

he drew it.

Indeed, indeed, and on to this year’s crop of cartoon books. Steve Bell’s

Unspeakable If... (Methuen, £10.99), Peattie and Taylor’s The Best of Alex

2003 (Masterley, £9.99) and The Best of Matt, Matt’s Town and Country and

Matt’s Modern Times (all Orion, £4.99) are all essential compilations by

Britain’s top newspaper cartoonists, and actually read much better when

presented together and sequentially in book form. Also well worth buying are

Both by Tom Gauld and Simone Lia (Bloomsbury £7.99), a wonderfully

quirky and very funny collection in the traditions of Edward Gorey and

Stephen Appleby; the hilariously and inventively sick Book of Bunny Suicides

by Andy Riley (Hodder and Stoughton, £7.99), which effortlessly manages to

overcome the kiss-of-death jacket encomia from David Baddiel and Paul

Whitehouse; and "Get Your War On" by David Rees (Serpent’s Tail, £9.99)

which, again from the internet, is a refreshingly foulmouthed take on the

absurdities of America’s War on Terror (and, for good measure, Iraq as well).

Why, the royalties are even being donated to clear minefields, so you can

laugh with heartless glee without endangering your liberal conscience.

But best of all is a book which owes nothing to TV or the internet or

newspapers, but is entirely a book and nothing else. Christopher Matthew’s

Now We Are Sixty (And a Bit) (John Murray, £9.99) is the follow-up to his

previous volume of geriatric parodies of A.A.Milne, Now We Are Sixty, and as

I said when that book appeared, it’s the kind of wise, perceptive, moving and

very funny stuff you used to get in Punch in the 50s before we all started

worshipping the Holy Python in its sacred telly tabernacle. And it’s all the

better for that.