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

It’s in the nature of publishing to plan ahead, after a fashion, and this is truer

with so-called humour books than in almost any other area of the trade. After

all, all those TV tie-in paste-up jobs knocked together in the design

department take time, and then you’ve got to get the damn thing printed by

tiny Chinese slave children to make sure the product’s in the shops in time for

Christmas - in other words, by late July. So the accountants who commission

the books can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee the horrors to come,

between delivery and Christmas. Thus, in 1997 and 2001, neither the Death of

Diana nor 911 were addressed in those years’ humour books. Indeed, after

both tragedies many people opined (admittedly rather prematurely) that we

would "never laugh again". Fat chance, because although the line "laughter is

the best the medicine" is a cliche, it’s a cliche because it’s true.

And this year’s no different. None of the books under review foresaw

the Global Economic meltdown, although, if you factor in things like irony

and schadenfreude, the latest Collapse of Capitalism is one of the funnier

catastrophes to have overwhelmed humankind in recent years. So, there’s no

"101 Things To Do With An Unemployed Hedge Fund Manager", which is a

shame, and by next year, one way or another, it’ll probably be too late. True,

there is a mordantly miserablist cartoon book in the shops at the moment, but

as it’s by me I don’t suppose I should review it. That said, if you like to track

the changing trends in humour books, this year is marked by a near total

absence of the previously popular strand of "Everything is Shit" kind of book,

bemoaning the miseries of Modern Life. The closest books to that lamentable

genre are "Have a Nice Day! How Modern Life Drives You Mad" by Adam

Dant (Redstone Press, no price) and "My Godawful Life" by "Sunny

McCreary" (Boxtree, £6.99). Dant’s book is a series of cartoons where the

reader, in accordance with Harvard Professor Saul Rosenzweig’s

psychological test to measure latent aggression, is supposed to fill in the

punchlines in response to mildly irritating social encounters. That seems like a

bit of cheat to me, making the reader provide the gags. And though "My

Godawful Life" is an occasionally wonderfully gothic pastiche of misery

memoirs, this is one of those areas where the original will always outstrip any

possible parody.

Then again, if you feel like compounding your misery, just glance (but

don’t read - you can’t) at "Gavin and Stacey: From Barry to Billericay"

(HarperCollins, £17.99) and "The Mighty Book of Boosh" (Canongate, no

price). For fifteen long and fruitless years I’ve been insisting in this annual

round-up that books aren’t TV sets, and books of TV programmes just don’t

work. But it’s especially depressing that the creators of the two most

consistently funny and inventive recent TV comedies should have been

seduced into further encumbering the world with books that aren’t books, just

random and essentially meaningless aides memoire or souvenirs of the

originals produced, untranslatably, in a different medium.

Enough carping, and let’s get onto something that might actually

succeed in making you laugh. Funnily enough, if you’ve still got any money

left at all, you could do a lot worse than "The Best of Punch Cartoons" (Prion,

£30), a handsome and weighty tome featuring 2000 cartoons stretching over

the 160 years of Punch’s existence. Some of them, of course, haven’t survived

the various tests of time, but it’s surprising how many have. One cartoon that

hasn’t, from 1848, with a caption 140 words long, but in mitigation both

cartoon and caption are by William Makepeace Thackeray. Less prolix, but

more likely to give you seizures, is "Where’s Bin Laden?" by Daniel Lalic

(New Holland, £4.99), an exuberantly manic "Where’s Wally" parody which

comes with a free magnifying glass. One can only be grateful for that kind of

generosity in these troubled times, and for a book which is also an absorbing

party game. The same can be said for "My Gonads Roar: The Twisted World

of Anagrams" by Richard Napier (Faber and Faber, £9.99) which, like

"Where’s Bin Laden", is a simple idea admirably beaten to within an inch of

its life. It also made me laugh out loud. So did the equally simple and equally

funny idea behind "Venn That Tune" by Andrew Viner (Hodder, £9.99),

which renders great pop songs through the magic of mathematics, so one of

the Hollies’ greatest hits becomes three intersecting circles labelled "Males",

"Things that are heavy" and "My siblings", with a shaded intersection between

the first and last sets. As with the anagrams book, this is something you can

easily do at home, and believe me when I tell you that home entertainment is

in for a big come back.

If you still harbour greater ambitions, then try "A Book For People

Who Want To Become Stinking Rich But Aren’t Quite Sure How" (Boxtree,

£9.99) from the people who brought you "This Diary Will Change Your Life",

which is full of ludicrous and frequently surreal money-making scams.

Sticking with self-help is Mark Crick’s "Sartre’s Sink: The Great Writers’

Complete Book of DIY" (Granta, £10.99), which follows on his previous book

"Kafka’s Soup: A Complete History of Literature in 17 Recipes". Parodying

everyone from Goethe to Hunter S. Thompson through their handy household

hints, it also contains pastiche illustrations which aren’t just funny and apt but

also really rather beautiful.

Sticking with pastiche, it’s an enormous relief finally to hit on a big

"comedy" book with a telly tie-in which actually works. Written by Jenny

Eclair and Judith Holder from off TV’s "Grumpy Old Women", "Wendy: The

Bumper Bumper Book of Fun for Women of a Certain Age" (Hodder, £18.99)

updates the famous teen mag for middle aged women, in a format which is

both clever and funny. The same is true of Andy Riley’s "DIY Dentistry...and

other alarming inventions" (Hodder, £9.99), where the creator of "Bunny

Suicides" brilliantly updates Heath Robinson (with acknowledgements, thank

you very much) in his typical and commendably sick and frequently filthy


But enough of clever. I mean, just look where clever’s got us with all

those derivative financial instruments and stuff. For all our sakes, it’s high

time we reconnected with stupid (as opposed to dumb), so long as it makes us

laugh. And I freely admit I laughed like a drain at

"Grandma’s Dead: Breaking Bad News with Baby Animals" by Amanda

McCall and Ben Schwartz (Boxtree, £8.99), a collection of postcards of cute

and cuddly pets with messages like "Daddy’s Never Coming Home" or

"You’re my least favourite child" in big friendly writing. I also laughed a lot

at "I Can Has Cheeseburger?" (Hodder, £9.99), an anthology of boneheadedly

stupid photographs of cats with added captions from the LOLcats website.

After the harrowing fatcat cull of the last few months, I can’t think of a more

delightful Christmas gift for anyone.