I am irrepressibly, unforgivably drawn to books written by comedians. I know they’re mostly awful, but I can’t seem to help myself. I think it all started when I read Ben Elton’s Stark, which I will still staunchly defend even though I’m slightly embarrassed about having enjoyed it so much. The law of diminishing returns applies to an almost painful degree to the subsequent follow-ups, but Stark was good.
I have also read:
Getting Rid of Mr Kitchen (Charlie Higson)
It’s Not A Runner Bean, Reasons To Be Cheerful and What’s Going On? (Mark Steel)
The Fountain At The Centre Of The World (Rob Newman)
Time For Bed, Whatever Love Means and The Secret Purposes (David Baddiel)
Paperweight, The Liar, The Hippopotamus, Making History, The Stars’ Tennis Balls and Moab Is My Washpot (Stephen Fry)
The Gun Seller (Hugh Laurie)
Frank Skinner (Frank Skinner)
Without Feathers (Woody Allen)
No Cure For Cancer (Dennis Leary)
Are You Dave Gorman? (Dave Gorman)
Billy Connolly (Pamela Stephenson)
I’m sure there are more; that’s off the top of my head. As you will know if you’ve read them all too, this list is a mixture of fiction, biography, scripts and other collected writings. As you will further know, quite a lot of them are not very good, and some of them aren’t even funny. But that somehow never puts me off, so when I went to see Jeremy Hardy and Jack Dee talking as part of Lambeth Readers’ and Writers’ festival a couple of weeks ago I should have known I’d end up buying more books by comedians.
The talk took place at West Norwood library, which turns out to have a fully functional theatre tucked away in the back room. After the interviews the floor was opened up to questions, and as I wavered Englishly in the back row, wondering whether I had the balls to raise my hand, someone else got in with the question I was going to ask.
“Is it easier to write a book if you already know how to write stand-up, or are they two completely different skills?”
Jack said that it wasn’t very different for him, because he deliberately wrote his book in the style of his stand-up. Having read it, I can now confirm that this is entirely true. Reading it is more or less exactly like reading a Jack Dee stand-up script, except that occasionally he says something very earnest, usually about god, and you anxiously wait for the punchline before realising he means it. There are some good jokes in between, though, and a cheering photo of Jack aged four wearing exactly the expression he always has.
I found Jeremy Hardy’s book more engaging. For a start, it isn’t a straight piece of autobiography but a family history, so it’s not really very much about him. I know comedians like to talk about themselves, but it’s refreshing when they talk about other people too.
But then, Jeremy Hardy has always struck me as unusually humble for a comedian. Another question someone asked was “which other comedians do you admire the most?”. Jack Dee gave the usual answer, which is always some combination of Monty Python, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Morecambe and Wise. This is a popular answer because it says “I only admire the very best, and nobody of my generation is better than me.” So I was completely charmed when Jeremy Hardy chose Mark Steel, Daniel Kitson and Jo Brand. Not only are they his contemporaries, they also all live round the corner from him. He didn’t pick unassailable icons; he picked his mates.
The book is likeable and well-written, and also moral and thoughtful. In the end he decides that it doesn’t really matter who you’re descended from, or where they lived, but that there is real human joy in meeting people and forming relationships with them, whether they’re distant relations you haven’t seen in forty years, children who aren’t biologically related to you but whom you love none the less for it, or just the friendly folk at Arundel Castle who help you look up some records on a rainy day.
I also got both books signed. Well, I was there. I can report that Jeremy wrote “To Laura, love Jeremy Hardy”, but that Jack slightly trumped him by adding a little kiss underneath.