BOOK REVIEW / All joking apart: Ha bloody ha: Comedians Talking by William Cook Fourth Estate pounds 8.99

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The Independent Culture
PITCHED in the rarely ploughed middle ground between multiple fan-biog and oral history, this entertaining book surveys 30 top comedians of the 'post- alternative' generation. Sean Hughes (probably too busy writing bad poetry) and Paul Merton (notoriously shy of overexposure) are the only notable absentees, and, though it takes a while to get going, Ha Bloody Ha eventually proves to be very informative about both the business of comedy and the characters of the people who work in it.

The author, comedy critic of the Guardian, does well to avoid the two most obvious pitfalls awaiting him - comedians recycling old material, and journalist recycling old interviews. He does dig a few pits of his own, however. His opening paragraph links Margaret Thatcher's coming to power with the founding of the Comedy Store (he later makes interesting points about the tension between Thatcher as hate figure and comedy as enterprise culture), only to conclude that the latter of these two events was the more enduringly significant. This just has to be a joke. Hyperbole often proves to be a double-edged sword: on the back cover, for instance, alternative comedy is described as 'the movement that has done for Light Entertainment what punk rock did for Top of the Pops' (ie not changed it much). As probably the most high-profile commentator on the comedy scene, Cook's attempt to pass himself off as an anti-establishment figure by, for example, berating 'broadsheet bullshit' seems rather disingenuous. In one sense, though, Cook is an anti-establishment figure, in that his enthusiasm for his subject matter remains entirely undiluted.

The novelty of a critic who really wishes the people he writes about well is hard to overestimate. Cook does not just love comedy, he loves comedians too, which might go some way towards explaining why his opening potted biographies are not exactly overladen with insight. But the individual reminiscences - loosely corralled under headings like Childhood, Day Jobs, First Gigs and Worst Gigs - supply vivid glimpses not only into the lives of the comedians concerned, but also into what being a comedian might actually be like. And if Cook's contention that no two comedians are alike will still elicit splutters of indignation from anyone who has sat through the eternal dreary Star Trek jokes of the comedy circuit's less stellar denizens, no one can now get away with claiming that all comedians are the same.