Books Of The Year: Humour: Here's proof that comedy has survived Python

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The Independent Culture
In the last, dying weeks of the second millennium of the Christian era, you'd have thought that at least one publisher would have been low and venal enough to cash in on this unique marketing opportunity for "humour" books. A Thousand Years of British Poo Jokes or A Thousand Apocalypse Gags or even TV's Maureen Lipman's Millennium Schmillennium. Anything, in fact, to allow that doughty army of British publishers to do as they do every year, and flog opportunistic crap to an undiscriminating public and then roll about in money and party like it's 1999.

But no. Of the millennium, this year's crop of crap Christmas humour books says not a dickybird. Perhaps publishers, in their role as arbiters of the collective British "sense of humour", operate on a different calendar from the rest of us. While we imagined that this was AD 1999, any initiate into the dark mysteries of "humour" knows that really we have been living through the felicitous and glorious Year 30 PP. PP? Post-Python, of course!

Everyone knows that nothing was funny before Monty Python's Flying Circus was given to us by five kindly demigods in 1969. The cover of David Morgan's Monty Python Speaks (Fourth Estate pounds 12.99) shows the true nature of things, with the original title "The Gospel According to Monty Python" scribbled out in one of those insufferable Pythonesque "total humour" jokes, which also compels the book's designer to have several trompe l'oeil elastic bands across the cover. Ha ha ha.

When it was first transmitted, Monty Python succeeded in infesting the culture in a way massively out of proportion to its intrinsic worth. Almost magically, it became synonymous with "humour" itself. Thus you could be cured of a lack of "humour" merely by incanting the Dead Parrot Sketch or the Lumberjack Song or any of the other sacred texts until it was agreed that you were funny and popular. This, it must be said, is truly miraculous. That Monty Python is now about as funny as Shakespeare is both beside the point and the point itself. Funny is now more important and serious than just being funny. This is religion, my friends, and Monty Python is the Gag made Flesh.

The pervasive and seductive Pythonic heresy that you will be funny and popular even if - maybe particularly if - you are boring, obsessive and odious, continues to be as rife in publishing circles as elsewhere. One of its most revolting dogmas, apart from the pernicious belief that Comedy is the Most Important Thing in the World, is that comedians are Interesting and Important People in Themselves. Thus Morgan's book, and a clutch of other biographies. Robert Gore Langton's John Cleese: And Now For Something Completely Different (Chameleon pounds 14.99) and Alexander Games's Pete & Dud: An Illustrated Biography (Chameleon pounds 14.99) are both works of secondary research containing no new information on their subjects, written by self- confessed "fans" and full of pictures, thus satisfying the idolatrous yearnings of any other fans out there.

Entirely more serious is serial hagiographer Bruce Dessau's Rowan Atkinson (Orion pounds 18.99). Like last year's biography of Reeves and Mortimer, this book is a scholarly and thoroughly researched life of a leading British comedian, about whom, apart from the fact that he has occasionally made me laugh, I couldn't give a toss.

But while the seriousness and respect with which clowns, post-Python, are treated can be irritating, the Pythons bequeathed publishing a far more poisonous and invidious legacy. You may remember two Python spin-off books, Monty Python's Big Red Book (with a blue cover - oh my aching sides!) and Monty Python's Brand New Bok (that missing "o": excuse me while I expire from the heartiness of my laughter!).

These were something new and, because they shifted lots of units, convinced many publishers that (a) books are, in fact, a flat type of television, and (b) that, consequently, television comedy can and should be translated into book form, and (c) that the totally unreadable crappiness of this process doesn't matter because the public are idiots and would buy bottled dogshit if it had some prat from the telly's name on it. The enduring nature of this belief is demonstrated by The Adam and Joe Book (Channel 4 pounds 7.99) and Harry Hill Fun Book (Channel 4 pounds 9.99), which are unfunny, unreadable and do a great injustice to the performers in whose name they have been wrought.

A rather sad footnote to all this is Paul Hatcher's The World Stare-Out Championship Final (Bloomsbury pounds 6.99). Hatcher is a very good cartoonist with a very good idea: frame after frame of the World Stare-Out Champions staring at each other. If this was just an ordinary book, that would be it: a little textless masterpiece. Unfortunately, it has "As seen on TV" proudly emblazoned in a starburst on the cover, as it originally featured on Big Train on Channel 4. Television being a hyperactive medium, it is inconceivable that they would broadcast static images accompanied by silence, so they added an intentionally ludicrous, John Motson-style sports commentary. This was funny on the telly, but in the book impregnable blocks of text (rather pointlessly attempting in print to parody something - TV sports commentary - which never appears in print) serve only as a distraction and an irritation. A shame, and a warning to us all.

That said, miracles still happened. Vic Reeves, a TV comedian, has himself (as opposed to a cabal of designers, publicists and accountants) produced not just a proper book, but actually a very good one. Sun Boiled Onions (Michael Joseph pounds 12.99) purports to be his diaries, and these are the usual sub-surreal streams of consciousness you'd expect. But the real revelation is Vic Reeves's cartoons, which make up most of the book, and are very funny. I was going to try to draw parallels with the late John Glashan or B Kliban to give you an idea of what to expect. That I can't reveals what a good and original cartoonist Vic is.

As usual, if you intend to give a loved one the great gift of laughter this Christmas, stick to cartoons. After last year's wonderful Diary of an Amateur Photographer, the excellent Graham Rawle returns with Return of Lost Consonants (Boxtree pounds 6.99), taking the twin disciplines of the pun and the photomontage further than we dared imagine possible. Likewise, the equally excellent Steven Appleby offers us yet another funny exploration of human relations in The Truth About Love (Bloomsbury pounds 12.99), with sections like "Choosing between more than one Suitor: Set them a quest", wherein a Princess says to her beaux: "I'll marry the one who can find my clitoris," while they respond "Gasp! But princess! That quest is impossible!"

Also from Bloomsbury are three more books by Edward Gorey, published in Britain, unbelievably enough, for the first time. The Epileptic Bicycle (pounds 5.99), The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas (pounds 8.99), and The Curious Sofa: a pornographic work by Ogdred Weary (pounds 5.99) all offer further proof of the morbid, deadpan genius of this master of American Gothic.

There are, however, still funny books in Britain with neither stupid cartoons nor flecks of TV publicists' spittle all over them. Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (Michael Joseph pounds 14.99) made me laugh very loudly on public transport, which is about the only real criterion for funny writing there is. Craig Brown, whom I sometimes suspect of being a sweatshop filled with chained-up Filipino parodists, offers us two books this year, Hug Me While I Weep, For I Weep For The World in his persona as Bel Littlejohn (Abacus pounds 8.99) and The Craig Brown Omnibus (Private Eye pounds 11.99). I find Bel Littlejohn so accurate a parody of the New Labour mindset as to be too unsettling to be entirely enjoyable.

The Craig Brown Omnibus, (Private Eye pounds 14.99) meanwhile, quotes me on the dust jacket as saying he's a genius. For perversity's sake I could say that Brown is a talentless, tin-eared hack who sneeringly and spitefully savages the real achievers and empowerers in this, y'know, new, young country of ours, but I think I'll stick with the previous encomium.

Finally, Christopher Matthew's Now We Are Sixty (John Murray pounds 9.99) is a throwback to a previous age. These parodies of A A Milne's Now We Are Six are exactly the kind of thing which used to appear in Punch in the 1950s, an era whose styles and mores have been held in contempt for 40 years by succeeding generations of smug young TV comedians, from the sainted Peter Cook, John the Baptist to the Holy Python onwards. Given that among the other things which that generation of Punch writers gave us was Nigel Molesworth, now recognised as a classic of 20th-century humour, and that Matthew's little book is wise, perceptive and very funny, maybe it's time we turned off the telly altogether and engaged in a little bit of rehabilitation.