Comic turn-offs

The Oxford Book of Humorous Quotations ed. Ned Sherrin Oxford £15.99

"I don't find humour funny," Ned Sherrin quotes an old lady as saying after an evening with Victoria Wood. Most users of this curiously lop-sided compilation will emulate Sam Goldwyn when confronted with a full-length book and "read part of it all the way through"; but even on the strength of a random dipping one can see exactly what the old lady means.

One of the problems in having theatrical folk compile anthologies is their unwise assumption that what works well on the screen or stage - Stephen Sondheim's rather fey, pseudo-sophisticated lyrics, or Basil Fawlty's "They're Germans, Don't mention the War", or the old-mannish whimsicalities of Stephen Fry (40 entries) and Alan Bennett (85, as many as Waugh and Alexander Pope combined) - can be automatically transferred to the printed page, out of context and without the benefit of actors doing their stuff amid reassuring roars of laughter, canned or live. Genuine wits like Wilde and Shaw and Noel Coward perform as well as ever: but a catchphrase like "I have a cunning plan" (from Blackadder) is hardly funny in itself, and is unlikely to mean a thing in ten years time, when the show is a dim memory. But by then this anthology too may well be forgotten: it is not a work designed to last, aimed as it is at the jocular end of the gift market rather than the shelves of university libraries.

Ned Sherrin has presented his material thematically, from "Actors and Acting" through to "Youth", which will prove helpful to after-dinner speakers and leader writers in search of a quip; scholars in search of sources may well find themselves referred to other anthologies of the "Wit and Wisdom" school. As might be expected, theatrical quotes abound, whereas the office - which looms so large in most of our lives - is overlooked altogether: a pity, since offices have inspired much rueful comedy, from Wodehouse's Psmith in the City to Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Lewis's exclusion, incidentally, is almost as baffling as those of James Lees-Milne, Gavin Ewart, Howard Jacobson, DJ Enright and HF Ellis (author of A J Wentworth BA, the only clone of Mr Pooter as funny as the original), all of whom are elbowed aside by such platitudinous figures as P J O'Rourke (a sample entry from his tally of 91 reads "Because of their size, parents may be difficult to discipline properly") and the travel-writer Bill Bryson, whose score of 27 includes such sparkling truisms as "I had thought that once you grew up you could do anything you wanted - stay up all night or eat ice-cream straight out of the container".

Despite a brief appearance by Stalin, non-English speakers fail to qualify, and the editor lends practical support to A J P Taylor's observation that "History gets thicker as it approaches recent times." Entries that pre- date Wilde and W S Gilbert are hurried through to leave room for the real wags, for Frank Muir describing Joan Bakewell as "the thinking man's crumpet" or John Prescott on the battle for leadership of the Labour Party ("We're in danger of loving ourselves to death"). Given contributions of such dazzling universality, it's hardly surprising that - Messrs O'Rourke and Bryson excepted - American candidates seem a good deal sharper than their English equivalents: compare, for example, Peter de Vries on the subject of writing ("I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork") with John Mortimer's entry on the same page ("What obsesses a writer starting out on a lifetime's work is the panic-stricken search for a voice": true enough, but humorous?). Sam Goldwyn, Billy Wilder, Dorothy Parker and Woody Allen do their best to enliven these suetty pages: as if to rub salt in the wound, ex-President Gerald Ford ("Ronald Reagan doesn't dye his hair, he's just prematurely orange") is printed under another platitude from the hapless Mr Mortimer - who, as we all know, can be extremely funny ("No power on earth, however, can abolish the merci-less class distinction between those who are physically desirable and the lonely, pallid, spotty, silent, unfancied majority").

From what seems a sharper-witted age, politicians such as F E Smith and Churchill retain their pre-eminence as masters of insulting repartee, and it's good to rediscover Wilkes's nimble riposte to the Earl of Sandwich (Sandwich: " 'Pon my soul, Wilkes, I don't know whether you'll die upon the gallows or of the pox." Wilkes: "That depends, my lord, on whether I first embrace your lordship's principles, or your lordship's mistresses"). Dennis Healey's savaging of Geoffrey Howe has an echo of those sprightlier times, but Kenneth Clark addressing the Royal College of General Practitioners ("I do wish the more suspicious of our GPs would stop feeling nervously for their wallets every time I mention the word reform") is, apparently, all too representative of an up-to-date "humorous quotation". Politicians are not what they were, perhaps; and neither, it seems, is the OUP.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?