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 Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
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.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test