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.

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