Books of the year 2013: Comedy


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The Independent Culture

Stand-ups are good value when it comes to memoirs. Show-offs by profession they combine a knack for self-lacerating storytelling with an often chaotic private life and zero sense of embarrassment. Ideal. As Russell Brand put it in My Booky Wook: “My life is just a series of embarrassing incidents strung together by telling people about those embarrassing incidents.”

This year’s pile of booky wooks includes Becoming Johnny Vegas (HarperCollins, £20), a characteristically in-yer-face narrative of how Michael Pennington became Johnny Vegas, or how an 11-year-old trainee priest from St Helens wound up passed out in the doorway of an Edinburgh creche, and on the cusp of the big-time.

Frankie Boyle: Scotland’s Jesus (Harper NonFiction, £20) is less autobiography than one big rant – or 19 rants, in chapters headed Royals, Religion, Science. It is bracing stuff but there’s a certain hysterical (in both senses) poetry to some attacks. “David Beckham really has lived the dream. That weird dream in which you’ve got a voice like a castrated parrot and you’re married to a skeleton.” Etc.

The pick of the bunch is Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. (Blackfriars, £8.99). This slim memoir from the LA comedian voted the funniest on Twitter (his best tweets begin each part) is a series of fist-chewingly embarrassing incidents glued together with bodily fluids and jokes. There is bed-wetting, alcoholism, near-death scrapes and rehab. It is mercilessly biological at times,  but also very funny, raw and quite tender, like all the best stand-up. Not for the faint-hearted, though.

Also scoring high on the cringe-factor is I Laughed, I Cried, by Viv Groskop (Orion, £11.99) which charts the journalist’s quest to do 100 comedy gigs in 100 nights. The fact that she was “pushing 40” at the time is not coincidental and the book reads like a tear-soaked, sequinned mid-life crisis. It also captures the dowdy grind of the circuit with a painfully clear eye: you can almost feel the sticky carpets and smell the fear. Not to mention the rivalry – as when she asks a more established stand-up for some advice after a gig: “He was silent for a while then replied, ‘Maybe just be funny?’” Yowch.

For those interested in the Craft, A Good Bullet (Short Books, £9.99) by Freddy Syborn is a self-consciously cerebral attempt to unpick why we laugh at awful things. Syborn is Jack Whitehall’s long-time collaborator and co-writer on Bad Education; Whitehall’s illustrations pop up to lighten the mood, which gets quite dark at times. Comedy nerds will also enjoy Alan Partridge Alpha Papa: Script (and Scrapped) (HarperCollins, £12.99), the original script of the film with foreword by Steve Coogan. Writers Neil and Rob Gibbons, who co-wrote the bestselling spoof autobiography, I, Partridge, provide footnotes, including how they chose Roachford’s “Cuddly Toy” for the opening credits and the unseen story of DJ Dave Clifton.

This year’s top spoof is Ron Burgundy’s Let Me Off At The Top! (Century, £16.99), kind of a big deal for Anchorman fans. As well as the story of the San Diego newsman’s “classy life”, there are myths about his hair, juvenile love letters and gossip about Katie Couric. It’s impossible not to hear every line of the purplish prose – “I have over 300 handcrafted shoes of all sizes.” “I don’t give a damn about broccoli” – in Will Ferrell’s booming voice.

For dipping in and out, Private Eye: A Cartoon History (Private Eye Productions, £25) scores the most laughs per spread with 300 pages of cartoons from the 1960s up to now. More visual gags can be found in The Married Kama Sutra (Sphere, £7.99), probably the world’s least erotic sex manual by the brilliant Simon Rich with illustrations from The New Yorker’s Farley Katz. Egghead (Orion, £14.99), the debut poetry collection of the young American comedian Bo Burnham, is like Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, for not-quite grown-ups. And After Liff (Faber, £9.99), a new dictionary by QI’s John Lloyd and Jon Canter collates 900 daft definitions based on place names: “Dunstable: a retired police officer”, and so on.

Finally, Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen (The Friday Project, £7.99) is a 1925 rarity renowned as the “least funny joke book ever written”. Now reprinted, it includes zingers from the dour Scot like, “An Irish Censor Recorder on enquiring – ‘How many males in this house?’ received the reply – ‘Three of course; breakfast, dinner and tea!’” Well, it’s no worse than most cracker jokes, I suppose.