Comedy: Ungagged comics

 

For publishers, the big comedy Christmas book is central to the festive season – as familiar as cold turkey or an unwelcome visit from an annoying relative. Trouble is, most publishers are pretty useless at predicting smash hits.

This year's runaway success (so far) is The Life of Lee by Lee Evans (Michael Joseph, £20), which charts this mimetic comic's tough beginnings, from sink-estate upbringing to first paid gig. Evans's hard-luck story is a timeless tear-jerker with a Dickensian sense of pathos. Though he can't write like Dickens - to put it mildly - his tale is so remarkable a rags-to-riches saga that it survives his clunking prose.

Rob Brydon's Small Man in a Book (Michael Joseph, £20) is also written with one eye on a second instalment - but Brydon is a shrewder wordsmith, and his acute observations have a novelistic detachment missing from Evans's charming, child-like tome. What makes Brydon's book such fun is his (very) long showbiz apprenticeship, from TV to a cheesy shopping channel. These twilit travails are recounted with a dry, self-deprecating wit.

Fittingly, the apotheosis of this hammy genre is a book by a fictional celebrity - Steve Coogan's cringeworthy alter-ego, Alan Partridge. I, Partridge – We Need To Talk About Alan (HarperCollins, £20) is written by Rob and Steve Gibbons, Coogan and Armando Iannucci, but the pompous authorial voice is pure Partridge: the perfect Light Ent pastiche. Alan relives the squabbles that blighted his downward path from a primetime chat show on national telly to the graveyard shift on local radio.

Bruce Dessau's Beyond a Joke: Inside the Dark World of Stand-Up Comedy (Preface, £18.99) comprises a quick trawl through the biogs of front-of-curtain comics, from music-hall turns like Dan Leno to modern wags like Russell Brand. Dessau knows (and loves) his subject, and his thesis is that most stand-ups, especially the better ones, are often rather odd. His cast of misfits is a bit selective - Morecambe & Wise were both spectacularly well-adjusted - but it's a good excuse to air familiar (and unfamiliar) anecdotes.

Yet the funniest book of the year isn't by – or about – a comic. It's by an irascible writer who seems to do very little except sit around and moan. What Am I Still Doing Here? My Years as Me by Roger Lewis (Coronet, £20) is a wonderfully splenetic journal - part-diary, part-diatribe – by a man who rages with indignant eloquence against the modern world. But Lewis's furious rants are never far from hilarity, and his anger is redeemed by flashes of pure poetry. Like all the best comics, Lewis is a disappointed optimist rather than an outright cynic, and it's his thwarted idealism which makes this such a liberating, life-affirming read.

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