Autobiographies by comedians are ten a penny nowadays, but Dara O Briain has had the wit and modesty to write a book about something other than himself. An Irish comic in England, his subject is the English, and a national tour gives him a great opportunity for some first-hand research. Born and raised in Ireland, O Briain now lives in England with his English wife and an English child, which makes him ideally qualified to write this book.
He's fond of us but he's not one of us, so his observations have perfect pitch. Above all, he proves you don't need to be nasty to be funny. Observational comedy is a mirror in which the comic sees his own reflection. O Briain sees us as absurd but amiable, a land of discreet eccentrics.
On his stand-up trek around the country, O Briain squashes some of our more stubborn myths: our railways aren't all that bad (at least, not compared to trains in Ireland); Oxford and Cambridge are much alike, whatever Oxbridge boffins say; the Victorians weren't prudes at all; Geordies DO wear coats (sometimes) and we don't really have a sense of fair play. We just like telling other people what to do.
Portraits of the places he plays are punctuated with banter from his shows. It's like one of Billy Connolly's TV travelogues, but more low-key and self-effacing. The impression that emerges from this cheerful book is that England isn't one nation so much as a random ragbag of regions bound together by historical happenstance. Liverpool feels closer to Dublin than London. All we have in common is an insatiable appetite for laughter: England has far more comedy clubs than any other country in the world.
As O Briain observes, England suffers from post-imperial, post-industrial angst. Our humour occupies that gap between reality and expectation, between our folk memories of empire, and our more unassuming modern status, "about fifth in everything". That's what makes us funny. Like Alan Partridge or David Brent, we think we're far more important than we really are.
O Briain's chatty style translates pretty well from stage to page, but he doesn't just rely on jokes – he has also done his homework, and the gags are a means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. He wears his learning lightly but he has lots to tell us, from our obsessive love of animals (a lot easier than loving people) to the origin of the phrase "Lie back and think of England".
Yet in the end, his general conclusion is that you can't generalise about the English. It's the differences between us that define us, rather than anything we share. Like Wilde and Shaw, O Briain shows it takes an Irishman to really understand us. If only we understood the Irish half so well.
William Cook's 'Eric Morecambe Unseen' is published by HarperCollinsReuse content