Christmas books: Comedy

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The Independent Culture
Now here's a jolly new conspiracy theory for you. This year, for the first time, over 100,000 titles were published in this country: obviously all our leading publishing houses are being paid massive kickbacks by a sinister "Mr Big" from the Pulping Industry. This explains why publishers produce books of such shameless, cynical awfulness. It's so they can be pulped within weeks of publication, thus keeping the pulpers in lucrative employ, the publishers in large lunches, and the book-buying public in the dark.

Of course, all of the above is the most fantastic, libellous nonsense. But still. You wonder why else Hodder and Stoughton should publish something as tacky, feeble and unfunny as The Paul and Pauline Calf Book (pounds 9.99). You wonder, indeed, how someone as funny as Steve Coogan managed to sink so low. Well, actually, you don't. Particularly not after you've seen Have I Got 1997 For You (BBC Books pounds 9.99) and The Fast Show Book (Boxtree pounds 7.99). Of course, whoever it is who writes these unreadable essays in recreating TV shows would probably say they're meant to be rubbish because, naturally enough, it's ironic. But they should be wary of being too post- modern. One day the trees might revolt against being sacrificed for such tosh. Or else Mr Big might decide to cut out the middle man altogether, and just pulp the TV stars themselves.

More humanely, we might encourage the European Commission to develop a Comedy Set-Aside Scheme, through which TV comedians would be paid vast sums of money, flattered by out-of-work publishers and have their egos massaged non-stop while all their book projects were dumped in a disused slurry pit outside Liege.

Such a welcome intervention from Brussels would doubtless draw forth mewling squeaks of rage from Richard Littlejohn, who seems to fancy himself as the P J O'Rourke of British tabloid journalism. His rantings against "political correctness", the flimsiest paper tiger in history, are collected in You Couldn't Make It Up (Mandarin pounds 5.99). A Martian reading this ("Clear off you shortarsed green welfare-scrounging poof!") might assume Littlejohn is a heartening beacon of free speech in a country groaning under the tyranny of an oppressive Multi-Ethnic Lesbian Maoist Government. Actually (and you couldn't make this up) Littlejohn's career is based on rubbishing the powerless and unimportant and then calling it "Satire" ("So just Sod bloody Off, Dean so-called Swift, you bogtrotting shirtlifter bastard!").

Still, to give him his due, Littlejohn makes a racier read than Robert Martin Walker's Politically Correct Parables (HarperCollins pounds 7.99), whose one-gag remorselessness proves a self-defining exercise in empowerment for the differently amusing. Don't, however, send Littlejohn a copy of The Penguin Book of Women's Humor (ed Regina Barreca, pounds 8.99). This thick American anthology would only encourage him to whinny on about "humourless feminists", as it contains absolutely nothing at all which is funny (a fact I had verified by an independent female authority). We can ascribe this to its nationality rather than its gender, because Wicked: Women's Wit and Humour (ed Fidelis Morgan, Virago pounds 6.99) is a hoot, with contributions ranging from Elizabeth I, via Jane Austen, to Fran Lebowitz, whom we can thank for the following: "Being a woman is of interest only to aspiring male transsexuals. To actual women, it is merely a good excuse not to play football."

Which brings me to Loaded magazine's Drop Me Bacon Sandwich (ed James Brown, Boxtree pounds 7.99), a volume based on Loaded editor James Brown's bizarre assertion that certain events or phenomena are so extraordinary that they make him drop his bacon sandwich, a comestible talisman the chippy little fellow appears to take with him wherever he goes. These climacterics include using a foreign lavatory and seeing Sir Anthony Hopkins's penis in a urinal at a London Theatre. Heavens. Alas, no bacon sandwiches are likely to be dropped in amazement as the jagged teeth of the pulping machines rip into this strange book, predicated as it is on the false assumption that its target audience can (a) read; (b) will not cover the book in a lethal cocktail of lager, curry, unmentionables as soon as look at it.

This year's "Schadenfreude Funnies", tomes inviting you to laugh or gloat over the misfortunes of others, fall into two types: you can enjoy misfortunes of others as reported in the world's press, with Private Eye's Funny Old World (compiled by Victor Lewis-Smith, Private Eye/Corgi pounds 4.99) and The Big Issue's Death By Spaghetti (ed Paul Sussman, 4th Estate pounds 4.99), both of which cheered me up no end. Alternatively, you can sneer down the ages with a feast of salacious prurience served up by Matthew Parrish in Great Parliamentary Scandals (Robson Books pounds 10.99) or, even better (because even more prurient), Nigel Cawthorne's Sex Lives of the Great Dictators (Prion pounds 6.99), from which I learnt that Hitler was a devotee of "golden showers", Stalin liked dancing with men and Mao Zedong abjured the sitdown toilet as a decadent bourgeois affectation.

A different window onto the misfortunes of others comes with The Best Ever Notes & Queries (ed Joseph Harker, 4th Estate pounds 8.99). A question not included is "What kind of sad opinionated bore actually bothers to answer Notes and Queries questions?" Answer: "This kind" (A. Smartarse, London N15); "The Questioner assumed, erroneously, that the different taxa of sad opinionated bore can be classified and, moreover, that answers proceed from questions and must be written down, whereas ..." (Prof Pompous, Cambs).

To return to the subject of pulping, newspaper cartoons by their very nature tend towards the condition of the eggbox more quickly than most artefacts, so we should be grateful for the usual invaluable collections, which no household should be without: Alex Sweeps The Board by Peattie and Taylor (Headline pounds 6.99); Biff; The Missing Years by Chris Garrett and Mick Kidd (Icon Books pounds 8.99) the incomparably brilliant Graham Rawle's Lost Consonants 6 (4th Estate pounds 6.99) and Steve Bell and Simon Hoggart's collaboration of political cartoonist and political sketch writer Live Briefs (Methuen pounds 9.99).

Also highly recommended is Steven Appleby's Box of Secret Thoughts (Bloomsbury, pounds 18.99 for set of 6 books, pounds 3.99 each). Each book in this box, covering the secret thoughts of Cats, Dogs, Women, Men, Babies and "Your Own Secret Thoughts" is a little minimalist marvel of the kind of mordant whimsy Appleby has made his own. Extraordinarily enough, he's even succeeded in producing affectionate, brutal and funny books about Babies and Cats. If only publishers commissioned more books like this and stopped watching the telly, the pulpers would be out of business.