Comedians: Laughing all the way to the bank

Stand-up comedians have big followings for live tours, TV shows and DVDs. Now publishers hope fans will pursue them into bookstores.
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The Independent Culture

They are used to competing for laughs. Now, the country's best-loved funny men are going head-to-head in the book charts thanks to a bumper crop of tomes by comics. Rob Brydon and Lee Evans are among the comedians hoping to enter the bestseller lists later this year as publishers capitalise on our desire to laugh at a time of economic gloom.

While it is not new for comedians to put pen to paper, some industry experts say 2011 is notable for the sheer number of books and the "high profile" names writing them.

"About 20 years ago, someone said that comedy was the new rock and roll," said Jon Howells, PR and events manager for the bookseller Waterstone's. "That was probably an overstatement then, but it is closer to the truth now. Comedians now have followings like big rock and pop groups, they tour in bigger and bigger venues, and many are ubiquitous on our TV screens. And, as in pop, their fans have a desire for product – a new TV show, a new DVD, a new live tour, a book."

This autumn, HarperCollins is publishing memoirs by Steve Coogan's character Alan Partridge and stand-up Johnny Vegas, as well as a "rant" from controversial comedian Frank Boyle.

Anna Valentine, editorial director for Harper NonFiction, said it would be "very tough" for comedians to stand out in "a very crowded marketplace" featuring "huge, huge names". She said the absence of books by female comics was "very noticeable" and the market was dominated by male comedians' autobiographies. But that could change next year, and more books from women could appear.

Jason Manford, who resigned as presenter of The One Show last winter after admitting exchanging saucy online messages with fans, is releasing an autobiography in September.

"Writing gives you a freedom to explore stories that you can't on stage," he said. "When performing you've got to hit a certain amount of laughs per second so you can't tell people about when your grandad died or when you got your heart broke for the first time without feeling the need to gag it up. I feel writing a book is more truthful than anything else."

Comedians' books can be big business: Peter Kay's 2006 title The Sound of Laughter has sold more than 850,000 copies sold to date and is the biggest-selling hardback autobiography since Nielsen BookScan started collecting data in 2001. Its success tempted others to follow suit: whereas no comedians made up the top 10 biographies and autobiographies in 2005, they have featured prominently in the past three years. The arts autobiography category, which includes comedians, has seen sales grow from £15m in 2001 to £43m last year, after peaking at £52m in 2008.

But the new comedian books are not just autobiographies: upcoming titles include an art book from The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding and a travel book by Billy Connolly. Ben Miller, of comedy duo Armstrong and Miller, will release a science book next year.

Katy Follain, publisher at Michael Joseph, the imprint of Penguin Books bringing out autobiographies by Evans and Brydon, said publishers were capturing the zeitgeist. "We've all jumped on the humour bandwagon because it's very much a golden age for comedians," she said. "The country is in the middle of the worst recession since the early 1980s, and clearly, as a nation, we need to laugh."

Michael Joseph last month bought the rights to a 2012 autobiography from David Walliams, who already writes children's books. "The comedian's memoir is definitely here to stay," said Ms Follain.

* The bookseller Waterstone’s expects May I Have Your Attention, Please?, the memoir by Gavin & Stacey comic actor James Corden , to sell particularly well on its release in September. Jason Manford, whose as yet untitled autobiography is also out that month, said comedians’ memoirs are popular because “people are nosey and they like a gossip. I know that’s why I read them”.

* The Life of Lee by Lee Evans will be released in the autumn. Michael McIntyre, the Britain’s Got Talent judge whose Life and Laughing: My Story has taken more than £4m since its publication in October 2010. Small Man in a Book by Rob Brydon is anothercomedy autobiography due out in the autumn. And the former Fast Show star Simon Day is getting a head start on his fellow comedians by releasing his memoirs, Comedy and Error, this month.