First, there are your set texts. Students should ponder the following:
1) Compare and contrast Paul Merton's cod showbiz autobiography My Struggle (Boxtree pounds 7.99) with similar works by Rousseau, Hitler and the Grossmiths, while reflecting on the shortcomings of irony when employed by a consciously mendacious author.
2) Draw connections between Dame Edna Everage's My Gorgeous Life (Mandarin pounds 5.99) and The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, with particular reference to cross-dressing and cultural/gender stereotyping and its implications in decoding the phrase flogging a dead horse.
3) With reference to Sean Hughes' The Grey Area (Pavilion pounds 9.99), conjure up in your mind's eye any sensitive weed of your choice and explain why the publisher's assertion that this rather precious collection of pensees and poetry "suggests a way forward for Sean as a novelist" sends a shiver down your spine.
4) Muse lengthily on the futility of seeking parallels between Lee and Herring's Fist of Fun (BBC pounds 8.99), the textual impenetrability of Finnegans Wake and the typographical experiments of Arno Schmidt, while avoiding smart-arse speculations about the implications for "text" itself by publishing cynical telly cash-ins from this year's Hale and Pace.
[Note to all candidates: Do not attempt to read these books. Buy them for someone else not to read.]
If you find yourself struggling with the set texts there is, handily enough, a volume of critical elucidation to hand. Funny Talk, edited by Jim Driver (The Do Not Press pounds 6.95), a follow-up to the same publisher's Rock Talk, is an exploration of the nature of comedy. Actually, it's mostly the likes of Michael Palin and Jeremy Hardy reminiscing on how they died a death at that gig in Hartlepool. It might prove useful for readers who believe that analysing humour is an adequate alternative to being funny in itself. Strangely enough, in my edition every page is headed "Rock Talk". This is clearly a post-ironic subtext guiding us to the inevitable conclusion that Rock 'n' Roll is the New Comedy.
Also in this area of deep exegesis we have the Standard Work of Reference, The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, edited by that irrepressible old stage-door Johnny, Ned Sherrin (Oxford pounds 15.99). The trouble with this book is that I'm not at all sure how it should be used. Does it belong to the "Kwik-Buck" school of browse-through-on-the-bog books, or is it a genuine work of reference? If the latter, what function does it fulfil? Taking at random the inherently humorous words "bum", "elk" and "trombone", I looked them all up in the index and drew a blank each time. The quotations, moreover, are grouped by subject as opposed to author, from "Actors & Acting" (daaaahling!) through "Hope and Despair", "Religion", "The Universe" and "The Weather" to "Youth", but there are no categories for "Filth", "Farting", "Foreigners" or "Hatred" which, whether you like it or not, constitute the basis of almost all humour. Essentially this is a collection of bons mots which, at worst, will prove the perfect present for any Rotarian, father-of-the-bride, schoolboy debater or other humourless public speaker in need of a few hoary old gags to liven up their act.
Sherrin himself unintentionally gets to the heart of the matter in his lengthy introduction by quoting (disapprovingly) an old lady overheard outside a Victoria Wood gig: "I don't find humour funny." Bang right, missis. This was best expressed in a cartoon by the great B Kliban, showing a monstrous, badly wrapped, amorphous package propped outside the door of a magazine office, leaking sinisterly and labelled "Stick this in your Humour section."
Which brings us to this year's cartoon books and one of Kliban's most successful, if pallid, imitators, Gary Larson. The Far Side Gallery 5 (Warner Books pounds 8.99) will obviously sell zillions, adding to the ubiquitous gallery of quirky-cute cartoons on office walls and fridge doors throughout the known Universe. Also available this year are the latest Dilbert book from Scott Adams, Bring Me The Head Of Willy The Mailboy (Boxtree pounds 4.99), which is also apparently available on the Internet; At Home With Fred (Headline pounds 5.99), the further adventures of Rupert Fawcett's best-selling if rather twee greetings-card hero; Glen Baxter's The Wonder Book of Sex (Little, Brown pounds 9.99), a further collection of meaningless visual non- sequiturs and not a patch on last year's Normal Sex from Steven Appleby; and The Oldie Book of Cartoons (chosen by Richard Ingrams, Park McDonald pounds 5.99) - the last a mixed bag, and also one of the most badly laid-out pictorial books I've ever seen. Further evidence of Ingrams' policy of affirmative action in favour of elderly book designers long since fallen victim to cataracts.
There are also the usual strip cartoon annuals from Steve Bell (The Big If ... Methuen pounds 7.99) and Peattie and Taylor (Alex Knows the Score, Headline pounds 6.99) who, in their respective spheres of political and financial satire, leave the competition standing. New to me, but just as good, is Steuart and Francis' Queen's Counsel: A Libellous Look at the Law (Robson pounds 4.99), collected from the Law Report pages of the Times, and a hilariously accurate canard on m'learned friends. The perfect gift for the legal eagle in your life.
Also gleaned from the public prints are the columnists' collections. Michael Frayn's Speak After The Beep (Methuen pounds 10), his collected writings from the Guardian on coping with information technology and other bugbears of the Modern World, left me cold, but it should sell well in the meejah ghettos of North London. Much funnier is Auberon Waugh's collection of his Way of the World columns from the Daily Telegraph (Arrow pounds 6.99), although a nagging feeling remains that, in his wilder, more surreal and most outrageous flights of political fancy, Waugh isn't actually being ironic at all.
Just as funny, and by definition weirder than anything seething in Mr Waugh's mind, is Simon Hoggart's collection of his Parliamentary sketches from the Guardian, House of Correction (Robson Books pounds 7.99), in which Hoggart exposes our elected representatives as the vain, careerist, megalomaniacal hacks and poltroons we all secretly know them to be. An attitude entirely healthy for our body politic, whatever the hacks and poltroons might try to tell us.
Hoggart's opposite number on the Times, Matthew Parris, has denied himself the opportunity to give us his collected bitchings this year, and instead has edited Scorn (Hamish Hamilton pounds 9.99). This anthology of rude and insulting quotations brings us back to the browse-through-on- the-bog genre. Personally, I've always seen Parris more as a young curate who tells saucy jokes at vicarage tea parties than as the snarling Dorothy Parker-cum-Dean Swift figure he'd like to be. Still, I enjoyed Scorn; indeed, the Salish Indian insult "Your arsehole is filled with blue mud" has joined my five-year- old daughter's "Drive away, chicken head, or I'll stuff a lobster up your bottom" as one of our favourite motoring taunts.
Which heady mixture of smut and violence brings me to my favourite book from this year's selection, The Private Eye Book of Craig Brown Parodies (Corgi pounds 4.99). To quote selectively would hardly do Brown's genius for parody justice in the limited space available to me. Brown's parody of Newman & Baddiel is probably the best (and funniest) examination I've ever read of the deep self-importance and fundamental humourlessness of "Comedy":
"We don't just DO Comedy, no, we USE Comedy to challenge our audience's basic preconceptions ... about things like death and old age, like you're actually helping people to feel better about them. Here's an example: Christ, my old grandad died at 95 last week. Served him right for trying to shag the arse off his zimmer frame, the short-sighted piss artist!!! See what I mean? Through that joke we say far more about the tragedy of death and old age than T S Eliot ever managed in any of his paintings."
Indeed, indeed. Humour is, God help us, a Serious Business.
Martin Rowson is far too modest to mention his own book in this seasonal round-up, but in Imperial Exits (Macmillan pounds 7.99) he finds a worthy topic for his brand of scatological satire. Co-author Julius Cicatrix provides witty accounts of the deaths of notorious Roman Emperors, while Rowson rises boldly to the challenge of portraying the ends of Valerian (flayed and hung), Galerius (consumed by boils) and, above, TiberiusReuse content