Jokes for the boys

Hugh Laurie is the latest of our (male) comedians-turned-novelist. Coming of age or following the herd?
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By now most of us know the charming tale of Hugh Laurie's literary debut - of how his agent submitted a comic thriller by someone called James Callum to a publisher, and disclosed the author's real identity only when a firm commitment to publish had been secured.

Laurie is not the first novelist to hand in work under a fictitious name. Julian Barnes and Joanna Trollope have adopted pseudonyms when vacationing in a different genre. Thomas Keneally and Ruth Rendell both used them to avoid flooding the market with their own work. But Laurie's the first comedian to do so. His nearest equivalent is Doris Lessing, who once wrote a first novel by someone called Jane Somers, "the well-known woman journalist", and fooled her publishers into rejecting it. The disheartening conclusion of the experiment was that fiction is judged primarily not on its own merit but on the neon value of the name on the flyleaf.

It's a wonder more of the comedians storming the best-seller lists haven't done a Somers. Of all performers, comedians possess a uniquely acute knowledge of how terrifying it is to bomb, and have a commensurately deep need for approval. Laurie's adoption of a disguise was perhaps motivated as much by the need to cushion the blow of rejection as by the yearning for frank applause.

Tom Weldon, the editorial director at Heinemann, was targeted by Laurie's agent as a known fan of thrillers, but also, one suspects, because Heinemann has a weakness for celebs in general (see Naomi Campbell) and comedians in particular. This is the imprint that has also brought us the literary debuts of Stephen Fry, Adrian Edmondson and Barry Humphries. Methuen, Heinemann's house mates in the Reed Books' empire, last year introduced a new novelist called Michael Palin. Comedians "definitely have a head start", says Weldon. "It's an industry which suffers from chronic overproduction. It helps if there's some kind of recognition from the public in the first place."

But comedians don't write novels simply because they're famous. Otherwise pop stars would join the party too. Weldon reckons "it's absolutely wrong to see them as celebrity novelists. Some of the most talented people of that generation went into comedy and they have every right to turn their talents to writing novels. A lot left college 12, 15 years ago and first started on the stand-up circuit, then moved into TV. They've now reached their mid-thirties and wonder, what are they going to do with their career now? A natural thing to turn to is writing a novel. It's partly a kind of maturity thing."

The phenomenon can be dated to the publication of Stark by Ben Elton, who proved that it was possible to overcome the traditional British unease with the idea of anyone being able to excel at more than one thing. The more his peers queue up to join him, the more you have to ask whether the two disciplines are so very different.

There are obvious dissimilarities between the public, collaborative and rapid-return nature of comedy and the private, solitary, laborious business of writing, but Charles Higson, the co-creator of Loadsamoney, Paul Whitehouse's fellow frontman in The Fast Show and the author of four thrillers, doesn't see the distinction. "On The Fast Show the starting point is character. In most novels that's your starting point: you get a few characters and bung them together. Each has got to be structured, and you've got to have some kind of story. If you approach comedy writing from the starting point of being a writer, there's always the temptation to write something a bit more substantial."

There's also the herd instinct to be reckoned with. When Robert Newman had a hit with Dependance Day, you just had to count the days till David Baddiel announced the publication of his own first novel: Time For Bed will be published this autumn. But most double acts are not so obviously driven by internal rivalry, and when one performer follows his partner into print, it's simply because he has had time on his hands. Stephen Fry served up first The Liar and then The Hippopotamus; it was only a matter of time before Laurie followed suit. Edmondson wrote The Gobbler to fill the gaps while Rik Mayall was away on solo projects.

It's also the case, in their fiction, that most comedians haven't strayed too far from the day job. Most of these novels, even Higson's thrillers, are aimed at the funny bone, and not many make the effort to find a new and distinctive voice. Fry's books sound like Fry's sketches. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but it's a wonder that Heinemann didn't immediately sniff the distinctive bouquet of Laurie in the charming wit of James Callum. As for style, so for plot. Edmondson's is an unapologetic roman-a-clef about a louche letch in Light Entz land. And despite predictable denials of autobiography, Humphries' Women in the Background stars a celebrated television drag act not a million sequins from Dame Edna Everage.

It's no coincidence that, for the couple of comedians whose fiction has less in common with their comedy, the dream was always to be a novelist in the first place. Rob Newman was an aspiring writer long before he fell into stand-up. Higson started writing novels when he was 14. King of the Ants, published 20 years later, "was the sixth one I'd written, but it was the first one of any interest to anyone other than myself". Paradoxically, it was the intervention of comedy that first encouraged Newman to shelve the fiction but then, by boosting his commercial clout, enabled him to return to it with vastly improved chances of success.

And, finally, writing novels is a roundabout way of getting back on the screen. To date, Stark is the only novel by a comedian to have been retranslated to the author's natural habitat. But Higson is currently adapting King of the Ants for a production company based in Chicago; one of his co-producers is George Wendt, who as Norm propped up the bar in Cheers. And both the Edmondson and Humphries debuts, which get under the skin of television celebrity, are exactly the kind of dramas that television is unlikely to let out of its clutches.

The only unanswerable question is why all of the above are men. There have never been so many prominent female comedians in this country, but none of them seems interested in locking themselves in the garret - unless you count Maureen Lipman. Where are the comic novels by French or Saunders, or Jo Brand? Arabella Weir, one of the stars of The Fast Show, has been approached about writing a novel. And Julie Walters definitely is doing one, provisionally entitled Maggie's Tree (though not due in the shops until autumn 1997). So expect a complementary tome from Victoria Wood.

"I find it absolutely extraordinary," says Weldon. "In a way I would have thought that there would be more female comedians." "Maybe they're not as arrogant as men," says Higson. "There's a huge amount of arrogance involved in thinking that somebody's going to be bothered to sit down and read your novel." Which is presumably why comedians, already tanked up on applause and laughter, make the transition so smoothly.

n 'The Gun Seller' by Hugh Laurie (Heinemann, pounds 12.99) is published on Thursday