Humour: Parody poopers

Martin Rowson foresees a return to the simple pleasures of laughter in these straitened times

Sunday 30 November 2008 01:00 GMT

It's in the nature of publishing to plan ahead, and this is truer with so-called humour books than in almost any other area of the trade. After all, those TV tie-in paste-up jobs take time to be knocked together in the design department, and then you've got to get the damn things printed by tiny Chinese slave children to make sure the products are in the shops in time for Christmas – in other words, late July. So the accountants who commission the books can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee the horrors to come, between delivery and Christmas. Thus, none of the books under review foresaw the global economic meltdown. There's no 101 Things to Do With an Unemployed Hedge Fund Manager, which is a shame. True, there is a mordantly miserablist cartoon book in the shops at the moment, but as it's by me I don't suppose I should review it.

This year is marked by a near total absence of the previously popular strand of "Everything is Shit" kind of book, bemoaning the miseries of modern life. The closest books to that lamentable genre are Have a Nice Day! How Modern Life Drives You Mad by Adam Dant (Redstone Press £9.95) and My Godawful Life by "Sunny McCreary" (Boxtree £6.99). Dant's book is a series of cartoons where, in accordance with the Harvard professor Saul Rosenzweig's psychological test to measure latent aggression, the reader is supposed to fill in the punchlines in response to mildly irritating social encounters. It seems like a bit of a cheat to me, making the reader provide the gags. And although My Godawful Life is an occasionally wonderful pastiche of misery memoirs, this is one of those areas where the original will always outstrip parody.

Then again, if you feel like compounding your misery, just glance (but don't read – you can't) at Gavin and Stacey: From Barry to Billericay (HarperCollins £17.99) and The Mighty Book of Boosh (Canongate £19.99). For 15 long and fruitless years I've been insisting in this annual round-up that books of TV programmes just don't work. It's especially depressing that the creators of the two most consistently funny and inventive recent TV comedies should have been seduced into further encumbering the world with books that aren't books so much as souvenirs of the originals produced, untranslatably, in a different medium.

Enough carping, and let's get on to something that might actually succeed in making you laugh. Funnily enough, you could do a lot worse than The Best of Punch Cartoons (Prion £30), a handsome and weighty tome featuring 2,000 cartoons stretching over the 160 years of Punch's existence. Some of them, of course, haven't survived the various tests of time, but it's surprising how many have. One that hasn't, from 1848, has a caption 140 words long, but in mitigation both cartoon and caption are by William Makepeace Thackeray. Less prolix, but more likely to give you seizures, is Where's Bin Laden? by Daniel Lalic (New Holland £4.99), an exuberantly manic Where's Wally parody which comes with a free magnifying glass. One can only be grateful for such generosity in these troubled times, and for a book which is also an absorbing party game.

The same can be said for My Gonads Roar: The Twisted World of Anagrams by Richard Napier (Faber £9.99) which, like Where's Bin Laden?, is a simple idea admirably beaten to within an inch of its life. It also made me laugh out loud. So did the equally simple and equally funny idea behind Venn That Tune by Andrew Viner (Hodder £9.99), which renders great pop songs through the magic of mathematics, so one of the Hollies' greatest hits is represented by three intersecting circles labelled "Males", "Things that are heavy" and "My siblings", with a shaded intersection between the first and last sets. As with the anagrams book, this is something you can easily do at home, and believe me when I tell you that home entertainment is in for a big come back.

If you harbour greater ambitions, then try A Book for People Who Want to Become Stinking Rich but Aren't Quite Sure How (Boxtree £9.99) from the people who brought you This Diary Will Change Your Life, which is full of ludicrous and frequently surreal money-making scams. Sticking with self-help is Mark Crick's follow up to Kafka's Soup, Sartre's Sink: The Great Writers' Complete Book of DIY (Granta £10.99), parodying everyone from Goethe to Hunter S Thompson through their handy household hints. It also contains pastiche illustrations which aren't just funny and apt but also rather beautiful.

Sticking with pastiche, it's an enormous relief finally to hit on a comedy book with a telly tie-in which actually works. Written by Jenny Eclair and Judith Holder from TV's Grumpy Old Women, Wendy: The Bumper Bumper Book of Fun for Women of a Certain Age (Hodder £18.99) updates the famous teen mag for middle-aged women, in a format which is both clever and funny. The same is true of Andy Riley's DIY Dentistry... and Other Alarming Inventions (Hodder £9.99), in which the creator of Bunny Suicides brilliantly updates Heath Robinson (with acknowledgements, thank you very much) in his typical and commendably sick, frequently filthy fashion.

But enough of clever. I mean, just look where clever's got us with all those derivative financial instruments and stuff. For all our sakes, it's high time we reconnected with stupid (as opposed to dumb), so long as it makes us laugh. I freely admit I laughed like a drain at Grandma's Dead: Breaking Bad News with Baby Animals by Amanda McCall and Ben Schwartz (Boxtree £8.99), a collection of postcards of cute pets with messages such as "Daddy's never coming home" or "You're my least favourite child" in big friendly writing. I also laughed a lot at I Can Has Cheezburger? (Hodder £9.99), an anthology, from the website, of boneheadedly stupid photographs of cats with added captions. After the harrowing fat-cat cull of the last few months, I can't think of a more delightful Christmas gift for anyone.

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