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This is an occasional series, the Comedy Book Reviews, in which I’ll look at various books and tell you how useful I think they are to the budding comedy writer, or writer-performer.
Opening this book is like stepping back into the late 1980s. From the drop shadows on the geometric shapes that litter the pages, serving as – I can only guess – graphic design, to the choice of comics used as examples, to the description of the industry, this book is clearly 20 years out of date. Which is unsurprising, as it was first published in 1989.
Well, it is. Although the industry it describes isn’t a huge amount like the one that will face a comic in the UK, it’s fun to wallow in the world Bill Hicks described as his ‘flying saucer’ tour, one where there are actually clubs called things like ‘The Laugh-Inn’, and where Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Roseanne Barr are still working comics rather than bloated, corporate comedy brands. The industry may have changed, however, but the job hasn’t.
There’s a reason that this book is still in print (and pretty readily available) more than two decades after it was published. It gives a really good grounding in how to write and perform a particular kind of standup act. Admittedly, it’s standup of the confessional kind, the autobiographical kind, and the observational kind, but all of those styles are still relevant and popular today.
The joke-writing and material-generating techniques are still solid, and should enable anyone to craft a couple of minutes of decent gags about themselves, their situations, and the things they have noticed about the world. If that’s the style of comedy you’re interested in performing, then this is a good introduction.
Even if it isn’t, there are things to be gleaned in terms of structuring a set, setup and punch, and general rules about how to handle an audience and prepare for a gig. The section that deals with the more alternative forms of comedy: topical gags, character comedy, musical comedy or prop comedy is a little perfunctory, and this book is much more helpful for people who want to do straight standup.
This is a good basic primer I would recommend to all comics who are preparing an act to get up on a stage. The appendices and actual club and industry information are obviously of little use now, but the principles and ideas for material, how to generate and structure it, remain as true today as they were back when there was a Tory government, regular riots in London, IRA activity, and Libya was always in the news. Oh.