Comedy is a serious business. The number of young people who seek to make a living making other people laugh seems to grow every year. Jonathan Lynn starts Comedy Rules (Faber & Faber, £14.99) by insisting that it is not a primer for would-be writers, but of course it is, and much more.
Lynn was at Cambridge with the Pythons and the Goodies, co-wrote the Doctor series in the 1970s and Yes, Minister in the 1980s, and has since carved out a career directing comedy films in Hollywood, some of them funnier than others. But as Rule 138 (of 150) states, ‘Nobody knows how the audience will react to any play or film or joke.’ Like all comedy writers, Lynn can feel under-appreciated: the cast and producer of Yes, Minister were invited to the Baftas every year, while the men who created it watched it on TV at home. (Rule 101: ‘If you value your privacy, try to make your work famous and yourself unknown.’ But let’s not forget Rule 40: ‘All comedians and comedy writers are angry.’)
This tightly constructed, rather brilliant little book also finds room for sharp but fond portraits of Leonard Rossiter (‘a virtuoso player of his instrument: himself’) and Jack Rosenthal (‘He chain-smoked all through my audition, and for the next twenty-five years’). Best of all, Lynn makes it all look easy, which is the basic rule of comedy, and is only ever the product of long hours of hard work.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 13, 2011Tags: Book review, Bookends, Comedy