Sunday 18 March 2018

Comics... it's the way they sell 'em

A dire childhood and years of failure are good for sales, when professional jokers relate their life stories

Ellen DeGeneres, James Corden and Jason Manford
Ellen DeGeneres, James Corden and Jason Manford

Fiona Sturges

Comedians, eh? They're everywhere: filling up our arenas, clogging up chat-show sofas and now grinning needily from our bookshelves. Lately, the bestseller lists have been awash with comics' memoirs.

Michael McIntyre, Sarah Silverman, Jo Brand, Jack Dee, Dawn French, Dara O Briain and Russell Brand have all written their life stories in the past two years. Russell Brand managed to stretch his over two well-written tomes, doubling his profits. Peter Kay, having broken sales records in 2006 with his first book, The Sound of Laughter, now has three memoirs to his name, leading you to wonder exactly how action-packed one life can be. Even Nelson Mandela crammed his story into one volume.

The showbiz memoir is nothing new, but it's only recently become a publishing phenomenon, the ultimate cash cow in an industry with its eye on big names and a quick buck. Pop stars, politicians, TV presenters and actors: few in the public eye are immune to the lure of relating their oh-so-humble beginnings and the road to universal adoration in return for a hefty advance and a book tour.

Comedians in particular would seem perfect memoir fodder, invariably armed with the ready-made drama of an unhappy childhood survived by playing the fool, and success arriving after a lengthy struggle performing to one man and his dog in backroom dives. Furthermore, stand-up comics are, first and foremost, writers who are required to put pen to paper long before they take to the stage. Chances are they can at least string a sentence together.

It's no wonder, then, that this autumn has seen an unprecedented cascade of comics competing for the crucial Christmas market. After all, who wouldn't feel a rush of delight to see the stand-up and perennial panel show host Jason Manford peeking out of their Christmas stocking?

In keeping with the time-honoured template, Manford's Brung Up Proper (Ebury; £18.99) is the tale of a working-class boy done good, opening with the Dickensian moment in 1990 that his parents announced to their children that they couldn't afford presents that year. His childhood seems to last for centuries, and it is not until page 208 that Manford starts out as a stand-up. Startlingly he ends his book at the ripe old age of 21 (he's now 31), thus skipping the minor scandal that saw him leave a BBC presenting job after being caught sending saucy tweets to female fans. Doubtless, the second instalment is already on its way to his editor. This two-part strategy may work with Russell Brand, but it's a big risk for Manford who is lower down the comic pecking order.

Unlike Manford, Rob Brydon doesn't skimp on any unpalatable details in Small Man in a Book (Michael Joseph; £20), mainly because there's very little that can be deemed unpalatable in the life of a man with a middle-class background who is fast becoming a national treasure. Bravely breaching the conventional rags-to-riches narrative, Brydon admits that his childhood was secure and financially comfortable, and even his school days passed without incident. His career never really takes off; rather, it unfolds like a piece of origami. After 15 years toiling at voice-overs and in the theatre, he achieves Bafta-winning success with Human Remains and Marion & Geoff. Brydon writes very much as he talks, like an elderly grandmother pondering life from her armchair with a mixture of affection and bewilderment. All of which makes his book, despite its longueurs, one of the season's more engaging memoirs.

The same can't be said of his Gavin and Stacey co-star James Corden, in May I Have Your Attention, Please? (Century, £18.99). With its unrelenting tone of humility, the book wants so much to be liked that it all but jumps up and licks your face. It documents Corden's uneventful childhood in High Wycombe, his rise to fame via musicals, theatre and Hollyoaks, the kudos of Gavin and Stacey and the critical drubbing for Lesbian Vampire Killers, in which he played the lead. A desire to be popular and hang with the cool kids is the thread that binds it, and one that is thrown into excruciating relief as he talks up celebrity pals Michael McIntyre, Andy Murray and Piers Morgan.

Lee Evans suffers less snow-blindness in the face of celebrity in The Life of Lee (Michael Joseph; £20), possibly because, having helped turn stand-up into an arena-sized proposition and conquered Hollywood, he is one of the few comics who can genuinely lay claim to the term "star". Which makes his tone of self-pity in his memoir all the more infuriating. He talks repeatedly of being an outsider, on the Bristol estate where he spent his formative years, at schools where he used humour as a defence mechanism, and even in the cut-throat world of stand-up. It's not as if Evans, who had a brief career as a boxer, has no story to tell. Would that he would tell it without the endless whingeing.

Thank goodness, then, for Seriously ... I'm Kidding (Grand Central Publishing; £17.59) by the US comic and chat-show host Ellen DeGeneres, which contains pretty much all you would expect from a top-flight comic: wit, intelligence and illuminating anecdotes. As in her previous two titles, DeGeneres jettisons the conventional narrative of a memoir in favour of a series of essays that offer intriguing snapshots into her personal and professional life as well as her outlook on children, manners and the life-changing properties of kale.

As DeGeneres's book highlights, the last thing the reader wants in a celebrity memoir is to act as analyst to a desperately needy star. Those who offer well-chosen glimpses into their lives, knowing what not to share, succeed in this overcrowded market. As a comedian should know better than most: the secret is in the telling.

Seriously...I'm Kidding, By Ellen DeGeneres (Grand Central Publishing £17.59)

"How does the number of cats you have make you a lesbian? And why is three the lesbian number? Would having only two cats mean I'm straight? Would having four make me a super-lesbian? I'd like to make it clear for anyone who may think otherwise...having cats does not a lesbian make. There are a few other characteristics that define one as a lesbian."

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