Edited by Malcolm Hardee and John Fleming

Take 18 comics, give them carte blanche to write a short story on whatever takes their fancy and this is the result.

Malcolm Hardee and John Fleming, who "sort of edited" Sit-Down Comedy, couldn't have chosen their contributors better, ensuring the credits read like a fantasy line-up for some mammoth comedy benefit, featuring the best names in the business.

Inevitably for an anthology of this type, the content is patchy, but it makes an intriguing read for any fans of stand-up. Rarely laugh-out-loud funny - but then what book is? - it nonetheless demonstrates that many of these top-notch comics have talents that stretch beyond the page.

Unsurprisingly, many have chosen to write about their own trade: Stewart Lee mourns the passing of the real entertainment mavericks like Hardee himself; alternative comedy pioneer John Dowie gets into the head of a Manningesque comic in his breathlessly entertaining yarn; and Simon Munnery allows a rant about the state of wit and satire slow down his otherwise splendidly whimsical tale unmasking Sherlock Holmes as a fraud.

Some contributions follow a similar style to their authors' stage act - it probably won't surprise many that Arthur Smith's effort is called The Man With Two Penises, (however his Dishonourable Discharge, also included, is a better read). Similarly, Ricky Grover's extremely short stories are perhaps the most straightforwardly funny, being, to all extents and purposes, stand-up routines.

Others have drawn on their own experiences. Ed Byrne's What I Don't Tell Journalists is his real answer to the newspaper hacks' hoary standby: "What's your most embarrassing moment?", and Stephen Frost's enthusiastic slide into a lost weekend certainly has the ring of truth.

Elsewhere, John Hegley shows he's as good with prose as he is with poetry with his captivatingly offbeat contribution, and Jim Tavare and Dave Thompson provide a wry account of life in an old folks' home with a twist in the tale.

But there are disappointments, too. Linda Smith and Hattie Hayridge's joint contribution A Day In The Life Of An Urban Nobody is almost unreadably bad, mistaking a clumsy, repetitive style for insight. And though it has its moments, Jeff Innocent's Cockney history hasn't got its tongue firmly enough in cheek to really come off.

Limited success comes from Jenny Éclair, whose Metamorphosis is a bit too simple an idea to sustain the length of an otherwise very readable tale; and Tim Vine, who extends his repertoire from one-liners to a full-blown story with a quirky page-turner only let down by a slightly frustrating writing style.

On the top end of the scale, though, there are some real delights: Boothby Graffoe's gruesomely slapstick Worst Serial Killer In The World is, literally, bloody funny; Owen O'Neill's The Basketcase is a cracking piece in the finest tradition of Tales Of The Unexpected; and Dominic Holland's Hobb's Journey is a real corker that leaves you wanting more.

Let's hope there's more of these anthologies, too. The stand-up turned novelist may have become a publishing cliché, but this provides a useful halfway house, giving comics an outlet for their literary ambitions - and providing a breezily entertaining read for the rest of us.

Steve Bennett
August 6, 2003

Published: 22 Sep 2006

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