Book review: Comic Insights, by Franklyn Ajaye

It's a cliché that comedy is a serious business. And like most cliches, it's got more than an element of truth.

After reading Franklyn Ajaye's incisive guide to the stand-up's art, you might wonder why anyone would ever want to put themselves through the relentless routine of writing, performing and honing material that it takes to become a successful comedian.

Alternatively, if that craving to make 'em laugh still proves irresistible after all 289 pages, at least you'll have picked up a wealth of practical tips along the way.

Comic Insights is clearly aimed as a manual for the aspiring stand-up, and the aspiring American stand-up at that. Given the indefinable nature of comedy, Ajaye sensibly steers well clear of providing advice on how to be funny, concentrating instead on how to be more funny.

It's a book of three unequal thirds, starting with a definitive 'how to' guide for the would-be stand-up. This section is jam-packed with invaluable pearls of wisdom about the mechanics of the craft. These basic tips are often common sense, and are generally regarded as universal truths among performers, but they do need to be said, especially for the rookie.

Mostly, the key is self-awareness: knowing what makes your voice and persona uniquely funny; knowing how your delivery, stage presence and timing went,; and knowing how that affected the laughs you get.

Sensibly, Ajaye recommends aspiring stand-ups study their comedy idols to find out what makes them funny (though definitely not trying to blindly emulate them) and suggests you always record your faltering efforts on stage to analyse what went wrong - or right.

The book's crammed full of such fundamental tips, which no rookie should take to the stage without knowing.

Occasionally the language veers into the unfortunate buzzwords of the training industry, down to the bullet points for people too stupid to understand whole sentences, but there's no diluting the rock-solid advice at the heart of it.

Ajaye might be unknown on these shores - and possibly to a large extent in the US, too - but he has got 30 years of stage time under his belt, and you can't deny that he knows what he's talking about.

And even if you don't trust him, that experience has given him access to a raft of established performers for the series of honest interviews that comprise the bulk of the book.

Again, a lot of the names won't mean anything to your average Brit - and even comedy connoisseur might have trouble placing the likes of Louie Anderson and Richard Jeni. But these sit alongside the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Garry Shandling and Ellen DeGeneres any of whose advice has to be worth listening too.

A lot of these interviews are fairly old - many date from 1992, and some are even more antiquated - but the advice is pretty timeless, and comes from a collection of interview subjects that covers a wide range of comedy styles.

Ajaye isn't always the best inteviewer (or hasn't got the best editor), and has a habit of asking some dreadfully inconsequential questions. For example, of all you could ask Roseanne, what influence her Scorpio star sign has on her comedy wouldn't be top of most people's lists. Nonetheless, the gems of truth always do emerge alongside the trivia.

In the brief third portion of the book, Ajaye also talks to a small cross-sections industry folk - agents, managers, promoters - to provide a glimpse from that side of the business, too.

Some pieces of advice reveal a lot about the difference in the US and UK scenes - I can't think that coping with your first talk show appearance is as high on most British comic's worries as it seems to be with the Americans.

But this informative book - somewhat similar to William Cook's now out-of-print volume Ha Bloody Ha: Comedians Talking - should prove invaluable anyone about to start on their comedic journey, and even perhaps those with a couple of years under their belt.


Comic Insights is available on import from at £10.95 - more than £5 off the US price. Click to buy.

Steve Bennett
September 30, 2002

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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