Book review: Laughing Matters, by Steven Jacobi

Every so often, usually around Edinburgh Fringe time, some journalist – and frustrated performer – hits upon the idea of trying their hand at stand-up, hoping a week’s worth of gigs will prepare them for some bearpit of a venue where their comic genius will be rightfully recognised. Of course, it never works out quite like that and their dreams vanish as quickly as their dignity in the face of savage, unrelenting heckling

Well now Radio 4 contributor Stephen Jacobi has taken that idea one step further; using his brief flirtation with the stand-up scene’s open mic circuit as the premise for an entire book; extrapolating huge theories about the nature of comedy from his own unexceptional foray into its remotest corners.

So, armed with a grounding from the Amused Moose comedy course, he tackles about half a dozen modest gigs, not exactly dying on his backside, but rarely distinguishing himself either.

Yet from such limited experience, he postulates all manner of theories on the nature of comedy. One gig in Manchester’s student-dominated XS Malarkey, for instance, provokes a discourse about the differences between the differences between Northern and Southern reactions to humour – ignoring the fact that since his audience is mostly students, only a small proportion will actually come from the city where they study.

Similarly, he makes a trip to New York to see how his humour travels. This would be fine if it was, say, Frank Skinner testing out his proven material for an alien audience. But Jacobi undertakes the transatlantic trip just days after his worst ever gig at a Birmingham pub just four miles from where he was brought up. Travelling does not seem to be the problem here.

But what Jacobi lacks in experience, he makes up for in book learning. The text is liberally littered with theories from comics and thinkers who have gone before, making much of his book a faily uncritical commentary on accepted ideas, rather than suggesting anything new.

Even his experiences of performing aren’t particularly enlightening. He admits his heart is never really in it, giving him a detachment that protects him from the dizzying highs and depressing lows that may be a curse for comics, but would certainly add to the drama of the prose.

For all this, though, Jacobi is an unfussy, diverting writer - of books if not of stand-up. Laughing Matters is an easy read, inconsequential but surprisingly absorbing, and of obvious appeal to anyone with a passing interest in comedy. It won’t make you think, but will keep you reading.

Laughing Matters is published by Century at £10.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon at £7.69.

Steve Bennett
May 2, 2005

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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