Book review: Getting The Joke by Oliver Double

Comedy, unlike some other art forms, is enjoyed more the less you know about how it works. The average stand-up-goer cares little for rules of three, instant character or exchanging energy, after all ‘it’s only a laugh, innit?’

In Getting The Joke, former stand-up Oliver Double details the subtle craftsmanship that goes into such seemingly frivolous entertainment, exposing some of the tricks of the trade but, more importantly, engendering a greater respect for the jester’s art.

It’s a comprehensive primer to the subject, starting with a brief (if sketchy) history of stand-up before tackling in turn the various attributes that make a successful comic: from stage persona, to writing style, to delivery techniques to work the audience

In the course of his research he interviewed 19 working comics, covering a broad spectrum of approaches, from the performance-driven surrealism of Harry Hill, the spontaneity of Ross Noble to the deadpan, oddball one-liners of Milton Jones. His frame of reference, though, is a lot broader than these modern names – which is perhaps only to be expected of someone who earns his living as a lecturer in comedy at the University of Kent.

It’s a job of which Double is over-defensive, emphatically protesting that comedy skills can be taught, and including a handful of example exercises to make his case. But whether you can ever truly teach someone to be a comedian – rather than simply giving them the knowledge to avoid the obvious pitfalls experience would quickly alert them to - is a moot point.

Double’s courses cater for this relentlessly expanding army of wannabe comedians, and its likely they will be the most avid readers of this book, a follow-up to his similarly themed 1997 book Stand-Up!, compared to the die-hard comedy fans who might also have an interest.

As such it serves as a useful guidebook stand-up, accurately describing the landscape in which comedians work. Most of his points, about comics’ need to find their own voice, about working a room, about rhythms and physical ways to present material, will be familiar to anyone who’s been around comics – professional or amateur – for any length of time.

But Double is informative without patronising those already familiar with the subject. And the advantage of Getting The Joke is that all the information is here in one, definitive volume, rather than being gradually collated from half-remembered conversations on car journeys back from miserable, remote, unpaid gigs. In fact, the only point he fails to mention is that there are far more aspiring comedians than could ever realistically hope to make a living in this competitive field.

For fans content to stay away from the microphone, the book is one of precious few taking a serious look at comedy, offering an insight into the stand-up’s world that, hopefully, will lead to a greater appreciation of those acts who treat comedy as an art, rather than as a series of tricks to elicit laughter.

Although a book can never hope to explain the alchemy that makes the best stand-up shows a magical experience, Getting The Joke is an engaging analysis of the mechanics behind it.

Getting The Joke by Oliver Double is published by Methuen at £9.99. Click here to order your copy from Amazon.

His earlier book, Stand Up!, is also available for £12.99. Click here


Steve Bennett
September 6, 2005

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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