Funny People by Roy Smiles

Book review by Steve Bennett

In the Happy Families of life, what else could Mr Smiles be, other than a comedy writer? Briefly in a double-act called Smiles and Kemp, Roy has forged a much more successful career writing plays about comic greats, including Pythonesque, Ying Tong: A Walk With The Goons and Schmucks, about Jewish stand-ups.

Funny People is, as its subtitle `my Journey Through Comedy so accurately surmises, a brisk, 140-page canter through the comedians, sitcoms and funny films that have formed such a significant part of his life. In such short space it can neither be encyclopaedic nor intensely personal, but rather more like a written version of one of those 100 Greatest… shows, once so beloved of Channel 4, in which talking heads would share familiar opinions of familiar things, merely as an excuse to wallow in some clip-based nostalgia.

So each comedian has their life’s work boiled down to three paragraphs, if they’re lucky, but liberally laced with some of their greatest jokes. That means the book is continually funny, although it does feel a bit like cheating to go, in effect: ‘Isn’t the Simpsons funny? Here are my 40 favourite quotes…’ You could get that from a quick google.

But then his back catalogue of plays suggests that Smiles isn’t afraid to ride the coat-tales of the comedy elite – and, after all, these are damn good lines he’s repeating. Slightly more problematical are the sizeable extracts from his own stage productions, written in the style of the act he’s honouring, summing up the genius of The Goons, say, with an imitation that is bound to pale in comparison with Spike Milligan’s original. It doesn’t take a great mind to rewrite Abbot & Costello’s ‘Who’s on first base?’ skit so that it’s horses who have the comically confusing names, rather than baseball players – but it does avoid copyright problems.

Funny People might be shallow, but it’s also broad – broad enough to cover Daffy Duck, Lenny Bruce and Danny Kaye without so much as a gear change. And Smiles’s enthusiasm for comedy always shines through, so even though you’ll already be aware of the vast majority of shows and comedians he mentions, not to mention his largely uncontentious opinions of them, his passion is still likely to send you scuttling to YouTube or the DVD cupboard to revisit a few classics – or possibly discovering a few more. I’m certainly going to seek out The Gilmour Girls on the strength of the handful of whip-smart lines he reproduces here.

So while there’s a feeling of relatively little effort having gone into the book, it’s a reasonable, if throwaway, introduction to the greatest comic minds that every existed.

Published: 25 Jun 2011

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