Comedy Rules, by Jonathan Lynn

Book review by Steve Bennett

For a man who was half-responsible for Sir Humphrey Appleby’s elaborately long-winded obfuscations in Yes Minister, Jonathan Lynn’s combination of memoir and tutorial is refreshingly concise, entertaining and informative.

Although co-writing the Whitehall comedy is the achievement for which he’s best known, it is only the cherry on the cake of his illustrious comic CV, which began in the Cambridge Footlights alongside John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor.

That show toured the world, and over the subsequent four decades, Lynn has acted in TV shows such as Doctor In The House, written for On the Buses (though he struggled with the working-class setting) and directed Hollywood films including My Cousin Vinny and, erm, the Steve Martin remake of Sgt Bilko, as well as several hit stage shows.

He can’t failed to have picked up a tip or two about comedy from all that – and, indeed, this breezy book contains 150 encapsulated wisdoms. And because you inevitably learn more from bad experiences than good ones, Lynn has a certain refreshing honesty about the mistakes he’s made.

The book, though, is not really about him; it’s about comedy, hence the ‘rules’ structure. Even through the personal anecdotes – the terrible guest houses the Cambridge Circus revue team endured in New Zealand, the embarrassment of having Margaret Thatcher like your comedy, his close friendship with genius playwright Jack Rosenthal – tend to be dinner-party anecdotes that reveal more about his subjects than him. Not that it’s a criticism, this witty book is all the better for putting entertainment first.

Leonard Rossiter is probably the most remarkable figure to emerge from the pages, for his irascible suffer-no-fools perfectionist attitude. But once Lynn got past this ‘surly and hostile’ exterior, a deep but brief friendship was formed, curtailed only by the Rising Damp star’s untimely death. Lynn’s eulogy, reproduced in the book, is tender, honest – and simply perfect, without being sentimental. For elsewhere, Lynn tells us that sentimentally – as opposed to sentiment – is anathema to good comedy. Rage is the best driving force.

These – like all the rules – are common-sense, but benefit from being said so succinctly. Anyone working, or hoping to work, in the business would be well-advised to read them, even if only as a refresher. Broad tips include the advice that if you start with an absurd premise, you must follow it through with total logic; if the band – or film crew – laugh loudly at a joke, you should probably cut it; and that more jeopardy means more comedy. More precise ones include the fact that an audience should never go into an auditorium at more than 75F (24C) if you want them to laugh.

One particular tip is that ‘if you value your privacy, make your work famous and yourself unknown’ – although that does seem to have backfired on Lynn on a number of occasions, as he has no qualms about sharing frustration he feels at being overlooked at the awards ceremonies that frequently honoured his shows – especially Yes Minister – while the actors are freely garlanded.

But the body of work Lynn has created is the important thing, not how many invitations to sparkly awards ceremonies he has amassed – and while that record might not unblemished, his contribution to comedy is immense, and this book a worthy addition to it. Count yourself lucky you can take a concise and funny masterclass in this guru’s wisdom, all for the price of a hardback book.

Published: 13 Sep 2011

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