As celebrities’ books go, the memoirs of Britain’s most popular comedians are not exactly rock ’n’ roll. In his autobiography Life, for example, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards recalls a three-day session with John Lennon that ended with the former Beatle “hugging the porcelain”.
By contrast, when David Mitchell (Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look) starts to earn money from comedy, he blows his new-found wealth mainly on more regular visits to PizzaExpress (“I couldn’t really think of much else to spend it on”). As for Miranda Hart, star of hit comedy Miranda, the wildest thing that has happened to her since becoming a household name is taking tea with French and Saunders. (An exception is Russell Brand, whose My Booky Wook details drink, drugs and sex addiction on a scale that might even impress Richards.)
Yet books about comic celebrities have, over the past five years, become a serious business – particularly in the run-up to Christmas, when the big-name titles are published. According to The Bookseller, Hart’s Is it Just Me? is not only the biggest-selling comedians’ book this year (193,000 copies sold to date), but the bestselling celebrity book. With a couple of weeks’ present buying to go, it is ahead of Cheryl: My Story, by pop star and former X Factor judge Cheryl Cole (170,000), Rod: The Autobiography (146,000) by enduring rocker Rod Stewart, and this year’s eccentric hit, My Animals and Other Family by TV presenter Clare Balding (107,000).
Have comedians’ books become the new celebrity memoirs? Data from Nielsen BookScan show that four of the five bestsellers in the celebrity biography/memoir category, since records began in 1998, were by comedians. Peter Kay’s Sound of Laughter (2006, 1.3m copies sold); Dawn French’s Dear Fatty (2008, 980,000), Paul O’Grady’s At My Mother’s Knee (2008, 950,000) and Brand’s My Booky Wook (2007, 820,000).
Though comedians’ books existed before this, these titles seemed to define a new phase for the genre. Fittingly, for books about comedy, timing also played a part in their success. After the collapse of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, which had prevented books being sold for less than the price set by the publisher, titles were stocked higher and sold cheaper by supermarkets. In this new marketplace, books about people off the television, where comedians were becoming ubiquitous on roadshows and quiz show panels, found a mass audience.
This explains some but not all of the appeal of these books, which like many celebrity biographies, are not always written by the celebrity themselves. So what is it that readers find so enthralling? One leading ghostwriter of comedians’ books told me: “Comedians’ books are about famous people with a perspective on life that is amusing. They also have a slightly outsidery perspective, which you perhaps wouldn’t find in books by, say, Cheryl Cole or Victoria Beckham, which are basically the story of ‘how I became famous’. Also, the hope is that comedians will bring to their books an insight or ability to build character or a facility for language.”
If comedians’ insights into our lives are what attracts us to them, what do their own books really tell us about their own lives as successful modern-day comedians – and about what makes them tick?
Reading the latest books by high-profile comedians, one might reasonably form the impression that almost everyone in comedy had an affluent childhood in southern England, excessively enjoyed dressing-up games, and attended private schools. After this, they left for university with a strong yearning to get involved in drama. Certainly, the current crop – Back Story by Mitchell (“a slightly tweedy person with strong views,”), Camp David by David Walliams (“the taller, less funny one” in Little Britain) and Is it Just Me? by Hart, dedicated to “my dear reader chum” – shines a light on a remarkably middle-class cross-section of the comedy world.
A comfortable suburban upbringing is not usually associated with great struggle. Yet Mitchell is quick to point out he is not as posh as people think (“There is no way that two polytechnic lecturers like my parents could afford to send their sons to Abingdon nowadays”). Hart, perhaps conscious that she is posher than people think (she is descended from the 17th-century Hart-Dyke baronetcy), refers to her “deeply traditional” all-girls boarding school only as “Mallory Towers”.
At Cambridge, Mitchell becomes president of the famous drama club whose past members are a who’s who of British comedy performers and writers: Peter Cook, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Michael Frayn among them. However, he is well aware that “My Footlights Struggle” is not very fertile ground for a misery memoir. In any case he is suspicious of the idea that comedy comes from pain, believing this to be something dreamt up by magazine interviewers.
Walliams’ pain is evident – he is close to his mother but finds his father remote. “I never felt good enough to be his son,” he notes sadly. Even as he clowns at school, he is hit by the first of several swooping depressions and on a scout trip tries – not for the last time – to kill himself.
The need to make people laugh, and the attention it brings, is a key early realisation for the young comedians. All describe feeling different from other kids (“I felt I should be more into Lego,” Mitchell recalls). Yet as Walliams observes: “If I had been doing all those things everyone else had been doing I don’t think I would have been bothered to become a comedian.”
The story of Lee Mack, stand-up and star of the quickfire sitcom Not Going Out, offers another perspective on how comedians are formed. Mack the Life recounts his upbringing as the child of publican parents who split when his dad walked out during a family holiday in Spain, and how he came to live at eight different addresses by the time he was 12.
Mack’s chaotic childhood aside, the stories these comedians have to tell are less obviously compelling than the likes of Brand or O’Grady, the Birkenhead altar boy who became the gruesomely funny drag queen Lily Savage, or even Stephen Fry in his painfully candid The Fry Chronicles (2010).
Instead, Mitchell and Hart rely on the characteristics that have made them popular TV comedians – or, in Hart’s case, on a larger-than-life sitcom character. Both books carry a rather tortuous metaphor that highlights this. In Is it Just Me? Hart spends much of the book addressing her 18-year-old self, who would have been horrified by the prospect of what lay ahead (“Oh, Big Miranda, that’s appalls-balls”) yet is eventually reassured that things will turn out fine. In Back Story, Mitchell interweaves his life story with the description of a long walk round London, a knowing nod to anyone who was deluded enough to view his book as the kind of “personal journey” celebrities love to take us on.
In the period that followed the success of memoirs by the likes of Brand and O’Grady, says the ghostwriter, “publishers began to gamble big money on comedians who simply didn’t have much of a story to tell”. Michael McIntyre was paid a reported advance of £2.3m to write Life and Laughing (2010), which began: “I am writing this on my new 27-inch iMac ... I bought it especially to write my book (the one you’re reading now).”
That McIntyre’s book has sold more than 600,000 copies so far (400,000 in hardback), is more down to his huge popularity as a comic than the intrinsic drama of his life story. But the equation of popular comic equals huge-selling memoir doesn’t always hold. Jason Manford, a kind of junior Peter Kay who also plays to large arenas, has sold fewer than 20,000 of his memoir Brung up Proper (2011).
The reality is that though increasing numbers of comedians have benefited from TV’s comedy boom, few have the widespread appeal of a Kay, or a McIntyre. Mitchell neatly puts his finger on this, recalling an occasion on which he was introduced to a former foreign secretary: “‘Oh, you’re David Mitchell,’ said David Miliband, adding politely to my companion: ‘I love his books.’”
Despite their apparent early cravings for acclaim, the comedians here seem wary of fame. It may partly be to do with their ages – all are of a generation that was inspired by the possibilities of 1980s alternative comedy but started out at a time when the idea of comedians touring huge arenas – or, like Jimmy Carr, becoming the subject of tax avoidance scandals – would have seemed a strange joke.
Mack writes: “It’s easy for the brain to convince itself that ‘most people think I’m hilarious’. But ... most people in the real world are actually very indifferent about most performers.”
The ambivalence also seems down to the sheer insecurity of being a comedian, where one night you can go down a storm, the next you can die on stage. Then there are the critics. Walliams is exultant when the former TV critic Victor Lewis-Smith, who has previously dismissed him as “dismally untalented”, gives him a good review.
As for any person with a degree of fame, increased scrutiny brings downsides. For successful comedians there are some unique complications. For a start, people expect you to be hilarious all the time. More seriously, for comics who may have grown used to seeing themselves as outsiders, the sudden sense of insiderdom that can accompany fame brings a new tension – how does one stay an outsider?
The comedian Stewart Lee, in his book, The ‘If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One’ EP, writes: “To the casual observer I was suddenly a powerful figure of sorts, to all intents and purposes a denizen of the same sequinned world as many of the glitzy celebrities I sneer at for money.”
Mitchell, who with comedy partner Robert Webb was accused by some fans of selling out when they advertised Apple computers, writes: “You want to be popular, you want people to like you. But if too many do, those who liked you most intensely at the outset start to turn away – they think you’ve sold out. They don’t realise that, in one sense, you were always trying to sell out but now you’ve got more buyers.”
For all these reasons they can be coy about how they represent their fame – while acknowledging that one of the reasons people buy such books is because they want to know what famous comedians are really like. The exception is Walliams, who could namedrop for (little) Britain. “Years later I had dinner with Sir Ridley Scott when we both happened to be on holiday in the Turks and Caicos Islands and I told him the story. He laughed uproariously.”
The ghostwriter believes the success of the memoir genre has persuaded some comedians that they don’t have to give much away – at least not straight away. “At the start people thought, ‘I will tell my story.’ Now people think, ‘I shouldn’t say that or I’ll get in trouble.’ Or they hold back for a second volume.”
Of the earlier hit memoirists, Kay, Fry and Brand have all produced sequels with very respectable sales, while Paul O’Grady, now a TV presenter, is on to his third volume, which has already sold more than 100,000 copies. In Camp David, Walliams ends his “autobiography” in 2003, as Little Britain airs, with the clear intention that it is “to be continued ... ”
Should we expect books by comedians to be funny? Not always. And, on the evidence of the latest crop, not often. Though all are writers of fine comedy, over the course of a 300-page narrative they tend to rely on a kind of hyper self-conscious “Look, I’m writing a book” style seen in McIntyre’s introduction. (Camp David has the most affecting narrative and least grating voice.) Throwaway jokes interrupt the text with manic regularity. Maybe they don’t want to give away their best material. More likely it is the difference between delivering jokes that work on a page rather than jokes to be spoken on TV or on stage.
Mitchell, Walliams and Mack are all revealing about the long and often painfully slow process of creating, failing, and trying again – and of the reductive way that much TV comedy gets made. Walliams recalls seeing a poster at the offices of BBC3 listing the features of “The BBC3 viewer” – Jacqui, 23, Drinks Bacardi Breezers.
But mainly the books seem aware that most readers are more interested in celebrity than in the workings of comedy. There are titles, such as Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate (2010) and the US comedian Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up (2007), which have entertainingly analysed the craft of comedy and, in this way, revealed more about the writer than a conventional narrative might. But while such books enthral comedy enthusiasts, they are unlikely to redefine the mass-market memoir.
Is the comedy book bubble about to burst? In both artistic and sales terms, there are questions to be considered. Hart’s sales are good but they are a long way ahead of Walliams at around 50,000, and Mack and Mitchell’s sales so far have been less than 15,000 each. Against this backdrop, the balancing act for publishers – between finding comedians people like and those that have a story – becomes harder. The ghostwriter says: “Up to 2010, cookery and comedy books reigned but since then publishers have struggled to find the dominant book. It’s a high stakes game in terms of how much they spend. The problem now is that they are so invested in getting a book out that the discipline goes.”
What do we learn from the latest comic memoirs? That Prince William likes Not Going Out. That Miranda Hart is exactly like Miranda off the telly. And that pretty much all comedians agree Steve Coogan is a genius. Tellingly, Coogan’s recent book I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, was a devastatingly funny spoof – of the celebrity memoir.
Neil O’Sullivan is deputy editor of Life & Arts