Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes, Prime Minister
Minister of mirth sets out his policies
Jonathan Lynn weighs his words
By Jonathan Lynn
Faber and Faber, £14.99
This book by Yes, Prime Minister co-author (and my uncle)Jonathan Lynn is as hard to pin down as is its author.
Lynn is an actor, sitcom writer, novelist and a movie director. His versatility is both recounted and reflected in Comedy Rules, which is partly about the techniques for wringing laughs out of audiences on stage, screen or TV but also a charming memoir in which he recounts stories from almost five decades in show business.
I was lucky enough to see the rehearsals and recordings of a couple of episodes of the first series of Yes, Minister. I would also get an early look at his scripts, which were all typed by my mother! Even as a teenage nephew, I noted what a serious business this comedy seemed to be.
Some of the "rules" are counter-intuitive, for example: "Laughter is aggressive behaviour". Some are more like observations than rules, like: "All comedy professionals fear the audience." Other are plain surprising: "You will get smaller and fewer laughs if they can't see your feet."
However, even if you have little interest in why you laugh, Lynn proves that, in writing about the art, he is an accomplished practitioner. From his early days in the Cambridge Footlights with the likes of John Cleese, Bill Oddie, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle on tour (for reasons nobody could adequately explain) in New Zealand, Lynn takes us through his time as a writer on series including On The Buses, his collaboration with Antony Jay to write Yes Minister and his later career as a Hollywood director.
There are also passages detailing his relationships with various players and recalling key moments in his career. He writes poignantly about his good friend Jack Rosenthal, about his up-and-down professional and personal relationship with the infuriating but immensely talented Leonard Rossiter and very entertainingly about the gag which quite possibly cost him a knighthood.
This occurred when Margaret Thatcher acted in a Yes, Prime Minister sketch she had written herself at an award ceremony held by the National Viewers and Listeners Association. Lynn stepped forward and said: "I should like to thank Mrs Thatcher for finally taking her rightful place in the field of situation comedy." It was, he says, one of the biggest laughs he got in his whole career - but Mrs T did not get the joke.
The incident illustrates several of Lynn's points - that vanity, pomposity and hypocrisy are intrinsically funny; that comedy is necessarily cruel; and that all comedians and comedy writers are angry. Crucially, Lynn commendably follows his own rules, down to the 150th and last. "Leave them wanting more".
Simon Round is a JC writer