In some ways, Julian Hall’s British cult comedy addition to the Rough Guides series is the sort of book I would have liked to write but shifted ten years forward. It’s simple in its format: page-long descriptions of 50 great alternative comics, 50 comedy TV shows, a bit about the biz, some geography, a toe into America’s influence on British comedy, and recommendations on what to buy and what websites to use. Any guide like this will naturally become dated, what with some of the recommendations still being on VHS, but what makes this book especially interesting is the fact that it is ten years old and a lot has changed. There’s a sidebar called “Women in comedy,” which I don’t think would have been written today. Today, the book would have just included acts like Bridget Christie, Isy Suttie, and Josie Long and let the talent speak for itself, rather than spending two pages explaining why Jo Brand and Jenny Eclair are exceptions to the rule that standup is a boy’s club.
This sort of book invites controversy with its myriad top ten lists. Like top ten “coolest live acts,” which covers Eddie Izzard to Tim Vine. I love Tim Vine, but is he “cool” in the way that Eddie Izzard is “cool” or does the author just like him? What about Mr. Bean being counted as one of the worst TV comedies ever? And there’s the minor issue of the cover: Ricky Gervais is used on the cover because he is recognizable and will help sell the book. After all, a cover is purely a marketing tool used to move inventory. I get it. At the same time, Gervais is not one of the 50 comics spotlighted nor is he really so much “cult” as he is mainstream. However, he does get a sidebar, and The Office is included in best 50 TV comedies, with Extras side-barred.