Comedy Virtuoso Performances

Johnathan Ross 1987

A young Jonathan Ross on a commercial I worked on in 1987. He was affable and charming - how he is on the telly is pretty much how he is in real life - or at least he was then. I didn't see him again until I passed him on an up escalator as I was going down in LA: He was there for the Oscars. I wasn't. The commercial was for Academy Films which is still active today - but I have no idea what we were advertising. A savings bank of something?

Okay, so this was a piece I was doing for the Telegraph about what I felt were the funniest sections of comedy writing that I knew. There might be some funnier, but I don't know them. This was an early version of the 'List' phenomena which is all too prevalent in websites and YouTube movies these days. It was in print first.

Five Exceptional Extracts by Comedy Virtuosos.

A great written performance from a comedy virtuoso is as delightful and as captivating as a fine aria or a symphonic movement - and as rare. With only words, ink, paper and an inexplicably astute understanding of comedy, these writers projected what it is to be human across the empty gulf between writer and reader. If - as I believe - the reading/writing experience is the closest thing to telepathy we have, I put forward these five virtuosos as the most gifted proponents of the art.

Bill Bryson - The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

The section that describes how Mr. Milton takes the 'insane intention' to dive from the high board is an account that I challenge anyone to read without laughing. From Mr Milton's preparations to the dive itself: 'He seemed after a time to start to glow red, like an incoming meteor' and then to the aftermath, the scene plays perfectly from beginning to end. Bryson is always funny, but this is something very special.

Jerome K Jerome - Three Men in a Boat

The transportation of two cheeses from Liverpool to London by train is undiminished by the one hundred and twenty three years since it was penned. From the journey, where everyone decides to shun the compartment in which the cheese is stored, to the wife who refuses to live in the same house and 'checks into a boarding house', to where the cheese is eventually disposed on a beach at night which 'improved the air' of the unnamed seaside town, the story is a true gem. One imagines that Jerome honed it to perfection across many dinner tables.

Joseph Heller - Catch 22

My favourite jewel in a book that glistens brightly with fine penmanship is Milo Minderbinder's bizarre account of how he can sell eggs to the mess for less then he bought them for and still make a profit. In Milo's world commerce is everything, circular logic prevails, and all immorality subsumed by the notion that he is acting for everyone. And what is good for the syndicate, is good for everyone, because everyone is in the syndicate and everyone has a share. Simple.

Malcolm Bradbury - The History Man

Perhaps an unusual choice, but I was forever taken by Bradbury's fine eye for detail when he described the meeting between the students and faculty members of Watermouth University. If there is purgatory, then this is how I see it: Spending most of the meeting discussing not the meeting itself, but the manner in which the meeting be taken place. Anyone who has sat on a tedious conference and had the sudden notion that a dive out of the window might be eminently preferable, do read - or perhaps not.

Douglas Adams - Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

Spoiled for choice here, but my favourite among the many delights concocted by the master of the conceptual zinger has to be the Babel Fish. Not just because it is a beautiful idea in itself, but for the leap of narrative logic that sees Adams link the 'Mind bogglingly useful' translator into a cogent argument for the non-existence of God. They don't write them like they used to.

Originally written 2012, published online here for the first time.

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