Funny business

SLY COMEDY:  <i>Yes Minister</i> was  co-written by Jonathan Lynn, below.
SLY COMEDY: <i>Yes Minister</i> was co-written by Jonathan Lynn, below.

The wit behind TV classic Yes Minister and movie My Cousin Vinny shares some comedy tips with Adam Dudding. 

The trick to great comedy, says Jonathan Lynn, is to keep the room chilled, avoid puns, and make sure the audience can see your feet.

These three ploys may not be enough, so there are 147 more in Comedy Rules, a book by a man best known for writing the British TV comedy Yes Minister, but also a Hollywood director, theatre director, actor and novelist.


"This is not," writes Lynn in the opening sentence, "a practical handbook." But it kind of is, even if the idiosyncratic "rules" are fleshed out with memoir, from Lynn's early days in Cambridge's Footlights drama club in the 1960s, through to writing TV comedy and his adventures in Hollywood, where he directed The Whole Nine Yards and My Cousin Vinny. Some of the rules are advice (#92: Don't use puns), others observation (#72: The oldest source of comedy is the Ten Commandments) and yet others a prompt for an anecdote (#60: Don't try to sing a song on live TV unless you know the lyrics).

On the phone from the wealthy LA neighbourhood of Pacific Palisades, Lynn, 67, expanded a little on such rules as #18: Before the audience is admitted, the temperature in the theatre should not be more than 65 degrees Fahrenheit [18C]. What's that about?

Simple, says Lynn. You need a cool room to play comedy.

"People do as little as possible if they're really hot. They like to clutch a cold drink and stay still, and that's not conducive to having them rolling in the aisles.

"In America, where every theatre has air-conditioning, you do much better with comedies in the summer than you do in London where most theatres don't. Laughs are way down on a really hot night."

What about rule #143, which claims: You will get smaller and fewer laughs if they can't see your feet...?

This one, says Lynn, is rather mysterious – "the only rule in the book for which I have no explanation" – but true. Apparently Buster Keaton quit movies because the wide screen didn't show his feet. There are alternatives though, if what's hiding your feet is a church pulpit.

"If your hands are on view on the pulpit and the pulpit is touching the ground, your hands serve as sort of feet-substitutes – how you're grounded. But if you're just head and shoulders that doesn't work... It's very odd."

So much for tips. What about Lynn's claim in rule #40, that All comedians and comedy writers are angry? Should an aspiring but anger-free comic just give up?

Absolutely, says Lynn. "If you're not angry about anything, you're unlikely to denounce it funnily... If art is criticism of life – which I think it is – comedy is criticism of life by ridicule. And if you can't ridicule something, you can't make it funny."

In his book, Lynn fingers Bill Oddie and John Cleese – Cambridge Circus confederates in the 1960s – as two particularly angry young men, but he reckons even those funny folk who don't seem angry are "repressing it, or they're not showing it, or they've mellowed a bit".

What makes Jonathan Lynn angry?

"I'm pretty angry about hypocrisy... dishonesty, people who defraud the public. It enrages me when politicians or other people with the public trust don't honour their obligations."

Which helps explain his creation in 1980, with Antony Jay, of Yes Minister, in which muddling and idealistic minister Jim Hacker is endlessly thwarted by silver-tongued civil servant Sir Humphrey.

Lynn writes warmly about writing with Jay – passing a notepad back and forth across a table to create a stretch of dialogue – despite their political differences. Lynn was a stroppy leftie, distressed to learn Thatcher loved the show. Jay, meanwhile, was helping write the Tories' speeches on the quiet. The pair reunited last year to write a stage play of the show – a West End hit.

Politics didn't matter, says Lynn, because Yes Minister was about government, not politics. "We were never interested in solutions to problems – just identifying problems and making fun of what resulted."

And even now, if Lynn gets angry about hypocrisy or dishonesty, he doesn't stomp about or yell at the TV news.

"Why would I yell at it? They can't hear me. No, I go and try and write something funny that makes them look silly or ridiculous or wrong."

Comedy Rules: from the Cambridge Footlights to Yes Prime Minister, by Jonathan Lynn (Allen & Unwin, $39.99)

Sunday Star Times