Thursday 21 August 2014

Book review: "The Cheeky Monkey"

Tim Ferguson is a comedian, writer and producer. He has written and produced sitcoms, live stage comedy shows and light entertainment programmes, and is Australia's foremost teacher of screen comedy. He toured the world performing stand-up and musical comedy as a member of the Doug Anthony Allstars (DAAS). Tim is the author of The Cheeky Monkey and Carry a Big Stick.
     In this post we're only concerned with The Cheeky Monkey. I got my copy from Booktopia, after kept me hanging around waiting for six months. When I discovered that several pages were blank and others printed out of alignment, I rang Booktopia and a nice young man sent me a replacement copy; no fuss, no bother. 

There are a number of things to take into account when assessing something like a comedy instruction textbook. One of them is language. In her autobiography, Bossypants, Tina Fey gets the difficult stuff out of the way upfront. She offers a list of possible reasons why people might hate her, including the fact that she uses:
... all kinds of elitist words like "impervious" and "torpor."
That's on page 5. In contrast, Tim waits until page 74 to work in a solitary torpor. To be fair, he was talking about the TV show The Office at the time and Ricky Gervais can have that affect on people.
    So, only one torpor and no impervious; that can be construed as a mark in its favour. (I'm currently reading What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting by Marc Norman—that's the guy who wrote Shakespeare in Love—and I'm batting away words like zaftig and hegira and ritardando and priapic and crepuscular, so I'm a bit sensitive.)

The title of the book, The Cheeky Monkey, is a clever Australian choice, drawing as it does on long usage of the phrase to describe someone who is disrespectful, but in a cunning way. The weakness of the title is that it gives no clear indication that this book is almost entirely a description of how one goes about creating your very own TV sitcom.
    There are seven chapters; two deal with writing jokes and five deal with designing, creating and selling a sitcom.
    I've read a few comedy instruction books in my time. This one shocked me. Truthfully. If, like myself, you knew Tim Ferguson from a few brief appearances on television, you could be forgiven for thinking he was another Australian smartarse, with a big mouth, rapid delivery, and a capacity for holding a tune. It was the depth of his erudition that shocked me. Sure, he could only manage one torpor, but his grasp of comedy history around the world, on the one hand, and his tight, systematic delineation of the principles and categories of humour, on the other, surprised me. 

    Then I remembered that he was already teaching a course on comedy writing at RMIT University when he succumbed to demands that he write a textbook on the subject. He also teaches short courses at RMIT, UTS, VCA, AFTRS and in conjunction with a variety of screenwriting bodies. The dude might sound like a smartarse, but he's seriously bright and absolutely dedicated to what he does.

Who should read this book?

    Anybody working as a writer. Not just bespoke comedy writers. Every writer. If for no other reason than the application of the principles outlined will help you punch up your dialogue.

Tim says in his Introduction:

The aim is to offer comedy writers some broad principles and practical methods for devising and assessing their work.

The central purpose is to aid screenwriters in developing (a) sitcom.
And, yes, the book is riddled with jokes-by-way-of-example, the secret reason most of us have for reading comedy instruction books; a bit like reading Playboy for the photos articles.

The Cheeky Monkey: highly recommended.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am wary of 'how to be funny books' but Tim Ferguson seems to be getting to the heart of humour - idiosyncrasy. Now I will have to buy this book. Damn you, Henry.