Books The central idea of Ben Thompson's book Sunshine on Putty: The Golden Age of Comedy from Vic Reeves to The Office is that a period between the early nineties through to the low 00s was a new age in which comedy clambered through a renaissance which spoke of it's age more than any other media, and that we never had it so good. Initially, its difficult to disagree -- there was a hell of a lot good comedy in that period which is open for appraisal and re-appraisal. The problem is that Thompson tells a very judgemental story which makes the book very difficult to read in places.

The problem is that in choosing Vic Reeves as a gallows to hang this narrative about humour from Thomspon immediately alienates anyone who doesn't consider Reeve's comedy to be all that epoch making. Time and again in the book the writer makes grandiose claims about how everything in the nineties is a theoretic reaction to something Reeves has done, even in chapters which frankly have nothing to do with him. It its barmiest a sketch from The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer At Home with Slade is suggested to be a template for The Osbournes as though the producers had seen that rather cultish show and thought 'We should do that for real one day which someone like Ozzy Osbourne. That Vic Reeves is a genius!' While other shows merit only a line here and there, even Reeves' Saturday night gameshow Families At War merits a whole chapter. If you're a fan of Jim you'll probably love it. Everyone else is likely to wonder what the fuss was about.

Amongst all of this hero worship there are some very good individual chapters. The sections regarding the internal politics surround Armando Ianucci productions including The Day Today are well consider and enlightening. We learn for example that the contributions Stewart Lee and Richard Herring made to the radio version of that show On The Hour were edited out of the CD release because the pair and refused the deal he had offered them to take part in the TV version. We learn that pair might also have been responsible for the creation of Steve Coogan's alter ego Alan Partridge having written the first sketch all those years ago. The chapters considering Harry Hill and The League of Gentleman have also made me want to go and have a look at their work again.

But time and again irritations creep in which disrupt the flow of the book. Essentially anything Thompson doesn't like is given short shrift or ignored altogether. So The Book Group becomes a snide remark in a section about Black Books; People like Us gets a paragraph in the centre of the chapter about The Office and although they began in the late eighties neither Have I Got News For You or Red Dwarf are deemed important enough even though it spourned a hundred other comedy panel games as showcases for most of the comedians listed elsewhere (he seems to have forgotten that Reeves' Shooting Stars was seen at the time as a surreal twist on this existing format). And god forbid if your name is David Baddiel or you're one of his friends. Although the writer gives due reverence to the In Pieces tour for Baddiel and Newman 1, for all we can tell Baddiel is the antichrist of comedy just because he's written a few novels and appeared on judging panels.

There is also an extraordinary number of footnotes (272) which with careful rewriting could have been incorporated into the main body of the text; as they stand they the pages cluttered and difficlt to read as the eyes has to constantly jump back and forth from the main text. In many cases the information provided here might have coloured the text more directly and made the book overal easier to read.

There are also niggling factual errors; apparently in 2002 I'm Alan Partridge had its third season (so what happened to season two?); Grace Under Fire went out on BBC Two not Channel 4; he confuses Gotcha Oscars and Ntv from Noel's House Party; he says the American version of One Foot In The Grave never happened -- it was renamed Cosby, ran for four seasons and was featured in a BBC One documentary late last year. Nitpickery? Perhaps, but in a book which stakes a claim as being so well researched it makes the reader wonder the accuracy of other chapters which include information which isn't quite so knowable.

Which is a shame, because as I said in places it's a very enjoyable read, and certainly worth looking at for anyone with an interest in this area of comedy. But I'm sure that a great and more expansive book is still to be written which will encompass everyone's tastes from the era and not just those of the writer.


1. I'm doing this to show how irritating those footnotes are. If Thompson had been watching the video of In Pieces he might have noticed when Baddiel name checks a pre(fame) Richard Herring who's turned up late for the gig.

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