Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Celebrity Pages: "The Sound Of Laughter" by Peter Kay

The Celebrity Pages: Reviewing Celebrity Autobiographies Since 2009!

The Sound Of Laughter

by Peter Kay

Peter Kay is a stand-up comedian from Bolton, whose main appeal is his use of northern charm to bluff his way through any situation. His comedy revolves around his own experiences in life, mostly as a child, which means that writing an autobiography that doesn’t simply recycle all of his material must’ve been a nightmare for him. To his credit, he manages to find a series of entirely new anecdotes to reveal to the reader, one after another, over the course of a light but entertaining book. At the same time, he never gives us any glimpse of the man behind the jokes, and is careful not to say anything which will lose any members of his passionate fanbase. If someone is a fan of Peter Kay and they pick up this book, they will be happy with it.

If you are not a particularly big fan of the Bolton lad already, then you’re going to have some issues with the story. My personal belief is that he recycles nostalgia as a way of fooling his audience into thinking that he’s revealing anything when he does stand-up. You may think that you are getting a full package from Kay, but there is a far more ambitious man at work than you he wants to let on. In the book, he pulls this trick all the time. Whenever he gets the chance to drop in a reference to an old TV show or comedian, he does it, and at the same time almost completely avoids making any reference to his personal life. We get instead a series of anecdotes which follow one another in roughly chronological fashion, fitted inside a framing sequence where he attempts to pass his driving test. These sections, which bookend the story, don’t really give us any insight into Kay at all, and focus instead on the failings of his various instructors. Here, as will happen often throughout the book, Kay makes himself the straight man to someone else, and therefore pushes the reader away.

The book reads as you’d expect from Kay, but his life turns out to have been frustratingly normal. The best chapter in the book by far is the penultimate one, where the twenty-something Kay finally tries his hand at stand-up comedy. The rest of the book chronicles his varying dead-end jobs as a teenager, as he moves from being a shop assistant to a cleaner in a bingo-hall and later a cinema usher. It’s during these chapters that Kay starts to finally warm up to his subject, and gives us a more detailed look at his surroundings. Again, we are given nothing of himself apart from the occasional glimpse, but Kay’s keen eye for details – so essential in his stand-up – keeps things ticking over. The various characters who walk into his life are vividly described, from the camp bingo-caller who tries to persuade his co-workers to “climb the rungs of the career ladder” until they can become bingo-callers themselves, to the stern and malicious boss at a cash-and-carry he works for. Each of these people is instantly recognisable and has a distinct voice, and stand out far more than Kay himself.

The anecdotes which comprise almost the entire book range from the entertaining (the most entertaining of the book sees him walk into a robbery. When told to “get down” by the robbers; Kay replies “you want me to dance?”) to the everyday. More often than not, the stories revolve around other people, leaving Kay again as the straight-man. His style of writing means that this is not too painful to read, although his tone is filled with odd little tics which distract from the stories. More than once he stops to explain some of the simpler jokes, presumably to justify the fact that he’s a comedian, and on a few annoying occasions he refers back to himself as he writes the book. These little habits aren’t too bad at first, but as he repeats them they begin to feel tired. His use of culture references certainly grates very quickly, with tangents and paragraphs about the most inane things taking up space. The most annoying thing is the glacial pace at which he moves.

It takes the entire book to reach the point where he finally decides to become a stand-up. Up until then we get to hear stories from his school (run by strict nuns whom he rebelled against – this would be one of the first signs of his future career, but he doesn’t go into any psychological depths as he tells it) through to teenage years spent in dead-end jobs. We get no further than this, and the only time he does anything different with the narrative is the one chapter he dedicates to University. Kay shows his ambition by stating that he knew he needed to go, but then shrugs off any insight and starts talking about scotch eggs instead. The chapter is revealing, but not in the way Kay intends it to be, painting him as a homesick flake who can’t decide on how to live his future. There is no talk of women, no hint of sex or drugs or scandal. It seems that he’s lived a very simple, happy childhood, which is good for him but dull for us. Scandal is what makes these sort of books work.

The penultimate chapter serves as a taster for the inevitable sequel, which will hopefully finally give us some sort of light on Peter Kay himself. The chapter, in which he takes part in a stand-up competition judged by his future co-writer on “Phoenix Nights” Dave Spikey, sees Kay speaking honestly about his performing fright backstage. The young comedian jettisons all his written jokes in favour of a more honest stand-up routine told simply and without any notes. It’s a risky, daring gambit which may or may not help him win (and given that he turns out to be up against a young Johnny Vegas, he needs all the help he can get), but it shows a true fighting spirit which is admirable and fascinating. If only this book had been so open and daring, it would’ve been a much more interesting read.


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