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On hot air

James Cary


For a man, the easiest speech you'll ever give is at your wedding. You just have to thank people for the flowers and the cake and all the laughs are bonus. Any half-joke will be met with gales of guffaws. The best man has to follow that. It's a tough challenge and, being a comedy writer, I sometimes I get asked for help.

So I give this advice. Say the bride looks stunning, that the groom is lucky, and a total clown. Avoid light-hearted references to sexual deviance. They won't play. Keep it simple. Do not, and I cannot stress this enough, use Powerpoint. It won't work. The machinery will fail. The light will be wrong. People won't be able to see. The cable won't fit. Honestly. Don't do it.

Above all, be brief. Most best man speeches are normally way too long. Aim for ten minutes, not half an hour. If you finish before the audience want you too, they'll be pleasantly surprised and clap louder.

I realise this may be a little brusque, but my advice is at least practical. You might say that I should have more sympathy. But, being a sitcom writer, my life is essentially one best man's speech after another. Half-hour ones, not ten minute ones. Something I've written is performed to an audience. And then broadcast on radio or television to be scrutinised by a million people or more. There's an extra layer of baffling complexity since a roomful of people who've chosen to watch my show may have a different reaction to an indifferent public who have stumbled across my show on their TV or Radio.

And then there are the professional audience members: critics. I've had plenty of reviews in my time, positive and negative, well-written and embarrassing, but recently I had one which was both an honour and a harrowing experience. In the past, I've had my radio shows reviewed, mostly negatively, by the Daily Telegraph's Gillian Reynolds, the godmother of Radio. But now my TV show (Bluestone 42) has been reviewed by the godfather of TV: AA Gill in the Sunday Times.

AA Gill is an excellent wordsmith. He writes very good prose and his TV and restaurant reviews are extremely eloquent. However, one could argue that he is completely unfit to review television in general, since he clearly despises it. TV is a popular medium and AA Gill is undoubtedly an elitist - and I don't mean that pejoratively. But overall, he comes across as a tired, articulate man looking for something to hate.

I would argue, however, that he is completely unsuited to reviewing TV comedy, since he dislikes jokes and laughter. He publicly said so when reviewing Lead Balloon a few years ago: 'This series is part of a new trend of comedy shows that don't make you laugh; you just nod your head and mutter, "That's really funny." It's a Darwinian improvement on the tyranny of the set-up-gag guffaw, and I approve of it. Laughter is ugly and common.' Asking his opinion on TV comedy is like asking Simon Cowell to judge a flower-arranging competition. Why would you do that, other than to hear his entertainingly sneery tone?

AA Gill obviously hated my show. But he didn't just bat it away with a superior flick of the pen in one elegant paragraph. He spent two whole pages saying how much he loathed it and that it was practically a war crime and that everyone involved should be paraded through Wootten Bassett. He also did that thing that some critics do which is invent a show they'd like to see in their heads based on your title and idea, and then slam you for not writing that show. He did that, which is tiresome, not least because the show in his head is unbroadcastable on television. But why would he play by TV's rules when he despises it the idiotbox so much?

In a way, being pilloried by AA Gill is a great honour. Like being shot in the leg by a famous rapper. It's painful, but memorable and means you have, to some extent, arrived. And yet it still bothers me. How could it not? Something I spent two years writing is dismissed in two pages in the Sunday Times.

We all look for approval - from parents, peers or critics. I need to remember that God has seen far worse things in me than my writing, but loves me unconditionally. And that's all that matters. But I'm funny, right? RIGHT?