Naoise Dolan on memoirs by Billy Connolly, Jimmy Carr and Katherine Ryan

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In addition to their Irish heritage, these comedians share an explicit flowing influence

A famous autobiographer must address a broad church. Some readers turn to these books as blueprints for success. Others want a whiff of scandal. Some poor sap went into the airport newsagent for a bottle of water and walked out with a signed hardback because they’d been up since stupid o’clock. The writer must address them all. You’d almost pity them, until you remember that a large audience brings mouth-watering sales.

Three comedians have recently given the medium their best shot: Billy Connolly, Windswept and Interesting (Hodder & Stoughton, £25); Jimmy Carr, Before & Laughter: A Life-Changing Book (Quercus Publishing£25) and Katherine Ryan, The Audacity (Bonnier Books Ltd, £20). All three have Irish heritage but were born abroad, and each belongs to a different comic generation: Connolly was born in 1942, Carr 30 years later and Ryan in 1983, so she just about falls under "millennial". Whether a generational bracket containing both Prince William and Timothée Chalamet can meaningfully describe anyone is another question – but certainly Ryan is the most concerned with the opinions of that mysterious animal, the youth.

There’s a kismet to these books being published within a few weeks of one another; in addition to the Irish heritage, the authors share an explicit flowing influence. Carr cites Connolly as a hero, and Ryan in turn pays homage to Carr. Perhaps as a result, there’s considerable overlap in the counsel all three offer, although that may be because the advice itself is well worn. That’s not to knock it. Cliches come about because they’re true enough to have been said a thousand times.

Carr describes a similar trajectory to Connolly's of finding humour in hardship. He had unsupported dyslexia, his mother had depression, and the 1980s were not a time when Irish was the best thing to be in England

Connolly, Carr and Ryan all run the tried-and-true life-experience-to-audience-lesson autobiographer’s circuit. It wouldn’t be a celebrity memoir if they didn’t hugely overestimate how replicable their own trajectory is for any chump reading about it, or complain about having to pay taxes. (If you wouldn’t tell a child that Santa isn’t real, don’t tell millionaire entertainers that the muggles pay taxes too.)


There’s also rampant name-dropping, although, in my experience, nobody name-drops anyone they’re really friends with. I was actually just discussing this with my chum Rihanna Fenty.

Windswept and Interesting is Connolly’s first full-length memoir. With both parents of partly Irish descent, he grew up in the 1940s and 1950s Glasgow tenements. He is impatient with those who assume that means he’s on the misery shill: “People say, ‘Oh, the deprivation!’” Nor, though, does he whitewash the pain of his mother leaving when he was four, living with an aunt so cruel that he became determined to prove her wrong, and his father sexually abusing him for years.

He started out not knowing his own strengths, but soon learned to play to them: “I didn’t know I was windswept and interesting until somebody told me… [A]fter that, I simply had to maintain my reputation.” From training as an apprentice welder, Connolly became a folk musician and eventually a superstar. His long tenure in live comedic performance ended when he received a double diagnosis of cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and he has since focused his creative energies on TV, art and now a book. When does he sleep?

Like Connolly, Carr is all about playing to your strengths in Before & Laughter: where Connolly’s smooth build-up suits his observational stand-up, Carr’s writing is as punchline-based as his routine. He describes a similar trajectory to Connolly’s of finding humour in hardship. He had unsupported dyslexia, his mother had depression, and the 1980s were not a time when Irish was the best thing to be in England. (It’s still not ideal to be Irish in England, but it could be worse – you could be English.) Then came Cambridge University, followed by corporate jobs until he left Shell in his mid-20s to pursue comedy.

The broad contours of Ryan's approach to stardom are similar to Connolly's and Carr's: recognise what you're good at, give it socks

Carr shares with Connolly a preference for attributing success to graft rather than mystic talent: not in the sense that you should blindly give anything your best go, but that you should find your comparative advantage and play to it. It’s a fair point well made, but he does go on a bit. The further Carr’s focus wanders from himself, the more bromidic the life tips become – then he docks at another personal anecdote and you’re anchored for a bit. There’s good stuff there, and plenty of waffle.

In The Audacity, Ryan, too, is more interesting on herself than on a little thing called life. She grew up in Canada with an Irish father, studied city planning at university, and worked as one of the signature scantily-clad waitresses at restaurant chain Hooters, a choice she seems convinced the reader will judge her for. (This material, I assume, is not directed at Generation OnlyFans.) After moving with a boyfriend to the UK, she set out as a comedian, had a daughter at 26 and ploughed onwards.

The broad contours of her approach to stardom are similar to Connolly’s and Carr’s: recognise what you’re good at, give it socks. But there’s a telling difference in the chief quality Ryan advocates: the titular “audacity”, asking for things, coming right out and saying it. She’s working off a greater assumption than the other two that her audience has been conditioned not to openly want things. As a female comedian, she’s probably right.

Comparing these lives shows up differences in opportunities, so it is fruitful to read them all together. No scrappy self-made narrative is without its blind spots. Carr congratulates himself on taking a 10-hour round trip for a 20-minute gig and £80; the circumstances allowing him to do this become obvious when Ryan recounts the safety concerns of travelling alone as a woman and of sleeping on floors next to strangers.

University was a given for both – Carr may have struggled in school until he found ways around his dyslexia, but there was no class-based assumption that he couldn’t progress – while this bourgeois starting point seems a million miles from Connolly’s.

The impact of starting advantages need not utterly undermine the importance of smart choices and hard work. We can always work with what we’re given. But “If I did it, so can you” becomes a less compelling self-help pitch when you remember that the author can’t possibly know what they had that you didn’t, what you’re up against that they weren’t.

Carr urges us to cultivate a high-demand skill and says the reason produce-pickers are poorly paid is that they weren’t smart enough to specialise. If everyone takes his advice, I wonder how he’ll get his fruit.

They advise not caring what others think, ploughing forward, being 'audacious' as Ryan puts it, but their careers float or sink by whether people pay to hear their jokes

Not everyone can be wealthy, because the meaning of wealth is having more than most people. This principle applies to celebrity: if you’re famous then far more people know you than you know back, so for every you there’s a lot of them. Bootstraps advice won’t bring everyone success, although I suppose by the “Be the ballsiest and life will reward you” rubric, the most deserving ones will win.

The autobiographies return again and again to a shared refrain of “I don’t give a f***ing f*** and nor should you”. There is always a neediness underpinning a person’s insistence that they do not crave your approval, and indeed elsewhere in their books the comedians concede that they’re hungry for validation. They advise not caring what others think, ploughing forward, being “audacious” as Ryan puts it, but their careers float or sink by whether people pay to hear their jokes.

This paradox perhaps explains Carr and Ryan’s odd fixation with “cancel culture”. Connolly made his career before the term hit the mainstream, but last year the Telegraph confidently claimed that he would be “cancelled” today. Awkwardly enough, Connolly announced a mere two months after that article that he had sold world rights to his memoir, and he’ll be discussing the book on platforms including The Graham Norton Show – but I’m sure the cancellation is coming any day now.

Ryan lands a “You’re cancelled” punchline every few chapters. Thankfully the repetition doesn’t spoil the jokes, since none of them are independently funny. Neither she nor Carr actually defines the “cancel culture” that they rail against. No reasonable definition encompasses abuse or death threats; it’s more accurate to define cancellation as ostracism, boycotting or shunning. Carr and Ryan are adamant that you can’t cast someone out of humanity for one ill-judged 2011 tweet. They’re right – you can’t, literally.

Neither of them points to any tangible consequence of “cancellation”. They are rich and famous and continue to be hired. Good for them, but this leaves me confused as to what exactly they feel “cancel culture” has done to them, or what it ever could do. Is it people getting cross with them on Twitter?

Carr’s book paraphrases the advice that if you’ve got a problem that your money can fix, then you do not have a problem. If you have a problem that deleting an app can fix, then you don’t have a problem either.

There’s something more interesting than reactionary thinking going on here. It’s not, I sense, that Carr and Ryan are hostile to social change. It’s that they have self-admittedly monetised their need for applause.

If you’ve always depended on adoration, and have largely found it forthcoming, then it comes to feel like a right. All an online “cancellation” does is withdraw a degree of public support that you were never particularly entitled to in the first place. You’ve gained a lot of it over a lifetime, you’ve just lost some of it, and your position remains far ahead of when you started. You’re no worse off post-cancellation than someone nobody has ever heard of, since it’s unlikely that any of the online strangers who now dislike you will show up in your life, and if they do then that’s not cancellation but harassment. And you’ll always have fans who’ll stick with you no matter what.

Comedians can take any heckle, since it’s an opportunity to get the crowd back on their side. Retaliatory tweeting rarely goes down so well: we’ve all seen a disastrous iPhone notes apology. Sometimes you have to just take it, and that can’t be easy for entertainers who pride themselves on turning things around. On the bright side, it’s just Twitter. Go outside.

A comedian's need for praise can hamper the clarity of their thinking, but that same quality can be a boon for the storytelling. Connolly, Carr and Ryan are writers and have always been

I’m interested in how creatives shape their past experiences into an overall narrative. Were they always going to be the person they currently are? That’s certainly what others seem to think. Now that I write novels for a living, journalists ask me if there were books in my childhood home. “Yeah, I guess so,” I’ll say; then the piece will claim I “grew up surrounded by books”, as if Penguin classics flew to me like birds to a Disney princess.

It’s not lying; it’s seeing what you want to see so you can write the piece you want to write. Do it to others, and it’s a profile interview. Do it to yourself, and it’s autobiography.

A comedian’s need for praise can hamper the clarity of their thinking, but that same quality can be a boon for the storytelling. Connolly, Carr and Ryan are writers and have always been. They can break down the construction of a joke and tell you exactly why one word is funnier than another. There is in all their prose an anxiety that this new audience won’t give them instant feedback. They can’t gauge your response and tidy up the sentences before you lend the book to your flatmate. They can’t see my face while I’m reading – I hope. (As Ryan points out, you never know who’s got ties to Murdoch.)

Sometimes this produces an over-anxiety to please, a desire to pre-empt any uncharitable view I might take of them, and the odd forced line. “You may think I’m very talented, funny and charming, not to mention the good looks and humbling modesty,” says Carr; ironically enough, everyone who regurgitates this joke thinks they’re the genius who came up with it.

More prominently, though, there's an entertainer's awareness that it's their job to keep you with them. All three show genuine respect for their readers, and that's enough to carry you through endless lists of famous people they know.

Naoise Dolan is the author of Exciting Times