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The rules for comics
Writer Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Prime Minister and author of the book Comedy Rules. Picture: Supplied.

In Comedy Rules, Jonathan Lynn's part-memoir, part how-to manual, he talks about the 120-year Cambridge institution that is The Footlights Dramatic Club. During his time at Cambridge University, where he read law, there was a campaign to allow women to join the club.

In those days 20 out of the 23 Cambridge colleges were all-male, and there was much consternation among those who had little experience of women. To make matters worse, some of the women who wanted to join "were pretty scary, including a short, foul-mouthed, entertaining lesbian called Miriam Margolyes and a tall, gangling, foul-mouthed, entertaining Australian called Germaine Greer".

"I liked them both," laughs Lynn as we sit chatting in a Melbourne hotel foyer. Lynn and co-writer Antony Jay's 2010 stage version of their much-loved 1980s TV series, Yes, Prime Minister had opened at that city's Comedy Theatre the previous night - but that's a story for another day.

Lynn, a Los Angeles-based English filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist, goes on to write: "Right after my second-year law exams was the annual Footlights revue at the Arts Theatre, called a Clump of Plinths, the revue which launched the careers of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, David Hatch and Jo Kendall. Not me. I played the drums in the orchestra pit."

However Lynn, who as a boy "wanted to be one of those people who could make everybody laugh . . . and think," did go on to have a successful career writing, producing, directing and acting in TV, film and theatre, as well as writing fiction and non-fiction. He is also Distinguished Artist in Residence at the American Film Institute,

He directed, and in some cases wrote, the screenplays for Wild Target, The Whole Nine Yards, The Distinguished Gentleman, Greedy (in which he also acted), Nuns on the Run and My Cousin Vinny; his TV series include the multi- award-winning Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, which he co-created with Jay.

As an actor he made his TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show; he has also appeared on Broadway in Cambridge Circus and played Motel the Tailor in the original London cast of Fiddler on the Roof.

So who better to write what actor and comedian Robbie Coltrane calls "a masterclass in comedy" with "rules" such as "comedy is necessarily cruel", "the oldest source of comedy is The Ten Commandments" and "everybody in the US has a moral duty to make jokes about the Republicans"?

I place "rules" in inverted commas because, according to Lynn, there are just too many exceptions. "You're never sure what's going to happen," he says.

"With experience you can mostly know if the audience is going to laugh at something. But nobody ever knows for certain. That's why plays are tried out before they open in major cities like London or New York. That's why film comedies always have test screenings."

But he does admit that experience helps. "You can get very good at predicting what particular line or particular moment will get a laugh," he says. "The one thing that's absolutely unknown is whether the audience come out having liked (the film or play) or not liked it. That's something that depends on all those unknowns that you're putting together for the first time."

And that rule about comedy being necessarily cruel? "Comedy and tragedy are essentially two sides of the same coin," he says.

"But comedy is more cruel than tragedy. Because the audience owns up and recognises the truth of something by relating it to their own behaviour. And without that recognition there are no laughs."

Lynn is working on a new comic novel about the American healthcare system and trying to get funding for some screenplays; there are also plans to adapt the Yes, Prime Minister play for the screen. But he's not complaining.

"I'm lucky that my work is my hobby, and that I have a job most people would love. I see no reason not to work just because it's called work. As far as I'm concerned, it's play."

Yes, Jonathan Lynn. <div class="endnote">

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