Books: Drowned out by wisecracks

Comedian Neil Mullarkey wields a relentless schtik on stage as a spoof life coach, but does his act stand up on the page? For Peter York, it's just an alphabet soup.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Don't Be Needy Be Succeedy: The A to Zee of Motivitality
L Vaughan Spencer
Profile Books

When the broadsheets wrote up the stand-up comedian Neil Mullarkey's new 2002 act at the Edinburgh Festival, a little something in me died. Mullarkey - in character as L Vaughan Spencer, motivational speaker - was spoofing the whole crazed Anglo-American world of Cool Culture Change and Bonding with Attitude. I was upset because I'd meant to do it for years and here was this stand-up stealing my pitch. I felt rather the same when Lucy Kellaway's funny alter-ego, Martin Lukes, published his Who Moved My BlackBerry? (Viking) in 2005.

Motivational speakers were an obvious target. When business aims for quasi-academic dignity, Creative Industries cool or religious fervour it looks and sounds extra-silly. The natural language of business is often pretty narrow and colourless and there's a huge temptation to elevate it with borrowed interest from the smarter bits of the wider world.

The writers of airport business books can't just do Plain English; they have to have diagrams of stunning banality illustrating pretty tendentious ideas. And they have to have memorable references that suggest they've read more than Accountancy Law Digest 1968-2008. So they haul in Clausewitz or ancient Chinese sages, Stalin and Savonarola - all of them traduced - to supply lower-middling dinner-party anecdotes and bad speeches.

Lately, for the wannabe iPod and Nike generation of managers, the 35-to-fifties who've grown up on the Comedy Store cohort, the style and wisdom of coolhunters and comedians have penetrated the change-management and conference-bonding circuit, along with a whole sub-Channel 4 vocabulary of music, comedy and popular culture references.

Business ached to be hip in the '90s because hip businesses like Apple and Nike returned super-normal profits. Men in polyester-rich suits learnt that you shouldn't wear ties with them, knew that modernity was a buzz-cut if you were balding and a Tintin/Hoxton Fin if you weren't.

So, out there in office park land, there was a new job description - groovy motivational speaker - just ripe for satire and spoof. Spoof is now the middlebrow media answer to practically everything. On TV and in print, from C4's Nathan Barley by Chris Morris as to all those Christmas funny books, it has got a familiar formula.

But there are diminishing returns when you spoof something that is practically beyond parody - the motivational speakers who ask their audiences to imagine themselves as Red Indians or Spidermen scaling peaks of success.

To get the laughs, you really have to know your subject, and then stretch and distort it by just a millimetre. Tina Fey, Sarah Palin's influential impersonator, simply delivered the Alaskan governor's verbatim replies in a knowing way to devastating effect. It was enough. But Mullarkey's Don't Be Needy Be Succeedy, the Christmas book of his act as L Vaughan Spencer, life coach, is all over the place.

In a page I went from festering jealousy to sympathetic despair. The Spencer character is somewhere between the old American archetypes (from Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins) with aluminium suits and hectically over-capped teeth, and the '80s generation of coolhunters with a hint of the David Brent middle-management loser. It's exhausting.

If you're spoofing, it helps to have a clear-cut target. Here, no sentence goes unturned in the scramble for jokes. In a short but unstructured book, Mullarkey just can't stop. It may all work on stage, but it's really wearing to read.

Mullarkey, ex-Cambridge Footlights, of course, thinks Luton and Stevenage are so immensely hilarious, the more you reference them the better. There's a lot of sub-Alan Partridge stuff like this, laid on far too heavy. And there are masses of music quotes, from the Clash to Status Quo.

What you don't get is any sense of, say, the desperation that shapes Partridge or Brent, or their world-views as time and class capsules. Business books have ideas and Ten Point Programmes. They have bullet-points and summaries and careful repetition. They have homely Before and After anecdotes with Unforgettable Characters, religiose Road-to-Damascus conversions and Pathways to Success.

Needy... Succeedy just has an alphabet of close-packed jokes. It must have been as tiring to write as it is to read. If you pull up any paragraph there'll be the gem of a good idea or a clever insight thrown away because he's underdeveloped it or overplayed it, or just drowned it out with all that relentless wisecracking.

Mullarkey is part of a golden generation of early '80s Comedy Store comedians, most of whom you'd immediately recognise. He has been paired with all sorts of household names, particularly Mike Myers when he was working here. And he has been in masses of things I must have seen. And yet, oddly, I'm not sure whether I recognise him from his website.

But dig deeper, as they say, and you realise Mullarkey/Spencer must be a big star wherever real managers gather to bond, develop and Think Outside The Box. Because this spoof speaker is clearly working the real-life corporate circuit, and he's probably going down a storm - so what do I know?

One little thought to cherish, however. Which best-selling airport management book of 2007, written by three men with significant middle initials (one Scandi, one Jewish and one Indian, of course), with its highly rated, high-concept idea, was actually written by me during a month-long sabbatical at the Hartlepool Hilton?

Peter York is CEO of brand strategy consultants SRU. He co-wrote Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The return of the Sloane Ranger (Atlantic, £19.99).

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