...this compilation of his favourite funny stories offers material both hilarious and unusual. Alongside Wodehouse and Saki are contemporary writers including Margaret Atwood and Ali Smith, the latter’s bizarre tale of an unusual encounter on a shopping trip being one of the best things here. It’s also hard to beat Kevin Barry’s uproarious Beer Trip to Llandudno – a finely wrought tale of alcohol-fuelled male bonding.
Pedants will complain that he stretches the definition of “story” beyond its limits to include personal favourites (a Tony Hancock script by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Joyce Grenfell monologues, two Pete and Dud sketches), but it’s difficult to grumble when his selections meet the basic criterion for such a collection by mostly being extremely funny. The usual suspects, from PG Wodehouse to Dorothy Parker, join the line-up, but Merton also shows a good eye for the less familiar.
Many, if not most, are firmly in the category of “funny peculiar” rather than “funny ha ha” — and some don’t seem intended to be funny in any way. Satyajit Ray’s The Two Comedians is perfectly charming and Katherine Mansfield’s dazzlingly good The Daughters of the Late Colonel is a lot more than that. Their authors, though, would surely have been startled, and possibly a bit miffed, to learn that anybody considered them among the funniest stories ever written.