Nick Hornby’s new novel, “Funny Girl,’’ mocks and dismantles two retrograde beliefs common in 1960s London: that televised situation comedy is an inferior creative medium and that beautiful women cannot be good comic actresses. His heroine is a beautiful woman named Barbara Parker who wants to be a comic actress, and she collaborates with a supporting cast of writers and actors to create a sitcom called “Barbara (and Jim).’’ The show succeeds despite the condemnation of stodgy cultural critics and Barbara succeeds despite numerous attempts by her sleazy agent, Brian, to make her a bikini model covered in gold spray paint.
The satiric comedy follows Barbara’s life and career in eight sections (from “Audition’’ through “First Series,’’ “Second Series,’’ finally to “From This Day Forward’’). It opens when Barbara flees her coronation as beauty queen of a provincial town and moves to London to pursue an acting career. Barbara wants to become a new Lucille Ball, the star of the sitcom “I Love Lucy,’’ but her initial prospects are bleak. She toils at a department store, considers becoming the mistress of a wealthy man, and gets rejected from countless casting calls arranged by Brian. (He changes her name from Barbara Parker to Sophie Straw to make people think of a roll in the hay.)
But Sophie has a gift for reinventing herself. She works through a voice-improvement program to get rid of any trace of her roots and develop a posh BBC-type accent. She also impresses a pair of disgruntled comedy writers at an audition with her quick wit and blunt assessments of their flawed script. They rewrite the script with her as a comic heroine, and the show gets picked up.
Hornby then follows Sophie, her costar, her director, and the pair of writers through four seasons of collaboration, bickering, and romantic entanglement on and off camera. Most of the book is set in the 1960s, but the novel ends with a poignant postlude in the present. The aging sitcom stars and their former writers reconvene for a final reunion show.
Hornby is an astute satirist of the egos and ambitions of his characters. The sitcom’s handsome but slow-witted male star is not very pleased to learn that his character has been relegated to a parenthetical in the show’s title, “Barbara (and Jim).’’ His mammoth self-regard blinds him to what the producers and audiences soon realize: Despite being a woman, Sophie is a much better actor. He’s even less happy when the writers make him sexually inexperienced and prone to impotence — “ ‘They’re sort of a droopy punctuation mark, aren’t they?’ ” one of the writers quips about the parentheses.
The two writers also get some good-natured ribbing. One has lofty aspirations to write something more than a television sitcom. He begins composing a novel with the belief that if he wants to get reviews, “every sentence had to contain a minimum of five subclauses.” When the novel is finally published to critical acclaim, the sitcom’s other writer feels guilty for making his partner work in television for so long. “It was as if he’d made Arthur Miller write lines for pet-food advertisements.”
As the hyperbole makes clear, the real target of the jokes is the idea that all television is vapid and commercial while all self-important prose with complex syntax is necessarily profound. The character who epitomizes this viewpoint is a priggish critic for the Times Literary Supplement who deplores what he calls “fatuous comedies about uneducated young women.” In one memorable scene, the critic debates the director of “Barbara (and Jim)’’ on the BBC and makes a total fool of himself.
Hornby doesn’t exactly romanticize television sitcoms; the pair of writers are the first to acknowledge how tired some of their favorite plot tropes are. They also grumble about the creative constraints imposed by weekly deadlines and the need to please broad audiences. But like Hornby himself, the television writers in “Funny Girl’’ realize that provocative art can also be popular. As one explains, the best television comedy “makes us all a part of something. That’s what I love about it. You laugh at the same thing as your boss and your mum and your next-door neighbor and the television critic of The Times and the Queen for all I know. It’s brilliant.” At its best moments, Hornby’s novel shows precisely the same quality.Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.