DO YOU REMEMBER THE MOMENT in Dickens's A Christmas Carol that sees Scrooge's toff nephew Fred having a whale of a time with his chums over Christmas dinner?
They're killing themselves laughing over how miserly and horrid Scrooge is. Well it seems, in looking at this year's offering of festive humour books, that little has changed; apparently we still only find things funny if they are cruel, cutting and satirical. I look at this year's line-up and wonder: what happened to good old-fashioned fun?
Let's begin this inspection of the cynical masses with the media satires, and what a lot of them there are. Halfwit Nation (Constable, 9.99) is written by Paul Stokes and Neil Rafferty, creators of The Daily Mash, a humour website that imagines a world without euphemisms and editors, meaning headlines such as "Bulimia not the same as being greedy bastard" and "Beckham unable to pronounce 'scientology' ". The humour is of the broadly misogynistic, low-intellect and "if in doubt be smutty" variety, but then, if it's tabloids they're imitating, they aren't far off the mark.
A book of similar tone, but superior quality, is the indomitable Private Eye Annual (Private Eye Productions Ltd, 9.99). Edited by the magazine's acerbic overlord and Have I Got News for You captain Ian Hislop, it is satire in its truest form. The book is dotted with Private Eye's trademark speech bubbles, cartoons and puns and the brilliance of the humour is testament to its intelligent approach. Many items take a moment or two to get – for example, a cartoon of four amputated hands with the caption "Hands up all those against Sharia Law" – but once you're there you revel in the wicked humour and the slightly smug feeling that you finally got the joke.
Intelligence is something that The Onion's: Our Dumb World (Orion Books, 10.99) could have done with slightly more of. What the website provides in this annual mock atlas is a country by country compilation of national insults; "Germany: Genocide-Free since April 11"; "Ethiopia: The distended Belly of Africa". The production quality is high, as glossy pages, large maps and colour photos create the impression of a high-end geographical text, which adds to the satire. The introduction is ingenious, offering tips on how to skim, not read, the book – it's exactly what you want to do with this laugh out loud funny volume. However, many may feel that the spoof goes a little far. The page on The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, features a mocked-up picture of two starving children eating from their friend's carcass with the caption: "Two Congolese children meet up with an old friend for lunch."
Perhaps political satire is not the place to look for light-hearted laughs; let's turn to language instead. There seems to be a movement of late, catalysed by the utterly different but equally influential figures of Stephen Fry and Russell Brand, toward lexical wizardry, semantic dexterity and polysyllabic outpourings – a tendency, in short, to seem as if you are choking on a thesaurus. Such wordiness seems to be a rebellion against the invasion of brainless plonkers that usually populate our screens and magazines, or at least that's the theory behind Chris Addison's Christmas joke book It Wasn't Me (Hodder and Stoughton, 12.99).
Addison looks at our culture of blame shifting and provides a comprehensive list of all the reasons that everything wrong with the world is not your fault. These useful excuses are divided into quick reference chapters so you can flick from the flaws in democracy to the problem with fat people in one easy move – and they are brilliantly funny. I love Addison's furious lack of tact.
In discussing the scourge on humanity caused by the bigger-boned, he warns "if it weren't for all the overeating being done then we wouldn't have to import quite so much food, which would both slash our national carbon footprint and mean fewer lorries coming into the country for all the illegal immigrants to cling to the bottom of."
OK, so factually it's weak, but it's high on entertainment value. Be warned, however, that after several pages Addison's wordy style may start to grate – for example, instead of "sheet-wearing olive-guzzlers", why can't he just say "Greeks"?
Addison, however, for all his charming phraseology, joins the comic masses this Christmas in not being able to find a nice word to say about anyone. Of course, the NHS gets a poke in the eye, as does the media, the poor, China, America, Russia, the youth, the oldies – everyone gets a good old dressing down. A quick flick through the humour section this Christmas and you'll not come away thinking how funny we British are, but rather, you'll wonder when we all got so angry?
Seeing as we are so hellbent on being unpleasant we may as well learn how to express ourselves in a Brand/Fry/Addison style and try and up our vocab quota. The perfect tool for such a project is Jonathon Green's Getting Off at Gateshead: The Stories Behind the Dirtiest Words and Phrases in English (Quercus Publishing, 9.99). Green tells you how to be thoroughly disgusting this Christmas while remaining grammatically correct. He provides information on how to tell Cupid's cloister from his kettledrums and how not to get blown with a French faggot's stick, when to wear an arsehole perisher and why you really shouldn't get off at Gateshead. There are four densely packed sides on what to call a menstruating woman and another four on the etymology and usage of "the c-word" – just the kind of thing for your grandad's stocking. Or perhaps not.
What could be perfect for grandad's stocking is The Best of British Comedy: Dad's Army (HarperCollins, 7). Flicking through its colourful pages, bursting with bits of script, comedy photos and "did you know?" boxes, it's refreshing to read something a little less aggressive than our contemporary comics seem to offer. There are heaps of printed sections of script which are crying out to be reenacted on Christmas Day, just pop a sieve on your head, once it's free from the potatoes, and demand to be Captain Mainwaring. Great fun.
Equally innocent and enjoyable are the top newspaper strip compilations. There's Fred Basset by Alex Graham (Orion, 5.99) and The Complete Peanuts (Canongate, 15), which goes back to the comic strip's beginnings in the 1950s and is now in its third volume, offering all the best bits of Charles M Schulz.
If, however, you really like the offensive, foul-mouthed and cynical stuff, The Secret Diaries of Simon Cowell (JR Books, 12.99) is for you. It's written by the unctuous adjudicator's big brother, Tony Cowell, who feels he owes a "huge debt to my brother Simon for bringing so much wit and creative entertainment into the world". Really? It's littered with family in-jokes and mocked up resolutions from Simon who, as a child, insisted that "I will wear my trousers the way I like".
Spend half an hour looking at these poorly written, but bound to be a hit, comic diaries and you will come to understand why it seems every comedian in the land can do little but write sardonic tirades against society.
Do be nice to each to each other this Christmas and have a bash at some good old-fashioned fun. After all, we don't want to end up like Simon, do we?