Dying Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard
There’s been a lot of talk recently about awards going to books with comedy elements. The Booker, always famously po-faced about its selections, is lightening up – so is comedy finally to be accepted as a valid artistic tool?
I’m a proud past winner of the Last Laugh award for the year’s best comedy crime novel, because the Bryant & May books have funny elements – but let’s be careful here. The comedy is kept strictly separate from the criminal sections in order to make both parts work (although I can think of a few instances in other authors’ books where the lines have been successfully crossed).
The general rule is; play it very straight indeed if you want to be taken seriously. If you look at ‘Inception’, with its reams of gibberish exposition, the only reason why we buy into such nonsense is because everyone is heart-attack serious about the whole thing, and that makes us treat it seriously too.
Readers rightly cite PG Wodehouse as a ‘classic’ comic writer, but he did little else than make readers laugh. The toughest trick is to make you care first, and even cry. The last episode of ‘Blackadder’ did this, as did the finale of ‘One Foot In The Grave’. Finding the right balance between comedy and tragedy has always been tricky. The best TV example was Galton & Simpson’s ‘Steptoe & Son’, which was often extremely bleak.
Edmund Crispin’s detective novels (which regular readers will know I’m a huge fan of) are somewhat overlooked and deemed inconsequential because of their humour. Writing comedy is very tough, because you have to make the main characters identifiable but also a little unlikeable. Charlie Higson wrote some terrific comic crime novels with unlikeable characters.
The stand-alone thriller I’m working on will be played 100% straight because the subject needs it. Levity will undermine the story. Thinking about it, I wonder – has there ever really been a successful comedy-horror novel or movie?