Dying Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard

Reading & Writing, The Arts

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?

8 comments on “Dying Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard”

  1. noonski says:

    You are right that it’s tough to get the comedy/tragedy balance right–generally one is sacrificed for the other, usually the tragedy (or the mystery)in order to make something funny. One of my absolute favorite comedy books is “Reel Murder” by Marion Babson. The mystery part of the story is rather trite and non-earth shattering, but the comedy is wonderful. The two ‘detectives are Evangaline and Trixie, who might as well just be called Margo Channing and Karen/Eve (Bette Davis and Celeste Holm/Anne Baxter, from All About Eve.) The story goes for funny at the expense of the mystery. I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed the Bryant & May novels, because the funny is there, but it doesn’t take away from the mystery part of the story.

    As for successful comedy-horror movies, I’d have to give a mention to Wes Craven’s “Scream” as it’s comedy and horror work together to make the film work. I don’t think the film would be memorable if it didn’t have the humor — it would be just another slasher-flick. The humor and parody really make it a much better film (I would call it a 4 out of 5 star film, though like any film, ratings are purely subjective.) Most of Wes Craven’s “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies have a distinct sense of humor, though it’s not as apparent in all of them, and, they’re not all of equal quality. Isn’t it “Nightmare 3” that’s such a gay film–the gay undertones make the film funny.

    “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” also comes to mind, though, it’s more of a campy thriller than a horror movie, but the line between the humor and the dark tragedy of the film are quite distinctly drawn. I don’t think it would be nearly as effective a film if the campyness were removed–it needs both elements to work successfully.

    Then there is “Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland,” and “Fido” — all zombie movies, with a humorous twist — the success of the horror and the humor is of course up for debate. (Though, I guess the movies are more funny than scary.”

    So, there may be some movies that mix both — with varying degress of success — it seems that the balance is always tipped a little further to one side or the other.

  2. Steve says:

    “The War of the Roses”, although the “horror” element was more psychological than spooky. Talk about black humor. I’m quite a fan of “Midsomer Murders” which we get over here on DVD. There are most definitely comedic elements in nearly every episode (albeit mainly tongue-in-cheek) and they seem to balance well. My ring-tone is in fact the theme from the show.

  3. Diogenes says:

    There are a few superb humourous crime writers. Colin Cotterill is currently my favourite. Boris Akunin is also very funny, as is Philip Kerr (who is hilarious in real life as well).

    Kinky Friedman and Carl Hiaason were also brilliant although they were more comic-crime novelists.

  4. Steve says:

    Speaking of comedy, somewhere or other on this blog you’d asked about British phrases/words that might mean something else in America, and I forgot to mention my personal favorite….”spotted dick”. Over here, one would think it refers to a venereal disease. Had me laughing for quite a while when I first heard it.
    Sorry to go off topic.

  5. jayembee says:

    Successful comedy-horror movies? I suppose that depends on how you define successful. I think [i]An American Werewolf in London[/i] works remarkably well on both fronts. The horror is dealt with in the story, while the comedy comes through the characters. And I think that’s that way to juggle both successfully.

  6. mikenicholson says:

    The original ‘Tremors’ movie with Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon was a cracking example of a solid little film with likeable characters acting believably in monstrous situations – all shot through with a deft humour born out of the relationships between the characters. And giant worms, too, of course.
    The original ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ TV movie starring Darren McGavin (which went on to one sequel and a truly peculiar TV series) had the same touch. The humour and sharp dialogue made the alarming horror elements all the more shocking.

  7. Mike says:

    Yes, horror/comedy usually seems to be a trade-off, but there are examples that hit a sweet spot where each ramps up the other. Evil Dead (and, in parts, its sequel) spring to mind as ‘horribly funny’ – delirious scenes where the urges to laugh and scream both mount together.

    In this case, it’s probably because of their roots in the EC horror comic genre, and its mix of over-the-top creepiness and gruesome farce. But I suspect the success of this effect is very dependent on individual taste: many people find horror/comedies funny but not scary, or scary but not funny, or neither.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    When you can get the balance right there seems to be a temptation to do it again – and again. I really enjoyed the first Carl Hiaason I read and the second one was pretty good, too, but then I realized it was the same cast of characters in each and very similar incidents. Even when he wrote one for teen readers (and how is yours doing, Chris?) the pattern was the same. His plots sure move along, though, don’t they, and you certainly get laughs.

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