I Don’t Make This Stuff Up, You Know

Bryant and May

Comedic writing should be taken seriously.

It’s harder to pull off than you’d think. You need to have an image of the comedic element that you’re encouraging readers to ‘see’, and you have to divide out the serious elements of a book from the comic ones and keep them separate.

Good comedy often comes from the creation of a paradox. Bertie Wooster is the master, but he’s an idiot. Jeeves is the servant but he’s a genius. In a meritocracy the two would reverse, but they are held in place by the class system. The film ‘Sister Act’ makes more sense once you understand that the writers intended the nuns to act a military organisation, with Whoopi Goldberg as a rebellious enlistment. In ‘Arthur’, Dudley Moore is happier and funnier drunk than sober. The state of sobriety everyone desires him to adopt will ruin our vicarious enjoyment of his company. In ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ Tony Hancock plays a failed version of himself, doomed to lose because of his difficult personality (and of course this is the basis of a great many very good US sitcoms)

In the Bryant & May books, the title characters are impossible creatures; too old, too undisciplined, too opinionated, completely unsuitable for the job at hand. Everything they do pushes against the norms, but they win in sheer defiance of the laws of probability.

Nobody ever mentions tension in comedy but suspense can be used to heighten laughter. We wait for heroes to fail. It’s why I don’t have a female lead in the Bryant & May books – I write strong women, and they don’t fail.

The most serious part of comedic writing lies hidden in the research. Very often I’ll be reading about some terrible tragedy and within it will lie a funny incident. The general peculiarity of people defies belief. The real-life coroner of St Pancras was not Giles Kershaw but a man called Bentley Purchase. Which one sounds like fiction?

The true accounts by Giles Milton and Ben McIntyre of Churchill and his secret wartime units have been mentioned here before as they were the precursors of the PCU. Their stories are surreal and hilarious, as for example, the outcome of an operation hinges on fitting an explosive into a porridge bowl. The story of Operation Mincemeat is so barmy that a very funny musical comedy has been carved from the material, and my attempts to see it were equally maddening (at the third attempt I saw parts of the show after an electrical fault wrecked the second half, then had further tickets for a performance which was cancelled on the first night of the Lockdown).

When ordinary women and men are asked to do extraordinary things, the situation is ripe for comedy. When Churchill’s top men hired someone to develop new methods of stopping German submarines they didn’t expect to be commanded by a man who built a caravans for a living. The situation of a suburban family man dealing with the military elite creates its own intrinsic comedy.

So the idea of some annoying old men and batty academics taking on clever criminals with master plans is absurd but has an in-built comedic core. And now you know how it’s done!

PS Don’t do this. The logo below was instantly banned by London Transport.

31 comments on “I Don’t Make This Stuff Up, You Know”

  1. Brooke says:

    Please check text color–it’s changing back and forth btw light gray (hard to read) and black. Ghosts? or are you experimenting again…

  2. Peter T says:

    I don’t find Arthur at all absurd. Most of the rest of the world that he inhabits (and the real world for that matter) is absurd, but not Arthur. He’s the one that’s normal. For me, the same goes for Sherlock Holmes.

  3. Liz Thompson says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the surreal, the unlikely, the bizarre. Whether it’s paintings, poetry, or novels.

  4. admin says:

    Sorry Brooke, it’s a separate setting to all the others & sometimes I forget to turn it on…

  5. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I loved the idea of the limpet mines with aniseed ball ‘timers’.
    Neurodiversity is a good thing. It has survived for a reason.

  6. Jo W says:

    About five weeks ago I ordered a copy of the Giles Milton book,only to be disappointed four weeks later when informed by the seller that a whole bag of parcels had been “lost” by Royal Mail. Hmmm,I thought, you couldn’t make it up, a book about a wartime Ministry of dirty tricks and sabotage going missing somewhere in Essex? Have we time-slipped back eighty years?
    I am now awaiting a copy from a different seller in a different part of the country. Will I be disappointed again? Is it a conspiracy by the members of the original Ministry?
    I hope I don’t have this problem with Oranges and Lemons. S B S

  7. Roger says:

    Perhaps London Transport.(or Transport for London, as they call themselves now) didn’t realise the Peculiar Crimes Unit solves crimes rather than committing them.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    “In the Bryant & May books, the title characters are impossible creatures; too old, too undisciplined, too opinionated, completely unsuitable for the job at hand. Everything they do pushes against the norms, but they win in sheer defiance of the laws of probability.”… Now who/what does this remind you of?

    It has just occurred to me, having read the above, that “Dads Army” fills a lot of the criteria. Now I think about it, read Capt. Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson for Bryant and May. With one difference in “Dad’s Army”-in this class has been turned upside down, with the upper-class character being subservient to the middle-class character, both in the platoon, AND at work.

    Also, talking of stranger than fiction names, an old school friend of mine-John May-had a mum who’s name was May May. True, first name May having married a surname Mr May.

  9. Brooke says:

    Comedy, suspense, waiting for hero to fail…strong women getting things done.

    Just met a character who might challenge your thinking. A somewhere between 80 and 150 years old Native American female shaman who predicts death, finds bodies (or ghosts of the murdered, depending upon your belief system), and, well, commits crimes. Egged on by her spirit guide, a nasty little git who lives in a desert hole and demands tobacco and candy as tribute, this crone connives and lies to local and tribal law officers to investigate suspected crimes. And to involve them in covering up some she and senior co-conspirators have committed. (Drug runners deserve to die, don’t they?) Last I read of her, she stole a truck and was bombing down the highway; she has no license, never learned to drive. Never mind—you just point that thing on the hood to the white line in the middle of the road and keep going. Besides, you should try new things every day.

  10. admin says:

    Where on earth did you read this?

  11. Dawn Andrews says:

    Women fail too, it’s important to fail. A tutor at my first art collage told me that, it took me years to realise how right he was. And doesn’t the formidable Longbright feel like she’s failed often, in her life? And what about April? And Ex Mrs May, in the twilight world of the truly desperate? It’s the complexity of such characters that make your books so good. Also agree with Peter T that Arthur isn’t absurd at all, he’s just too honest.

  12. Brooke says:

    @Admin. Just before lockdown, I found series in library. Don’t have books to refer to. I think it’s Charlie Moon series –have to look on Kindle. Old series, author died some years ago. Believe he was an engineer and biomed tech in California. Writing is fairly decent. Don’t recommend but the stories take flight when the old crone appears.

  13. Oneastralunit says:

    Fucking brilliant series. That’s all I’ve got to say except like most sardonic English lit, there’s a smidge of misogyny there. However, the writing is so good it’s not a deal breaker. As far as Arthur is concerned, I have had the misfortune of working with several versions. He’s real alright.

  14. Brian says:

    @Brooke I think James Doss is still alive although I haven’t seen a new book from him for some years now. At my age time can be somewhat elastic so perhaps it is many years since I read his last book – The Old Gray Wolf (?)

    Aunt Daisy is the character I think you are alluding to; a member of the Ute people.

  15. Brian says:

    @Brooke Just followed up on Doss and you are correct, he died 2012. Might give him another read to see what I think of him these days.

  16. Paul Connolly says:

    Fascinating post again

    Mike Herron’s Slough House series seems to be influenced by your B & M novels (?). The world of spies rather than crime.

    Donald E Westlake’s Dortmunder stories about a gang of incompetent crooks are worth tracking down if you enjoy comedy crime. Westlake’s writing has a wonderful warm tone.

  17. Brooke says:

    @Brian, thanks. You’re right –author is James Doss; I looked it up on kindle. Our library had only 3 of the series and they weren’t sequential– so I missed parts of the story May indulge in more as Aunt Daisy is a hoot.

  18. Liz Thompson says:

    Thanks Brooke and Brian for the synopsis and James Doss plug. Shall go and look. And probably add to my Amazon wish list, currently standing at 67 books and 22 kindles. Plus cds, mp3s and audibles.

  19. Jo W says:

    Further to my comment about the Giles Milton book- it has arrived. Mind you, it was delivered by a different postman coming along the road from a different direction so I feel there may still be an influence from that Ministry at work here…….SBS

  20. Brooke says:

    @ Liz T.. try kindle sample first. Doss and Aunt Daisy are not everyone’s cup of tea. Doss is less plot and more atmosphere..

  21. Peter T says:

    Snowy, There can be few better choices than an Argosy for an aeroplane that looks as though it’s crashed when it hasn’t.

  22. admin says:

    I thought that, Paul, but I’m too polite to say anything. Besides, it’s flattering.

  23. admin says:

    And Oneastralunit – I was hoping there was more than a bloody smidge!

  24. snowy says:

    Don’t mix up misogyny and misanthropy, one of those will get you in bother, the other not so much.

  25. Wayne Mook says:

    No check the spine of the book for listening devices, can’t be too careful. Remember it could be the Russians doing Convig research.

    Talking about not making things up I was looking up some US photographers, the splendidly named Ralph Eugene Meatyard met and was influenced by Van Deren Coke, he attended summer workshops of Henry Holmes Smith and Minor White. It’s odd the Deren makes Van Coke sound less weird, also when someone has the middle name of Holmes and has the most mundane name you start to think made up names. The best is that Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois.

    Wayne.

  26. Ian Luck says:

    Peter T – I’d add the Transavia ‘Airtruck’, the Bristol ‘Superfreighter’, and the excellent, but clumsy looking Savoia Marchetti SM-79 bomber to that list. If you want a nomination for the “I ain’t getting in that!” category, the five engined Heinkel He-111Z ‘Zwilling’ glider tug should fit the bill perfectly.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    Peter and Ian, I’m nominating the Supermarine Stranraer (don’t have model number). The American air force could not believe that plane drifting s l o w l y down the B.C. coast.

  28. Jo W says:

    Wayne,
    were you warning me about spy devices left in the book? I haven’t checked that yet, the book is still in the quarantine pile. But yes, I will check. 😉

  29. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I once made a model kit of the Stranraer. It was a beautiful model but a real pain to display anywhere. I sincerely believe that R.J. Mitchell saved all his aerodynamic beauty ideas for his racing seaplanes and Spitfire. He designed the much loved by it’s crews and downed airmen, ‘Walrus’ amphibian. If you don’t know what one looks like, (it’s butt ugly, to be frank), you might get a steer from the affectionate nickname given to it by Royal Navy crews – ‘The Shagbat’.

  30. snowy says:

    Jo, I would have thought a book about MD1 would be more likely to explode in your hands when you opened it, rather than capture the sounds of two German men getting – ‘hot and sweaty’, [that was MI19].

  31. Jo W says:

    Snowy,
    No explosions yet……….. Oww!

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