I Don’t Make This Stuff Up, You Know
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.