Bryant & May: Being Funny Kills Me
There’s a famous anecdote involving the playwright Joe Orton. During the run of ‘Loot’, a farce in the course of which the corpse of the hero’s mother loses her false teeth, Orton handed a new set of dentures to the lead actor, explaining that they belonged to his own dead mother. The actor was horrified, but Orton pointed out a truth. In comedy you have to believe, and that starts with honesty.
I’ve never written a book without any element of humour. ‘Nyctophobia’ came closest, perhaps, but it was a conscious effort. The unusual situation in which the heroine finds herself, in a house half in darkness, half in light, needed first and foremost to be believed, so flippancy had to go.
You can get away with murder if you keep a straight face. Over the years we’ve believed some frightful rubbish in crime novels simply because they contained so much gravitas. Yet if you add a strain of humour – much as you’d find in everyday life – you risk your readership.
Joe Orton’s sister said her mother boasted that she ‘raised four kids on one lung’, an Ortonesque line both bleak and linguistically droll. This ear for language, an individual way of looking at the world, creates organic lasting comedy.
I blame PG Wodehouse, probably the first time I cried with laughter in a book. I think it was the one about the cow creamer. But I’d started out with very serious novels given to me by my mother; ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Coral Island’, ‘Two Years Before The Mast’, all nautical. My school history books were dry and post-Victorian turgid. It was obvious that the authors enjoyed writing evil or amusing characters far more than they liked writing about good, kind souls. Long John Silver is a lot more fun than Jim the cabin boy.
When I read ‘The Sword in the Stone’ I saw that English history could be treated irreverently. How beautifully it modulated between the truth of childhood responsibility and utter foolishness!
Of course, Dickens had got there first – the light-hearted love affair that takes up a part of ‘Oliver Twist’ is always conveniently forgotten. And, as Unherd’s Will Lloyd pointed out, the tone in the novel’s famous gruel begging scene is a masterpiece of cruelly vindictive comedy. When Dickens describes the suffering of the workhouse children, he is flippant, educated, and knowing.
When we remember novels we mentally excise the humorous parts, just as Irma Prunesqualor’s ridiculous passions are skipped over in favour of Gormenghast’s grand tragedy. The sad parts stick; the humour is incidental.
But it’s not. Jokes are not set-dressing. Being funny can be a huge part of life, especially if it helps you weather terrible difficulties. The husband, who is The Man Tragically Born Without A Sense Of Humour, is mystified by it, as are many others, so why do I use it in Bryant & May novels?
Because it helps me to reflect the reality of everyday life. My brother tells a story about our mother that’s both horrific and hilarious, and unrepeatable. Such stories stand at the heart of families. Life juxtaposes the absurd, the cruel and the poignant, and sometimes it combines these elements to create something hilarious. We laughed more at the funerals of our parents than we cried, although there were plenty of tears too.
But even here there were rules about not overstepping boundaries. And in fiction there are rules about adding comedy to crime that must be strictly adhered to. Bizarre situations need to arise for believable reasons. The tragedy of sudden death and its investigation must be taken seriously, and the humour must be confined to characters who have no idea that they are amusing. People are funniest when they’re being painfully serious.
It’s a coping mechanism, of course, and in a world where Americans take ’emotional support pets’ onto planes (one man tried to board with a peacock) should therefore be taken seriously. The director Billy Wilder said, ‘Make the subtleties obvious’, to which I would add, ‘Make the humour serious’.