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’.


21 comments on “Bryant & May: Being Funny Kills Me”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” I believe that was said by David Garrick (possibly apocrophally). I’m sure that’s true. The trick is to make it look easy. The late, great Barry Cryer was very, very good at that.

  2. Helen+Martin says:

    I read somewhere about a fan asking a comedian to “Say something funny.” There is no possible response to that. It’s situations that are the funniest and to have them happen takes a great deal of planning. People who, all unknowingly, provide a punchline to a situation are not comedians but humans.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Serious about comedy ? Absolutely, if it is at all being considered. In fact, if something humorous is being ‘considered,’ as opposed to suggesting itself immediately (if not sooner), chances are you aren’t cut out to be amusing. In fact, I maintain there is an as-yet-undiscovered funny gene that you are either born with, or not. Its effect may be latent in some but it eventually reveals itself in one or more of the multitude or shadings of comedic forms as there are. It is excruciatingly hard to do well and simply excruciating if not so done.

    Dramatic elements which appeal to basic emotions are largely universal — situations which make us angry or sad. What makes us smile or laugh, on the other hand, tends to be highly subjective. But, of course, that’s not all that’s required in fiction. Not only must it tickle our funny bone, the comic turn must contain at least a kernel (if not a large dollop) of ‘truth.’ That is, it should advance the story or enhance a characterization to be worthwhile, in my opinion. It certainly can be a momentary tear-inducing ‘stopper’ (as CF describes with Wodehouse and with which I can concur), but it better not be a gratuitous attempt or it may very well be grimace-inducing instead. Excruciatingly hard to do well or — simply excruciating.

  4. Alan R says:

    The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterising the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder said Professor Gordon Claridge from Oxford University’s department of experimental psychology.

    As a kid, Spike Milligan was my absolute favourite comedian. A unique brand of humour that had its roots in Bi-Polar disorder. “I have the body of an eighteen-year-old. I keep it in the fridge”. A line that would not be out of place in a Jimmy Carr set 60 years later. Just seeing Spike’s face, even today, makes me smile. He suffered tremendously but his suffering brought some lightness to our lives.

    “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all the people some of the time, which is just long enough to be president of the United States” – Puckoon 1963. I’m still laughing.

    Comedy can often come at a great cost to the comedian.

  5. Jo W says:

    I like the look of that box, Chris, but Alan said he wouldn’t be seen dead in it.
    Keep laughing at whatever you can.

  6. Jan says:

    Brilliant Jo.

    PGW’s world is a beautiful, brilliant wonderful creation. All the build up to a short perfect joke.
    You can keep going back over the same paragraph and the short joke or phrase it builds up to and its still perfect. Always will be really magical.

  7. Roger says:

    It’s odd how humour works – and doesn’t work. The Diary of a Nobody is one of my favourite comic books, but a Marxist I knew maintained it was tragic. Mr Pooter’s unawareness of his class situation and his social irrelevance, he said, rendered his whole life futile.
    He was rather annoyed when I started laughing.

    I think everyone may have been “Born Without A Sense Of Humour” – I’m not sure about tragically; a sense of humour is one of the attributes we acquire to live with the difference between the way things are and the way we’d like them to be. It’s not just a matter of finding something funny, but the way we find it funny that’s affected by a sense of humour. “You have to laugh so you don’t weep.”

  8. Peter+T says:

    Jo – that’s quite the opposite to the local undertaker’s Rolls-Royce. They said people were dying for a ride in it.

    We attended a dinner once (years ago when we still tried to resemble neuro-typical). The organisers had arranged a comedian. He had a whole series of jokes on the subject of cremation. I’m sure that they were very funny under most circumstances, but for me, not long after my father’s funeral, it was unpleasant and I had go out until he’d finished.

    I’ll add my votes for PGW and Spike. And I’ll add ‘the Goodies’ – I believe someone literally died laughing at them.

  9. Rob C says:

    Alan R
    Puckoon is a very underrated book, it’s a classic of comedic writing, I’ve revisited it so often over the years

  10. peter says:

    the best humour is always played straight with the characters not knowing they are being funny Laurel and Hardy -the kings of comedy to me – just took ordinary life and exaggerated it a bit after 40+ years in the building trade its not much of an exaggeration at times also at funerals you have to try to see whatever humour you can when my dad was buried his gravestone took a little longer than it should with the result they forgot exactly where the had buried him cue plans sticks etc and no doubt dad looking down laughing at the ridiculousness of it all his brothers hearse broke down on the way to the church and as i went out to meet his sons we came to the conclusion yes he was late for his own funeral it really is the only way to get through life all great writing has to have both seriousness and humour hope you are well Chris looking forward to the next instalment

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘…the one about the cow creamer,’ you say. Can only be ‘The Code of the Woosters’ in print (‘The Silver Jug [or ‘Jeeves Saves the Cow Creamer’] on film) — that comedy primer covering just about every form of humour, done to a turn — including ‘neglected positives,’ which should not be attempted at home without supervision. Should be required reading for… Let’s just say, ‘should be required reading’ and leave it at that.

  12. Stu-I-Am says:

    Since I have attempted (uncomfortably) so far to stick to the warily ‘proposed’ subject of literary humour, I would be remiss if I did not, in the end, follow the now time-honored custom here of completely ignoring it. Thus I ask that you join with me in marking the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Joyce’s complete ‘Ulysses.’

    While technically qualifying as ‘on topic’ because of its humour, it is of course, better known for its scatology, which saw it widely burned in manuscript form before being officially banned when mass burning didn’t provide a sufficient disincentive to readership. It was bankrolled and published by the estimable Sylvia Beach, prop. of the famous Paris-based bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, who suffered financially in doing so when Joyce graciously signed with another publisher after it became a cause célèbre. She also did the honors for Hemingway’s first book.

  13. Helen+Martin says:

    Stu, gratitude and appreciation are sometimes hard to find, not that MS Beach’s sponsorship was initially about money, more that this piece of writing should be available to those who would appreciate it. I’m sure Joyce had a very good reason for abandoning his first publisher.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen + Martin Helen: That ‘very good reason’ was more money from Random House to whom the rights were sold when Sylvia Beach released them back to Joyce in the early ’30s. The fact that Beach not only bankrolled the publication of the book that no one else would touch at the time, but Joyce himself for an extended period, apparently wasn’t enough for him. She was a fascinating personage. Here’s a brief bio sketch:

  15. Andrew+Holme says:

    GOSH! Read that both ways. This thread seems to encapsulate my entire world view. Dickens certainly got there first as regards uncomfortable humour, laughing at something we know is wrong and then asking ourselves why we laughed at it. Chapter 8 of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is the finest example and the template for Frankie Boyle’s career. Frankie must have read it when very young? In 1982 I was lucky enough to be part of a college production of ‘Puckoon’ which took the Edinburgh Fringe by storm. I don’t exaggerate. For the last performance in a 100 seater venue, we crammed in 150 and turned away the same number. We received a phone call from Norma, Spike’s agent on the evening before opening night and Spike was there shouting ” Good Luck! ” down the line. Funniest joke in ‘Puckoon’? I love the bit with the two lovers having it away in the long grass with D. H. Lawrence watching through binoculars taking notes. Ah, Spike. When he got it right, he got it very right. Both writers ,of course, surpassed by Wodehouse.

  16. Cary Watson says:

    Speaking of Gormenghast, I’ve always felt it’s underappreciated as a comic novel. Yes, the bulk of the novel is dark, but the scenes with the teachers (especially Deadyawn’s death) and Irma’s disastrous party are on a par with Wodehouse.

  17. Debra Matheney says:

    Comedy does often seem to emerge as a way to cope with the pain of life. I find Joe Orton’s plays terribly funny, but what a sad life he led.

    I am a huge fan of Fielding’s Tom Jones and of Restoration comedies as they poke tremendous fun at the foibles of being human. The 18th century had an abundance of witty personages. While not a writer, Hogarth’s works also remind us of the foibles of man. I also find Jane Austen very funny.

    Regarding Ulysses, the website for Shakespeare and Company bookshop hosts a reading of the novel by 100 actors. I am going to attempt reading it again in honor of the anniversary.

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    Speaking of comic turns — I am impressed at the range of the PM: from the sound of a racing engine to the Ten Commandments, Peppa Pig World (CBI conference last Nov) and now to ‘The Lion King.’ ‘Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying…’

  19. Joan says:

    Going way off topic, I just read that Blackwells bookshops are up for sale. Feel sad to see all the Independent bookstores disappearing!

  20. Helen+Martin says:

    Blackwell’s is for sale? Great grief! That’s almost like selling off part of the university itself.

  21. Wayne Mook says:

    Yes it’s sad news about Blackwell’s. I bought my daughter the BFG from the one in Manchester.

    As my dear old dad used to say in a half singing voice,’It’s not the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you of in.’

    Comedy well I guess not everyone is a Jimmy Carr fan, the government sound like they are going to use it to sue Netflix and other outlets. I didn’t think it was funny but to ban things like this, who draws the line of what is acceptable. Still it’s not like he was using a Tory donor to score points against the opposition.


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