Should You Put Comedy In Your Drama?



Publishers see writers’ work falling into distinct categories. Unfortunately real life isn’t subdivided into genres, so we create false constructs – drama, comedy, romance, horror.  The recent Channel 4 police series ‘Babylon’ only found its feet once it had decided whether it was funny or serious. It was billed as a comedy about the police and the media, but apart from a few self-conscious chunks of filthy humour at the start it finally became as serious as a heart attack.

There’s an unspoken curse around writing comic dialogue and situations. It’s that nobody will take you seriously. Or as Tony Hancock once put it, ‘People take you more seriously when you stop getting laughs’. Does this mean you have to ban comedy from your writing?

No, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever win an award with a funny novel (although I have because I followed the rules below). Comedies rarely get Oscars. The odd thing is that the darkest moments in life are filled with riotously black humour, but if you reflect this in what you write you may end up with a hybrid of a novel or screenplay that nobody is happy with.

When I started the Bryant & May books they were self-consciously whackier. As time has gone on I’ve been careful to relegate the humour to certain parts of the books, so that the serious mystery element remains true to its traditional format. In the same way that there are very few supernatural books one can take seriously, comic dialogue can also be problematic within dramatic structures because they can undermine your intentions. You hear of people who have no sense of humour, but you never hear of anyone without a serious side, so drama is the safer bet. Everybody gets it.

But who wants safe bets? I’ve thought for a number of years about writing straight dramatic thrillers, but I have to say they’re nowhere near as challenging or fun as learning to balance funny/ sad/ dramatic moments all in one story. One-liners are relatively easy, but if they’re just badda-bing snappy lines everyone sounds like they’ve had their dialogue writing by a US TV sitcom writing team.

Purely situational comedy is harder. John Finnemore’s radio series ‘Cabin Pressure’, with Benedict Cumberbatch, restored traditional structure to BBC comedy with great success, and sounded as if it could have been recorded at any time in the organisation’s history (a compliment). A lot of drama is simply about flipping usual situations over into the unusual. So an angry unlikeable cop becomes likeable, an underdog becomes a rottweiler, enemies become friends, friends prove untrustworthy. Life is full of surprises, and that’s reflected in drama.

The second series of ‘Inside No.9’ has balanced comedy and drama well, and certain books, like the Mortdecai novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli, have achieved the same balance. But the only really famous comic novelist we remember now is PG Wodehouse – what would have happened if the crimes in his books had been more serious than stealing a silver cow-creamer?

There are a few rules about adding comedy to drama.

1. It must not alter the character.

2. It must not cross into the structural dramatic sections of your work.

3. It must not be added to get a quick laugh.

4. It must be the smaller part of the drama.

There are a few exceptions; the film ‘Harold & Maude’ strikes me as one. But if you do choose to write a comedy-drama, remember; it will be described by all as a comedy!


3 comments on “Should You Put Comedy In Your Drama?”

  1. Vivienne says:

    Would you not include Evelyn Waugh as a remembered comic novelist : Black Mischief and Decline and Fall as well as the more serious stuff?

  2. Helen Martin says:

    The Canadian Robertson Davies had an early set of comic-like novels (Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice …) but somehow once he shifted to serious fiction (Fifth Business, The Manticore…) those earlier books were looked on much more seriously, so other items in one’s body of work can change how your humour is regarded.
    Came across a reference to Bryant & May in a mystery set in the Victorian era and could only think of your detectives.
    An illustration for a story about the Ballet BC production of The Rites of Spring, 3/4 of a broadsheet sized, looked like the cover of Spanky; very similar pose, outfit (no boots) and I thought how apropos.
    You have created a particular reference frame in my mind. You have a dangerous power.

  3. Ben Aaronovitch says:

    I agree with number 1 but I think 2,3 & 4 are negotiable depending on cicumstances!

Comments are closed.