On Writing: why writing comedy can be so fascinating

Based on my radio interviews with SoundArt Radio and the wonderful Julie Mullen, here’s a blog post about writing comedy, whatever that might mean. I’ve been told that one genre I write might be termed ‘romantic comedy’, and so I’m always interested to talk about what makes people smile, what is uplifting, what is a laugh out loud moment and what, in fact, is one person’s idea of totally hilarious and not another’s. Comedy is such a diverse and fascinating subject, so here goes….

Recently, I watched a film at home on TV. It was called What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson, a romantic comedy in which Mel’s character is suddenly able to hear women’s private thoughts and respond by changing his behaviour, making him a much more attractive prospect. It wasn’t a film for me, although it’s very popular, but I didn’t find it funny at all. While others might have found it hilarious, I thought the main character wasn’t very engaging, but a little arrogant and disrespectful, and therefore I coldn’t invest in his relationships, even though he did become more empathic.

The same is true for other comedy films that have entertained millions: I didn’t enjoy Blazing Saddles, The Man with Two Brains, Porky’s, Bruno, The Forty Year Old Virgin. They are all popular and celebrated comedies, but I couldn’t raise a smile. Everyone’s idea of what is hilarious is not the same.

Then again, films that make me laugh include In Bruges, Withnail and I, Duck Soup, The Birdcage, The Dressmaker. I wouldn’t expect everyone else to find them as funny as I do: humour is a very personal thing. What one person finds warm, amusing or side-splitting, another person might not understand why it is comic.

It follows then that writing comedy for a novel is a very personal thing and not everyone will be similarly tickled by a particular character or a scene. My background in theatre taught me exactly that: Malvolio rushing on stage in yellow stockings or Widow Twankey rushing off stage in a blue wig and curlers will not make everyone smile. Some people won’t ‘get’ it; some may actively dislike it. What some find hilarious, others may find pointless, annoying or even offensive: just think of the Carry on… series as an example. Humour may be all about character, context, timing, language, but it’s also incredibly varied and personal: I recall one time trying to explain to ten mystified seventeen year old boys why Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was considered a comedy and having to redefine what comedy means. Not anyone’s finest moment.

Talking recently to several writers in my writers’ group about comedy recently made for a very interesting discussion. We started to discuss books that made us smile and why. I adore novels by Roddy Doyle and Jonathan Safran Foer: they keep me entertained in very different ways, although with both writers, the humour comes from character, language and context. There seem to be less funny women writers, if you don’t count novels by comediennes and actors.

For me there are several lines I don’t want to cross when writing amusing scenes: I don’t like mocking a character or making them appear foolish; I don’t like humour that is schadenfreude, that enjoys others’ downfalls or problems. Bawdy humour doesn’t always raise a laugh for me and needs to be used sparingly. After that, I’m happy to embrace most techniques to make writing amusing.

Perhaps comic writing starts with tone: humour can be gentle and tentative, raising a smile, or it can be in-your-face situation comedy. Both can work well in the same novel, as variety is quite important. Laughing out loud is great at times when a novel offers mischief or a really comic moment – think Bridget Jones at her most wildly ridiculous – or when Dilly pulls down the instructor’s salopettes (Heading over the Hill), or when Bisto bares all for Barbara at the fête (The Old Girls’ Network).

Not all humour has to be racy. I like poignant, gentle comedy: think of Notting Hill or Cher’s Moonlight. Warm humour doesn’t have to be raucous: when Evie first meets Jean Luc and they banter and share a drink in his vineyard (A Grand Old Time), or when Rose goes on stage to perform with Greta Manchester in Paris, (Five French Hens) it may simply raise a smile. I like humour that comes from language, such as Nanny Basham’s malapropisms (The Age of Misadventure), or from ludicrous farcical situations, such as Barbara’s bedroom strip, (The Old Girls’ Network), or Molly dressing as a fish, (Chasing the Sun).

Humour works best for me when there’s contrast in the rest of the novel – it can be hard work, non-stop laughing. I like to balance comic moments with moments of pathos, wisdom, contemplation or realisation. My novels are generally about older characters’ journeys, about self-discovery, the importance of fun and adventure, the capacity to grow and the opportunity for new chances. It is logical then that there will be amusing moments and moments that aren’t funny at all. It’s a balance I enjoy in novels I read – even in the saddest stories, there can be a moment that makes us smile. 

In The Color Purple, a powerful novel that deals with racism and domestic violence, there is a moment of pure joy when Celie gleefully says of Old Mister, ‘Next time he come I’ll put a little Shug Avery pee in his glass’ (of lemonade). Humour takes many forms and can be hugely cathartic. In this instance, it hints at Celie’s strength, resilience and ability to stand up for herself against misogyny.

For me humour can be effective in many forms and it’s best when it feels natural and relevant to the character or the situation, and when it’s kind. I’ve never liked programmes like You’ve Been Framed, where people’s accidents or misfortunes create comedy. I like to write comic scenes where it’s part of a bigger picture, part of a character’s warmth or their dilemmas, their flaws or their emotional journey. Yes, there may be a bit of slapstick, perhaps the occasional racy moment, but there shouldn’t be anything that will threaten the kindness or positive philosophy that I hope will be the basis of the story. 

Of course, I am learning all the time, reading books, watching films, analysing what seems to work for me and for others, and what doesn’t. I try to expand horizons and discover new ideas. I won’t always get it right and I won’t always please everybody, but that’s in the nature of humour: it has a different appeal to different people.

I’m always warmed by the wonderful comments I have from readers, people who like my novels’ humour and who enjoy being entertained while also immersing themselves in a book about someone who is flawed, humanly vulnerable and who is chasing something important: the chance to start again, to change, to rediscover themselves. 

And if I can write something that is uplifting, feel-good and gently humorous, if I can create characters that entertain but are also, as one reader so kindly put it, ‘like dear friends,’ then that’s what I want to do more than anything.

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