“Ok” says the ring master. “Show me what you’ve got.”
So the man goes into the ring and climbs the tent pole all the way to the top. When he gets there he lets go and stretches out his arms and starts to flap them. He then proceeds to fly round the inside of the big top, doing loop the loops and barrel rolls, swooping and soaring, all the time flapping his arms for all he’s worth. After five minutes he settles gently
onto the ground in front of the ringmaster once more.
“What do you think?” The little man asks.
“Is that it? You do bird impressions?”
My apologies to the long running TV series M*A*S*H for stealing that joke. But did you laugh at it? If nothing else it does show you how up to date my TV viewing is these days. Actually the series is being re-run on True Entertainment (Freeview Channel 61) for those of you that are fans.
The reason I ask is that comedy in the written word is very hard to do. What one person finds amusing will pass over another person’s head and may be misinterpreted completely. Stand-up comedians spend hours practicing in front of test audiences above pubs and in tiny comedy clubs making sure their material works before they unleash it on their target audience, whether it is in a larger comedy club, at The Edinburgh Fringe or in the 02 Arena. A writer doesn’t have that luxury. If he gets it wrong then it could cost him his audience forever. It’s a one shot deal.
Of course the writer may have an editor that may question the suitability of a joke, its comic value, its relevance to the plot and so on. What appeared hilarious when being written in the solitude of my front bedroom may fall as flat as a pancake when it reaches the editor’s desk.
So what does the writer do? Do they trust to their instinct and go for the laughs, or do they play safe and keep the story serious. Is there room for both?
Another problem is that it’s tough to sustain comedy over a long period. A stage comedian works at a rate of two or three
laughs a minute. Story telling comedians may string a joke out for three or four minutes before getting to the punch line. So how many jokes does the writer need to put into a story to give it that humorous feel? Is it one per page? One every
thousand words? One per chapter?
Let’s say it’s the latter. My books generally run out at about 25 chapters. Some have more and some less. At the rate of one significant joke per chapter the sums are easy enough. 25 jokes for a stand-up comedian, therefore, is about ten minutes worth of material. Perhaps half the duration of a comedy club slot. That’s a lot of jokes and every
one of them has to hit the mark.
Of course not all the humour in a book has to be in the form of joke. Some of it can be situational. The writer gets a lot of
leeway in this area, painting pictures of absurd characters or giving them funny things to do or say. The writer can make his characters do silly things. He can make them stupid to the point of imbecility. He can make them accident prone. He
can make them pompous or self-important. But he still has to maintain the humour for over 80,000 words (that’s about the acceptable minimum length for a novel these days). That’s a lot of jokes to have to write.
Name one well known writer who is noted mainly for the humour in his novels. Difficult, isn’t it? There are plenty who write short pieces for newspapers and magazines. The now defunct Punch magazine was known for them. But ask them to extend that to a full blown novel and you would start to see the panic in their eyes. There have been some, of course. Terry Pratchett has managed to achieve this in many of his works, but not all of them by any means simialrly Douglas Adams of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The late Keith Waterhouse wrote Billy Liar and I’ve already mentioned M*A*S*H, which made three outings as books for Richard Hooker (real name H. Richard Hornberger). Twelve others in the franchise were ghost written by William E Butterworth and were less critically acclaimed because of it. But when we talk about humorous writing we are often talking about satirical works or parodies, rather than books that are intended solely to be funny.
I’ve read a few books recently which, according to Amazon, were laugh a minute works. I have to say that they generally failed to make me laugh. The jokes often descended into slap-stick and that is a visual media. More often the jokes were non-existent. So, as someone who likes to introduce a lighter note into my books, that makes me a little bit nervous. What if my readers don’t get the jokes?
Well I’ve hedged my bets a bit by not claiming that my books are funny. That way at least I’ll be managing expectations. But that is a double edged sword. A lot of the time we laugh at jokes because we know they’re jokes and we’re waiting for the punch line. If they were told in a more serious tone of voice with no comedic preamble would we automatically laugh? Maybe, but maybe not.
Like most people I have preferences when it comes to comedy. I laugh at some comedians more readily than I will laugh at others. We all know that humour is a very personal thing, as evidenced by the joke I started with. Some people will have laughed and others won’t. There are some comedians who fail to make me laugh at all. These are usually comedians that I don’t like for other reasons. I’ll name no names – you read the newspapers so you probably know who I mean. Does that mean I don’t find them funny? Or does that mean I’m determined not to find them funny even if they are? I suspect the latter.
So, humour in a novel is fraught with difficulty, for both the writer and the reader. All I can say is that if you find yourself
laughing at my books then the jokes were intended. If you don’t laugh then the book is a serious work of fiction and therefore not the place for me to start telling jokes. Either way I hope you enjoy them.