The funny thing about comic writing

What makes a book funny? That’s a tough question isn’t it.

Personally I think that if a novel describes itself as comic or funny, then it probably isn’t going to be. We all know the sinking feeling when we see the try-hard humour books – or humor if it’s an American one. The more they promise rib-tickling chuckles between their garish cartoon covers the more we are likely to fear the clammy hand of disappointment.

There’s just a whiff of desperation there isn’t there? You shouldn’t have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be funny’ any more than you should have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be sad.’ The reader either finds a book funny or they do not, and that is up to them.

I think part of the issue is that different people find different things funny. Broad slapstick, subtle wit, a million variations inbetween. What makes us laugh is quite a personal thing, perhaps more so than what makes us cry.

What I try to do, in this most difficult of literary balancing acts, is to be funny incidentally. Rather than try to make the whole book laugh out loud I attempt to slip in a few chuckles along the way. Often laughter emerges out of the scene you are in, so rather than being some kind of set up gag, the joke is organic. And very often it is the way something is written which makes it amusing – the point of view, the words you choose, the order, rhythm, the timing.

I also consider what I am using humour for. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to be funny for it’s own sake – it’s a gift and something to treasure. But if your book is trying to deal with difficult issues, for example, then humour can be a wonderful way of making them palatable.

Here’s a few of the books which have made me laugh.

moneyMoney by Martin Amis

Here’s a book crammed with glittering phrases, many of them laugh out loud funny. Amis knows how to spin a wonderful anecdote, build up characters in order to knock them down. But for me it’s the turns of phrase which are gold dust. He’s one of those writers who you can’t imagine writing a bad sentence. It’s hard work being that polished, and one of the things he regularly achieves is to make the reader laugh.

slaughterhouse 5Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Quirky and delightful, taking science fiction of an obviously kidding sort in order to deal with tough issues of death, war and mortality. Often the humour comes from seeing the world in an entirely different, unexpected and unique way, seeing it his way, which is not like anyone else’s.

untitledCatch 22 by Joseph Heller

‘Laugher in the dark if ever I heard it’ said one reviewer and Heller, as well as being another masterful spinner of words and phrases, can make us laugh at things which on the face of it, simply are not funny. They are horrifying, devastating, still he makes us laugh. Often we are laughing at the absurd, and at things which might just as easily make us cry. There’s a bravery in this kind of humour, a resilience.

jeevesPretty much anything by PG Wodehouse

He was a master, I think, of humorous writing and so many of his laughs relied on pure language – the phrasing of a sentence, the deployment of an unusual word. His world was entirely his own invention, full of wise servants, fearsome aunts and simple upper-class drones. In Wodehouse’s hands comic writing is like music – not a note, not a phrase, out-of-place.

hitchikersThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Like Vonnegut before him he found a way to play science fiction for laughs and subvert an often slightly pompous genre. He finds humour in the gap between the high-flown expectations of space exploration and the majesty of the universe and the tawdry reality he paints. In his hands it is full of bathos, it has people in it, or aliens who behave like people: messy, stupid, rude, ungrateful, lazy.

What all of these writers have in common I think, apart from the fact that they are very funny, is a love of the language. Perhaps a facility with language and being able to do comedy well go hand in hand? It’s quite a technical skill writing in an amusing way – it depends very much on the right thing said in precisely the right way at the right time. Good comic writers have the rhythm of poets.

Who are your favourite funny writers and why?

Song of the Sea God visualSee if my book is among those which will make you laugh – take a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

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13 thoughts on “The funny thing about comic writing

  1. Definitely agree with what you said here: “You shouldn’t have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be funny’ any more than you should have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be sad.’ The reader either finds a book funny or they do not, and that is up to them.”

    I think of it in a very similar way to you. It’s like a joke. If you’ve got to explain the joke for people to understand it & furthermore to laugh at it; it defeats the point of jokes and is therefore, no longer a joke…

    Glad I came across this post 🙂

  2. Interesting points here, Chris (as always :-)). You never know what will make other people laugh, so I think it’s usually safest to leave readers to say whether a book is really funny or not. However, I do feel it’s valid to classify a book as humorous, just so readers will know from the outset that a book is not intended to be serious – if you get my drift! Of your list above, I would agree with Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy now. I used to enjoy the PG Wodehouse books, but for some reason I don’t find them so funny any more. I don’t know Money, but yes to Catch 22. I never even got through Slaughterhouse 5, I’m afraid to admit. Most books I like to read have humour in them but don’t necessarily set out to be funny, so it’s hard to come up with my own list now. I’ll have to think about that! One that does come to mind is a book called C’est La Vie, by Michael Wright. It’s not a classic, but I cried with laughter as I was reading it – probably because I could relate to it very well – it’s about living as a newbie in France.

  3. I honestly can’t tell if I’ve written something funny. The things I think are plain statements of fact are considered hilarious, while the things I think are funny are seen as sad! I don’t try to be comic anymore–I just slap things down and wait for the response.

  4. It often occurs to me that some writers are perhaps approaching comedy, in the written form, from the wrong direction. I’ve read far too much where it seems that they have decided that what they are writing needs to have a joke in and so it gets crow-barred in, regardless of whether it fits or not. Its like they feel they need to be hitting a certain quota of jokes to justify it, rather than let the comedy flow naturally from dialogue and scenarios. This makes me wonder if they really have confidence in the story they may be trying to tell. Come up with a story first and then let jokes form around it, build up that way and I think it helps reinforce the comedy and help it hit more often.

    • I agree, often I think that’s something you get when comedians try to write books, which happens remarkably often as a publisher would much rather have someone who has a high public profile than someone who can actually write. They tend to do a string of jokes then try to wedge in some plot and character round them as filler.

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