By Lia Weston
As writers, one of the few statements we can probably all agree on is that art is subjective. There’s wriggle room within that definition, too; you can appreciate (or learn to appreciate in some cases) the work that goes into a particular piece even if you can’t stand the end result. I, for one, will never enjoy clown portraits, regardless of how lovingly they’re airbrushed onto velvet or rendered in cross-stitch so minute the artist went blind doing the red nose.
Comedy, though, is a different beast. There is no slow burn in comedy: it is governed purely by instinct. A pratfall, a double take, a whiplash comeback – if these things make us laugh, they do so instantly. What makes assessing it tricky is the fact that what appeals instinctively to one person doesn’t necessarily appeal to the next: one man’s Black Books is another man’s Two and a Half Men, just as one person’s The Catcher In the Rye is another person’s Twilight. (I can already hear people shrieking at the comparisons. Forgive me.)
You can imagine, then, my mixed emotions at being asked to write a piece on comic fiction. Flattered? Absolutely. Beset with terror? That too. After all, no one can claim authority on what-makes-things-funny – at least, no one who has taken their medication. With that in mind, I offer: Lia Weston’s ‘Totally Authoritative Guide on What Makes Things Funny.’
Comedic writing works best when the language is precise. Flabby prose only distils the joke. I’m a huge fan of dry humour, and it’s the combination of polite, crisp language and the needle sting violence of the punchline that make it work so well. The shock heightens the humour. Bill Bryson, by all appearances a mild-mannered gentleman who enjoys countryside rambling and campaigning against littering, is so good at this. To wit (ho ho!)
The fog had gone. The air was now still and clear, and the sky was bright with stars … It was all most fetching, but I was far too cold to appreciate it. I dug shiveringly through my backpack and extracted every potentially warming item I could find: a flannel shirt, two sweaters, an extra pair of jeans. I used some woollen socks as mittens and put a pair of flannel boxer shorts on my head as a kind of desperate headwarmer, then sank heavily back onto the bench and waited patiently for death’s sweet kiss.
Though the imagery of Bryson transforming himself into a human laundry basket may make you smile, it’s the last six words that deliver the gasp and blow. (He’s also an expert at knowing exactly when to curse, and why it’s an excellent idea to use such language very, very sparingly. This is probably why Christos Tsiolkas doesn’t write comedy – intentionally, anyway.)
Regardless of style, comedy needs a kernel of truth at the heart of it – it’s the anchor that lets us appreciate the joke. Even in absurdist comedy, which some people would consider to be defined purely as having no relationship to real life, there’s a core of genuineness we need to be able to relate to in order to make it work. Arthur Dent is the human anchor for the Hitchhiker’s Guide series – the straight man in the dead parrot sketch, if you will. Without his Everyman link, there’s little for the reader to relate to and the writing would be in danger of collapsing under the weight of its abstraction. Absurdity itself is tricky to get right: too much of it and the work becomes bloated and weak; too little and people will wonder what the hell you’re on about. There’s a very fine line between free-form comedy and incoherent rambling, and truth is the lifeline that connects them. (A priest, a donkey, and an Irishman walk into a bar. ‘What’ll you have?’ said the bartender. ‘Don’t ask me,’ said the donkey, ‘I don’t even know what I’m doing here.’ See? Very easy to get wrong.)
Similarly, use ‘quirk’ with caution. So often, How-to-Write advice says, ‘Make your characters quirky! They need to be compelling! Wacky! Or else no-one will like your book and you’ll never get published and you’ll be working at the department of health and social services forever and even your go at editing the departmental newsletter will pass by unappreciated and unnoticed and it’s all because your characters aren’t quirky enough.’ I repeat: quirk with caution. Your reader can spot a fake instantly. Characters who have moments of genuine oddness can be compelling, but someone who likes to lick batteries at lunchtime and only wears cerulean blue purely for the sake of it comes off as a complete prat on the page. Who is this wanker? the reader thinks, vowing to kick him in the shins if they ever meet him. This is not, ideally, the reaction you want as a writer. Unless you’re writing a novel about a complete prat.
It’s hard to write truthfully about people without being a serious observer of the way they behave and, more importantly, the way they think they behave. Hypocrisy is a goldmine. The sharpest observations, the ones that make us wince even as we’re laughing, are those that skewer not only our failings but our sad attempts at covering them up. To use a TV reference, BBC’s The Office was a perfect character study of one man’s struggle with self-perception versus reality. We love self-deluded characters. We practically salivate when observing puffed-up buffoonery, waiting for the moment that they’re taken down, preferably with force. To sharpen your pen, cultivate intense curiosity. Once you’ve figured out why people do the things they do, you can start to make fun of it. Austen was a master of this and I’m always surprised that she’s not listed as one of the great comic writers more often… but that’s another essay. (To be continued…)
Lia Weston broke the three rules of getting published when her un-agented first- ever novel, The Fortunes of Ruby White, was pulled out of the slush pile and published by Simon & Schuster in 2010. She won the Australian Literature Review’s 2011 Epistolary partnership competition and has had her short stories featured in several anthologies. She also writes a monthly blog for the website Writing Novels in Australia. Currently working on her second novel, Lia runs a bicycle shop by day and works as a freelance editor by night. Lia will be presenting as part of the Fiction Bootcamp in December.
This article was originally published in Southern Write in June 2011 and reposted with the author’s permission.