Humour’s a funny thing, isn’t it? Actually, it’s a uniquely subjective thing. Something that will whack one person’s funny bone and cause them to laugh like a drain will induce no more than a half-hearted meh in another. I think that this polarising effect is particularly apparent in the case of comedic novels, because, as opposed to screen and stage, there are no audio-visual back-ups in the written word to add punch to the humour, and no brilliant acting performances to prod and poke an audience into laughter. No funny voices, or funny faces, or fart noises. No custard pies in the face or painful-looking slapstick pratfalls.
They say that any fool can write tragedy. But you’ve got to be good to write funny.
As an example of what I’m talking about, you could take a look at any one of those home-movie TV clip shows like You’ve Been Framed. Perhaps seeing yet another unfortunate person trip up and hurt themselves for about the ten-thousandth time really shouldn’t be so funny, but sadly that’s the way it seems to be. Lowbrow, but true – it’s just human nature to be amused when somebody else’s excrement hits the fan.
But just you try getting the same reaction when you set it down in black and white:
The bridegroom, so full of excitement and happiness at the prospect of tying the knot with his beloved, stepped forward to meet her… but then tripped over the carpet and fell like a tree and hit the floor with an audible smack! Then the best man, rushing forward to help, tripped up himself! Then the bride herself did the same thing! Followed by the Minister! And two of the bridesmaids!
Anybody laughing yet? Guffawing? Giggling? A snigger? A snort? I thought not.
Was it the exclamation marks that put your back up? I know that they offended me, and I put them there. I tend to believe that exclamation marks are used by writers of so-called humorous fiction the way that the old TV companies used to insert canned laughter into their sitcoms, as a ham-fisted clue to let us know what’s funny and where we ought to laugh, because naturally we’re far too dumb to decide that for ourselves. They also claimed that the canned laughter was supposed to help the TV audience have a better time watching their shows, and maybe a rash of exclamation marks dotted all over a page is meant to have the same effect on readers. If that’s the case, I think the experiment has failed dismally.
Funny fiction has been on my mind for a while now, because I recently published a novel called The Queen of Hearts which is meant to be sort of funny in places. I don’t think I could ever call it an outright comedy – I don’t think there are any outright gags as such – and the storyline is more or less serious in intent. The closest I could get to describing it would be as a crime novel which is told with humour, rather than a crime comedy, if that makes any sense (and it probably doesn’t make any sense from a marketing POV).
As I generally write dark and gloomy crime fiction that makes the current crop of Scandinavian schlock seem positively chirpy, this is something of a departure for me, so as I approached the finish line, I started looking around at novels that claimed to be funny to get a feel of what I might be up against when it came to humour. I read the jacket covers and the Product Descriptions, I read the advertising blurbs and the review quotes: Uproarious! Laugh-out-loud hilarious! Hysterically funny! You’ll laugh like a drain! (Oh those exclamation marks just keep on coming…) Then I settled down with a wobbling stack of library books and a well-stocked Kindle and a terrible feeling of apprehension fluttering away in the pit of my stomach – I hoped and believed that my stuff was at least a tiny bit funny in the places it was meant to be, and it would be too depressing and dispiriting if my little novel was squashed flat by a convoy of true comedy juggernauts…
I needn’t have worried.
Honestly, I’ve never come across such painful stuff in my life, and I was hard-pushed to raise a smile, much less bust a gut. With only a small number of honourable exceptions, these comedic triumphs were uniformly unfunny and, in some specific cases, desperately unfunny, with the accent very much on the word desperate. The worst of them, of course, were peppered with hundreds of those evil little exclamation marks, which I think is like having someone stand close to you in a stalled elevator, poking you in the ribs and saying, ‘I’m funny, you know! I’m funny, me!! I’m a laugh a minute, aren’t I? I’m just so FUNNY!!!’ (Imagine Joe Pesci in Goodfellas-mode doing it, and there’s nothing funny about it at all.)
But there again, as we know, humour is subjective…
An awful lot of people, including many people making their livings as book critics as well as ordinary readers, seem to find these novels funny. Very funny. So funny that they splutter out their morning coffee while reading on the Underground! So funny that they’re still laughing at odd moments, even out of context, days later! So funny that they’re glad they stocked up on Tena Lady before reaching Chapter 3! So funny they had to go to the Emergency Room because they’d suffered a serious hernia of the laughometer! So…
…so maybe it isn’t everybody else, after all. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m the problem. Maybe I just don’t have a real sense of humour myself, and so I’m unable to recognise funny when I see it.
What do I know about funny? Possibly nothing at all.
Hopefully my readers will let me know when I finally get around to finishing the sequel.