I think the hardest form of writing is humorous writing because humour is (a) subjective and (b) changes over time. Good humorous writing is a joy to read but it is so difficult to do well.
Two of my favourite authors, P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, have sold millions of books each and have been translated into many languages. That aspect is another reason why humour is difficult to write: not all aspects of “English” humour translate well. For it to work the humour in the stories has to be universal. Still there is plenty about the human condition to send up so the material is out there, ready to be used!
Good humorous writing develops the funny “stuff” from the situations/characters created by the author. It should read naturally and there should never be any hint of a set up situation. Ironically every scene in the book, story or play is set up but it should not feel as if it is to the reader. The writer is creating a world for their reader/listener to enter into and nothing should shatter that illusion.
Some of my favourite lines are in radio comedy, especially The Goon Show, and do not feel artificial, even though the whole thing is the product of someone’s (sometimes warped) imagination. The writer, in this case Spike Milligan, has set up the scene and the funny punchline is the inevitable result of it. You get the sense that had to be the line to complete the piece. I highly recommend reading his books of letters too. Very funny and there are some wonderful lines in them (especially if you like put downs to officialdom!).
Writing a series in humour (Discworld and Jeeves and Wooster possibly being the obvious examples) gives the writer time to develop their characters further. Characters have to develop otherwise they will seem like cardboard cut-outs. This means the humour can develop too. In the first story a naive character simply wouldn’t tell, for example, certain jokes. If over time, the character is shown to have lost their naivety, then it would be reasonable to show them now enjoying the jokes they wouldn’t have done in the beginning.
Humorous writing at its very best will also tell us something about ourselves. Satire is the ultimate example of this. I love sketch comedy because, as with flash fiction, its brevity forces the writer to come to the point nigh on immediately and it should have a memorable punchline. The writer will be looking for impact to make their sketch comedy stand out from the thousands the BBC receive when they open their submissions windows.
Humorous writing can travel well – in time. At last year’s Medieval Weekend I laughed out loud at the performance of Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale. Jane Austen is more popular than she has ever been (and she must be one of the first women to use irony in their work). There is an acceptance here I think that sometimes the humour is of its time but in both these cases the wit of Jane and the bawdy humour of Chaucer “carry” well. There will always be an appreciation of wit and cheeky humour. (What would Chaucer have made of the Carry On Films I wonder!).
Humorous writing can carry a message but it does this best when the writer follows the old adage to show and not tell. We can tell what characters are like by what they do and one of my favourite TV series, Only Fools and Horses, did this brilliantly. The very best writing gives you character types you can identify just by using the names. If I tell you someone is a real “Del Boy” or a “Rodney” or an “Uncle Albert”, most of you will know what I am referring to. I don’t need to elaborate. At no point does John Sullivan tell us these characters care for one another deeply but he does show them time and time again standing by each other. If ever there was a show that illuminated the importance of a caring family, it is this one.
The lovely thing about humorous writing is it does not have to be the full story, nor does it exclude tragedy or other forms of drama. Alan Bennett proves this with his fantastic monologues. I have fond memories of A Cream Cracker Under the Settee with Thora Hird starring especially as it is funny and tragic.
Humour can work well in poetry too. Obviously there are the limericks (and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue had rounds based on these) but you can have full length work. Humorous writing opens the way up for spoofs too.
My late mother had one big blind spot when it came to reading. She had books in a wide range of genres and particularly liked H.G. Wells but she just couldn’t read funny fiction. Anything remotely humorous would bypass her. On the other hand, I wanted, when much younger, to have my own library filled with books I wanted (achieved), some of those books to have my name on the front cover (getting there!) and there had to be a good selection of funny fiction (achieved many years ago!).
Funniest extract in a longer work? The Great Sermon Handicap by Wodehouse. Read it and laugh! Oh and can humour ever be used to convey a serious point? Definitely. Read Wodehouse’s send up of the far right with his portrayal of Roderick Spode. We need that kind of send up again (sadly).
And for those who prefer audio, Wodehouse is just as funny this way.
My top three funny books
My top three funny books? I’d say:-
1. Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett
2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
3. The Code of the Woosters – P.G. Wodehouse
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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