When Comedy Falls Flat: The Difficulties of Writing Comedy

 

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I couldn’t resist posting that new cover from EBook Launch  for ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’. I think the former one was too cartoon like.  Some might say that there is a difficulty with this one in it being too romantic. That all fits in with the end of this post.  I do like it, though. I think the artist did a brilliant job. Sadly, Émile’s freckles are missing…

One of the problems with writing humour is that everyone’s sense of humour must be slightly different. Of course, there is mainstream comedy, and there is dark comedy, and there are satires and spoofs. What one person finds hilarious leaves another cold.

And that is the problem with comedy. If you don’t amuse, you can annoy. Comedy, or books with a strongly comic undertone, must surely be amongst the most difficult of genres to write.

For instance, I usually enjoy the writing of that writer of the mid-twentieth century Monica Dickens.  The regular reader of this blog won’t be surprised to find that I came across a copy of the first book I read by her, ‘One Pair of Hands’ at the age of twelve on one of those invaluable and innumerable bookshelves my mother had stocked with books bought by lot in furniture auctions. It was a 1930’s edition, and even had the postscript left out of modern editions, the discussion on ‘the servant problem’ at the end.

To digress a bit: Monica Dickens was the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens,  a debutante who went to work as a ‘cook general’, an amazingly eccentric move in the UK of the 1930’s.  This led her to write this book of her experiences with various employers in the London of the Great Depression.

Work may have been scarce, but ‘good servants’ were equally so just before the outbreak of World War Two, as people came to regard the long hours, poor wages and necessary subservience of ‘service’ as demeaning. In Victorian times, any lower middle class household would have had its ‘Mary-Ann’ who had to do just about everything for her employers; in the 1930’s things had changed, while many employer’s attitudes had not, and Ms Dickens’ book was about just that, and written with sharp observation and humour.

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The edition that I found on my parents’ bookshelves.

I found some other books of hers on the shelves, including, ‘Man Overboard’. This, an account of the misadventures of a British naval officer axed by a reduction in the navy circa 1955, I found so dull that I nearly stopped reading it, save then – as now –  a stupidly stubborn streak usually kept me reading a book I didn’t enjoy as ‘I’ve put this much effort into it; I might as well go on to the end.’

Most of it hardly raised a smile from me. That was, until I got to the climatic bit, which is is fact, the protagonist’s coming to a sense of proportion through the death of his father. At twelve, I was shocked to find that Monica Dickens had written a humorous depiction of a funeral. I had thought myself irreverent! That was black comedy indeed, and I was full of admiration that back in the conventional 1950’s she had dared to write it.

She did not in any way ridicule the grief of the mourners, but she did send up the foolish emptiness of many of the rituals, and much hypocrisy on the part of various distant relatives to a family loss. I was fascinated at how a humorous attitude towards life’s tragedies can in fact be a great bulwark, and I think I learnt a lot about dark comedy.

I read various other books of hers that I did consider funny (and tragic, for this author often combined the two). ‘Kate and Emma’ was one, ‘The Heart of London’ was another, and ‘The Listeners’ was another ( and no, that isn’t about the day-to-day ups and downs of the hard working people who do surveillance; it is about the author’s experience as a member of The Samaritans).

But I am unable to say why it was exactly that I found some of this author’s work hilarious, and other parts only raised from me a weary smile. It might have been that ‘Man Overboard’ was told from the point of view of the male protagonist, whereas her books are usually either told from the point of view of a female one, or have multiple points of view.

Another aside: How I wish that style of writing would come back into fashion…

It could just be that every comic situation depicted in that book left me cold until the end.

And that is one of the perils of writing comedy. When it falls flat, it’s about as acceptable to the reader as a heavy cold pancake, without any sugar, lemon, syrup, etc.

When it fails, it often frankly grates. Far more so than, for instance, pathos which misses the mark and turns into bathos, which after all, does make you smile at least.

I found this a couple of years ago, when I read some of a comic series by a female author. The books were well written. I enjoyed the first. In it, the heroine allowed herself to be beguiled by a charming wastrel, who subsequently let her down and wandered off with a regretful wave.

On beginning the second, I realised with dismay that the scenario was much the same as in the first. The protagonist had learnt nothing from being so badly let down by the first anti -hero. She met another one here, a supposedly different character, but in fact, virtually identical to the unreliable lover in the first. He looked the same, and his character flaws were identical. The heroine allowed herself to be drawn in by  him in exactly the same way as she had with the first, and he let her down in just the same way . So indecisive was he, that he didn’t even finish things properly; he wandered off exactly like the first, possibly to return in some future volume.

I looked at the third. Here that same anti-hero was again, hardly changed at all, though with a different name and a slightly different hair colour, being unreliable and winning the heroine’s heart and letting her down all over again…

This was obviously the case of a protagonist who learnt nothing and remained static. She was depicted as being supposedly sophisticated and in her late thirties. The author obviously found her guillable nature adorable, but for myself, I only find a naïve and ridiculously romantic female protagonist charming if she is young and inexperienced. If my own twenty-one-year-old Sophie de Courcy had led a less sheltered life, then her romantic silliness over the eponymous Scoundrel Émile  would have been  less exusable…

The protagonist of the series I mentioned seemed to have had many love affairs, but in the ones the reader is shown she was a sort of romantic recidivist, falling for the same sort of man, and being exploited in exactly the same way, again and again and never learning anything. In subsequent volumes, the former exploiters had a habit of returning with a weak apology, and the starry eyed heroine would admit them to her bed all over again before they strayed off again…

It was certainly realistic about a certain sort of woman. I found these constant re-runs of the first story not hilarious, as it is clear from the reviews that many did, but irritating.

There are in fact, ways in which an author can allow her protagonist to make the same mistake about one character, a love object, without depicting her as a static character incapable of learning. Magic is one, hypnosis is another, and a theme involving re-incarnation is a third.

In fact, in one of my favourite fantasy series, ‘Child of the Erinyes’ by R A Lochlann, a combination of these magical and reincarnation explanation is used to great effect. The heroine has no memory of the anti-hero’s abuse of her in previous incarnations, and so we do not become frustrated with her.

I suppose the author of the series about the non-developing woman had looked at some of the characters in classic comedy – ie, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and seen that they were essentially static, but this in no way detracted from people’s enjoyment of the stories.

And the odd thing is, that I enjoy those stories, myself.

She may have been right in her assessment. In all fairness, only a minority of reviewers reacted as I did. The majority seemed to enjoy the female protagonist, and to root for her without respecting her, chuckling indulgently as she made the same mistake about men all over again.

Which comes back to my point; writing comedy is so hazardous precisely because readers’ tastes and sense of the ridiculous differ so greatly.

A reader of  one of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ wrote to me, ‘I found it read more as a straight paranormal romance. I couldn’t find any spoof elements.’

She added, ‘But I really enjoyed it.’

Well, that’s the main thing, anyway…

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