I’ve never considered comedy to be high among my abilities, but I’m coming to the conclusion that other people don’t agree with this.
Back in the 80s and 90s, when I was doing performance poetry around London venues, I had plenty of serious subjects to write poems about: political and social issues, ecology, exploration of mystical states. I performed many of these with musical backing, and they generally went down well, but my biggest “hit” by far was a doggerel piece about a woman who tries to slim too much and turns into a black hole. It always got a lot of laughs, and people used to tell me I should concentrate on that style.
Trouble was, that wasn’t what I wanted or needed to write, and similar ideas very rarely occurred to me. I simply wasn’t cut out to be a comic writer.
Fiction’s the same. I’ve certainly tried to avoid being dry as dust or over-solemn, and there are many humorous moments in my stories, but those are just lines or incidents that rise from the situation and fall back into it as quickly. It wasn’t till I started writing flash fiction that I began sometimes to write completely comic stories.
Flash fiction (stories shorter than a thousand words) was something else I didn’t expect to be good at, since even my short stories tended to the long side. I only really got into it when an online writers’ group I belong to started to do one-hour writing challenges. Some of the pieces I’ve written in an hour to a theme are throwaway, and others are the beginnings of longer stories — including my recent publication from Musa Publishing, The Treason of Memory — but some are complete short pieces. Often, as it turned out, comic.
The advantage of writing comedy at that length is that a story can be based around a single joke, and can often be therapeutic. When my washing-machine leaked and flooded the kitchen, I wrote about a wizard having to call in a water-witch to fix his magic well. When I missed an appointment due to relying on technology to direct me, I wrote a tale of a heroic quest gone wrong called The Sat-Nav of Doom. It felt good, especially when the latter was published by Every Day Fiction. But it was still just a flash story.
Then I met Sam Nemesis. He began, too, as a one-hour writing challenge. The challenge, as far as I remember, was to write a story that was, at least partially, in an unfamiliar genre, and I chose a fantasy version of the hard-boiled noir detective – Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade etc. – which I’d never written before.
Not just a fantasy detective, though: specifically, a P.I. who operates in the world of Greek mythology. The familiar doings of gods and heroes are seen as mysteries to be unravelled, in exactly the same way as discovering the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon.
The idea was received enthusiastically by the people who read them, and before I knew, I had two stories about Sam – substantial stories, not just flash – waiting for publication, in Penumbra and Wily Writers, and I've just completed another. What's going on? And what are the secrets of writing good comedy, which I appear to have somehow managed to learn?
It seems to me that writing successful comedy fiction needs four main things (besides the obvious requirement of being able to think of good one-line jokes). One is to have a really good basic idea to start with, and run with it. When Douglas Adams decided to follow what happened to a very ordinary man who’d survived the destruction of Earth, he had a situation where – quite literally – the universe was the limit. When Terry Pratchett created a world that swam through space on the back of a giant turtle, which could potentially contain not only every cliché of fantasy, but also anything he chose from the contemporary world too, he gave himself ammunition for countless dozens of books.
While I’m not saying my idea is on that scale of brilliance, I think I’ve hit on something that can run and run. Greek mythology is full of violent death, theft and abduction, and having a P.I. investigating it all makes a lot of comic sense.
Another important factor, I think, is an element of juxtaposition. I recall a well-known comedian (I forget who it was, but I remember it was a well-known comedian) suggesting that one key to Monty Python’s success is their habit of taking two familiar situations and shoe-horning them together in a way that makes the situation completely surreal. Most of us have experienced a pet dying, and most have us have suffered frustration from poor customer service. Few of us, I suspect, have experienced that frustration while trying to return a dead parrot, and the absurdity of the juxtaposition makes the sketch funny.
Pratchett, too, is a master of juxtaposition. Discworld is full of all the things we expect from the most clichéd of fantasy tale – wizards, assassins, barbarian warriors and the like – but alongside all this, he gives us a police force, a post office and even (the gods help us) tourists. It’s all completely logical, but, put together with other elements, deliciously absurd as well.
Greek mythology and the hard-boiled detective are, I’d say, two of the more familiar fictional elements in modern western culture. Even people who know little of them will instinctively recognise the archetypes. I think it’s fair to say, though, that they aren’t the most obvious elements to put together. To filter stories regarded as the highest of high culture through the eyes of someone who regards goddesses as “dames” and heroes as “punks” achieves, I think, that level of juxtaposition.
Good characters are vital. That might not seem so important when the object is to be silly, but it isn't really funny when absurd things happening to cardboard cut-outs. Even if the characters are exaggerated or in unreal situations, we can only really laugh at them if they’re people we can relate to.
I’ve tried to make Sam a character, not just a cypher of clichés from noir fiction, even though that’s how his situation and experiences are made up. I’ve also tried to surround him with people who are interesting and vivid in their own right, whether they’re gods, monsters or heroes. In general, readers seem to like the people in my straight fiction, and I’ve applied the same level of characterisation for comedy as for an epic or an adventure story.
If the need for good characters in comedy isn’t obvious, then it might seem even stranger to emphasise the need for accuracy and authenticity, but this is especially vital in parody. If we’re laughing at a specific target, then it’s only funny if we’re laughing at that target, not at something vaguely like it. It’s no accident that the best parodies tend to get the strongest results from fans of what’s being parodied. You probably could, for instance, laugh at the wonderful film Galaxy Quest without having watched Star Trek, but it takes a true Trekkie to get all the jokes and really appreciate how funny it is.
I’ve lost count of the comedy treatments of mythology I’ve read – usually Greek or Norse mythology, or else stories of angels and archangels in heaven. Some are done excellently, but in far too many cases, they seem as if the author has spent ten minutes reading a Wikipedia article on the subject and then taken a few random characters that sound fun, regardless of whether or not they’re being used in the right way.
I studied Greek mythology as part of Classics at university, and I’ve read a great deal about the subject, both before that and since. The characters I’ve used are those who belong in the stories, and their functions and characters are (suitably adapted for noir and comedy, of course) those the mythology gave to them.
Sam’s investigation of Herakles carrying off Cerberus from the Underworld, for instance, features the minor goddess Hekate in a fairly important role. This might seem rather random but, in fact, Hekate has a small part in that myth. It makes complete sense that she’s around, especially since she also belongs in the Underworld, where the story starts.
So: a great set-up, juxtaposition, strong characters, authenticity. With the possible exception of the second, that doesn’t seem so very different from what’s needed to write a straight story well. And that, I think, is the real key: to write a good story, rather than to write comedy. The requirements are much the same; it’s just that the outcome needs to be funny, rather than exciting, moving, thought-provoking or scary. Not that it can’t be all those, too. But in a funny way.
It seems, then, that maybe I am a comedy writer as well as a serious one. You never know: I might even end up as a stand-up comic. What’s certain, though, is that I’ll be trawling Greek mythology in search of more cases for Sam Nemesis, Private Investigator to gods, heroes and monsters.