Monday, 20 May 2013

Dying Is Easy; Writing Comedy Is Hard

*This entry was originally published on January 8th 2012*

Although I've been writing for several years now, I've never written much comedy. This has always struck me as something of a paradoxical situation, given how much I love to laugh and the important role that comedy has played in my life over the last couple of years. Part of me really does want to write funny stuff, but I've long been afraid of even attempting it. Of course, without practice, there's no pretext for improvement, so I am effectively trapped in this vicious cycle where I may never stop writing bad comedy, because I am so petrified by the prospect of writing bad comedy.

I think the main reason I tip-toe around humour is that I've always considered myself to be pretty terrible at writing it. In the past I've attempted to write comic relief into my work, and it's invariably fallen painfully flat. I remember trying to shoe-horn one character in particular into a premise for a novel, whose primary function was to mispronounce long words for comic relief. I spent months trying to convince myself this character really was funny, before eventually admitting to myself that he was pointless best and irritating at worst, and filing him in the waste paper bin. Over the years, I've come to understand that if something I've written doesn't make me laugh, then it's probably not going to make anybody else laugh either. The challenge, therefore, lies in trying to write something that I find funny, and that's a lot harder than it might initially appear.

I've only ever made one attempt at writing comedy that I consider to be successful, to the point where I remain proud of it to this day. Back in my penultimate year of secondary school, I co-wrote a trilogy of short stories with my good friend Joe, a fellow who's sure to appear several times over as Writer's Unblock progresses through 2012. Collectively titled The 11AC1 Trilogy, they told the tale of a barely-fictitious class of students directly based on our own science class at school. The plots were feeble and flimsy, serving only as a sputtering engine propelling the comedy vehicle onwards. The characters were one-dimensional caricatures who served no real purpose beyond dying in outlandish ways. The raw materials suggest that The 11AC1 Trilogy should have been a train-wreck. In some ways I suppose an argument could be made in favour of that notion, but it certainly wasn't a comedic train-wreck. In fact, it was (and still is) pretty damn funny.

That's probably because 11AC1 works on a level that renders the story and characters all but irrelevant. Sure, we fell back on some ridiculous situations to facilitate some of the laughs, but the humour mostly lies within the writing itself. It features a sardonic style of word-craft reminiscent of (although very much inferior to) Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy saga, and bears a surreal, Pythonesque slant through its constant breaking of the fourth wall. Joe and I knew that what we were writing was ridiculous, but we openly acknowledged that it was ridiculous within the text itself. Reading it back now, with the benefit of five years' hindsight, I still think it works. The root humour is still funny in an absurdist way, the self-awareness enhances that, and considering it was penned by a pair of sixteen-year-old schoolboys, it's pretty well written too. Perhaps, with Joe's permission, I'll share some of the trilogy in a future blog post so you can judge for yourselves.

As I've grown older and become more invested in stand-up comedy, I've found myself gravitating towards a different school of humour - one which is rooted in identifying the absurdities and conflicts within our own world, rather than fabricating absurdities for the sake of surrealism. I don't mean the straight-up observational comedy associated with acts like Michael McIntyre; I'm more referring to comedians that use humour as a method of tackling contentious issues. The undisputed master of this school of comedy is, in my opinion, Richard Herring. His last two stand-up shows, Hitler Moustache and Christ on a Bike, have offered unique and genuinely thought-provoking commentary on the subjects of fascism and religion respectively. At the same time, they're also incredibly funny. His current show, What Is Love, Anyway?, looks set to do exactly the same with the topic of love and relationships. Herring's unique comic sensibilities and intelligent approach to exploring these themes are what have made him my favourite and most-respected comedian. That, and his excellent jokes about willies. If I ever write something funny again, I pray to Jesus (and Hitler) it's at least half as funny as Richard Herring.

One last area I'd like to touch on is how powerful comedy can be if it's used effectively to combat tragedy. This is something that's really become apparent to me over the last six weeks or so, as I come to terms with the break-down of a near-three-year relationship. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say it's not been an easy period. Thankfully I'm fortunate enough to have some incredible friends, and all of them have been really supportive and understanding. Nobody more so, I'd argue, than my good mates Tom and Jon. For a little while now they've been recording a comedy podcast called Tom and Jon Takeover Your Ears, which I hope they won't mind me promoting in this space. They were even kind enough to invite me onto the show as a guest not long after the break-up, a gesture that meant a lot to me and helped to pull me up out of a very dark place. Listening to (and joining in with) their comic capers and friendly banter has really helped me through this last month or so, as well as reminding me that life isn't all bad or good, but a series of peaks and troughs between the two that go a long way towards countering each other and keeping us content, or at least sane. If you like your comedy friendly and warm, then I recommend you give their podcast a try. Episode Five is the best (because that's the one I'm in), but they're all well worth your time, and these guys are very deserving of your attention.

My novel Dreamscaper is shaping up to be a very bleak and misanthropic read in places. Given the core themes and concepts I'm dealing with (not to mention my own personal circumstances at this point in time), I guess that's to be expected. At the same time, though, I reckon there's space within that darkness for a few glimmers of humour to shine through. Without saying too much about the plot or content of the novel, I think there's a real possibility to incorporate traces of both of these kinds of humour into Dreamscaper - the 11AC1-style absurdity has close ties with the surreal aspects of dreaming, while the opportunity to draw inspiration from Herring's style of comedy and offer an alternate view of the protagonist's life and circumstances is simply too good to pass up. I guess the real question now is, am I willing to break this vicious cycle and actively try to write something funny again? I'm not entirely sure, but I'm very excited to find out.

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