The next genre that the creative writing course looked at was Comedy, and as usual I’ll be adding my own take on the discussion in this post. All genres of course vary widely and engender varied reader responses, but comic writing is particularly difficult as humour is very personal: what’s funny to one person can leave another cold. Whether your tastes veer towards physical slapstick and the comedy of cruelty or the maybe more subtle mental ribtickling of wordplay, puns, riddles and exaggeration it pretty much all relies on what the writer Arthur Koestler (in his 1964 study The Act of Creation) called “bisociation”. Essentially this is the bringing together of at least two normally unrelated concepts in an unexpected way, the metaphorical equivalent of an unlooked-for slap in the face that either provokes an understanding smile or a shocked reaction in an explosive guffaw.
When I read The Act of Creation way back in the late sixties I was persuaded by Koestler’s physiological explanation for laughter — similar to the shrieks given by a community of apes when suddenly surprised by an intruder — but of course there are many other theoretical explanations for humour and laughter, psychological as well as physical, that need more consideration than I can give here.
Extracts from three text were examined: Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982), Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) and Bill Bryson’s Neither here Nor there: Travels in Europe (1992). All three share ingredients, even if in different proportions: exaggeration as the meat, parody as the sauce, maybe the addition of a sprig of satire. Exaggeration heightens the sense of ridiculousness in what could be very commonplace, parody requires not just familiarity but also a fondness for what’s being sent up, while satire is a more vicious attack on aspects that ought to be corrected or improved.
Adrian Mole’s diary entries were written as a parody of po-faced adolescent cogitations: “Now I know I am an intellectual. I saw Malcolm Muggeridge on the television last night, and I understood nearly every word.” Adrian writes a poem about a tap (‘faucet’ to North Americans) which he explains “isn’t really about a tap, it’s very deep, and about life and stuff like that.” He notes down a newcomer in class: “Her name is Pandora, but she likes being called ‘Box’. Don’t ask me why.” The humour works here, I think, because while the reader is in on the joke Townsend allows us to feel for Adrian’s gaucheness: we smile at him but with an understanding that comes from the shock of recognising what it was like growing up at that age.Although some details are showing their age — a decreasing proportion of people remember who Malcolm Muggeridge was, for example — others are perennial: “I read a bit of Pride and Prejudice, but it was very old-fashioned. I think Jane Austen should write something a bit more modern.”
Townsend included criticism of Thatcherite policies in Adrian’s disingenuous musings, a much more political approach than Helen Fielding’s parody of Pride and Prejudice in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Here the eponymous Bridget obsesses about weight, her food, cigarette and alcohol consumption, and she acknowledges that as a single woman she must be in want of a husband in possession of a good fortune. Her diary, in contrast to Adrian Mole’s pretensions to literary intellectualism, is essentially a stream of consciousness: “Cannot go on. Have just stepped in a pan of mashed potato in new kitten-heel black suede shoes from Pied à Terre […] Oh my God — suddenly remembered tube of contraceptive jelly might be on side of washbasin […] Just got back from shop and realize have forgotten butter…” Fielding’s thirty-something singleton is very much one of Thatcher’s Children, a follower of fashion and a metaphorical navel-gazer; the Diary then is clearly a satire on nineties selfishness and superficiality. But while also a parody of contemporary Western attitudes, it paralleled real lives in that so many individuals saw in Bridget only a mildly exaggerated portrait of themselves.
A different kind of humour is exhibited in Bill Bryson’s writing. Unlike Adrian and Bridget’s fictional autobiographical entries, Bryson’s travelogues are nominally non-fiction. However, his use of words is anything but purely factual as he throws in personal asides, similes and incongruous adjectives to gently parody the European countries he visits. 1980s Norway, for example, was like being in a coma but “without the worry or inconvenience”: in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights he “went out every hour to see if anything was happening yet, but it never was…”; the programmes on Norway’s one television network were so dull that “in this respect they could win awards”; any one of the TV hosts, “always a handsome man or woman with a lively sweater” introduced “endless” trailers, programmes like documentaries on mineral extraction, Napoleonic costume dramas in which characters strutted around “as if they have had a fence post inserted rectally,” and “a jazz session with the Sigi Wurtmuller Rhythm Cadettes.” It occurs to him that this is just like being retired. Are Bryson’s descriptions of heightened ridiculousness savage satire or just gentle humour? Even if you have never heard him speak this is undoubtedly an individual voice, in which you can hear, if not an edgy stand-up, at least a polished raconteur.
As well as fictional diaries and travelogues, humour can show up in a stand-up’s autobiography or the history of a cult TV show, a chicken farmer’s manual or a comic fantasy, setting up home in France or a spoof travel guide. Whether you smile or snigger, laugh yourself hoarse or crease your brow in confusion depends on nature of your funny bone, or even whether you have one at all.