And don’t call me Shirley

Though I’ve moaned about it before, here I go again: Writing comedy is hard. In the curious n-dimensional space of comedy fiction, only one path is funny; all others will elicit “Eh?”, “What?” and/or the slapping sound of a palm meeting forehead. So most days spent writing a comedy novel are days of mourning as dead jokes are removed and buried. The good jokes, meanwhile, weaken with repetition until you’re sure the whole book is about as funny as a housing contract. If you’re very lucky, the book might contain three or four gags that still raise a smile, even when you’re proofreading for the fourth time.

The book I’m currently writing is called Proper Job, and since finishing the first, bloated draft at the start of the summer, I have worked over (the violent metaphor is appropriate, trust me) the draft about ten times. The first draft was around 85,000 words. Now it’s down to – let me check – 71,000. I’ve deleted one or two scenes and reshuffled others, but most of those 14,000 words are deleted jokes. When you think about it, 14,000 words contain a lot of jokes.

Since this is my first comedy novel, I have, naturally enough, a suspicion that the novel isn’t funny at all. (I’ve since had my girlfriend, who is a tough critic, read it through and pronounce it funny, but the doubt still remains because the possibility remains.)

So I was quite buoyed by a purchase I made earlier this week: the film Airplane! on DVD. This film, from 1979 and starring Leslie Nielsen among others, ranks as a comedy classic for most people. I saw it again and again as kid, and gags from the film became a secret language for my cadre of friends. I think it’s probably the funniest film I’ve ever seen, though Top Secret comes a close second. It must be added that being an adolescent male at the time of first viewing put me in a good position to appreciate some of the humour!

I bought the DVD to get some perspective on Proper Job – i.e. remind myself of the level of quality I need to aim for, even if I miss by a mile – but the real treasure on this DVD is the director’s commentary. For those who aren’t familiar with this feature, such a commentary comprises one or two people (usually the writer and director) discussing aspects of the film as it unfolds. It was great morale booster to hear the three writer/directors (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker) cringe at the jokes that didn’t work, explain some of the obscurer references, and talk about the development of the film.

The original cut was long – more than three hours. Over the course of several months, the directors tested and tested and tested the film in front of preview audiences. They cut gag after gag. The movie shrank. They recorded the audience reaction during early screenings and cut the film together with this ‘laugh track’ so that they could be sure that they had included the funniest bits. The final running time was 78 minutes.

I’ve been working over the manuscript of Proper Job for so long (it’s taken all my spare time since last Christmas) that I’ve grown pretty sick of it, but hearing the director’s commentary for this great comedy film has reassured me that, even when the product is a straight, fast-paced piece of fun, you can only get this kind of product when you invest the necessary time and energy. That means feedback and lots of it, a ruthless attitude to the bits that don’t work, and a genuine belief in what you’re doing. That isn’t easy, and it isn’t meant to be. You forge a good knife by beating the shit out of it, by folding the metal again and again until you’re knackered. And then, the next day, you get up and do it again.

In my case, the result may or may not amount to much. But it certainly worked for the guys who put together Airplane!, so I’ll crack on.

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Written while listening to Starry Eyed Surprise from the album “Bunkka” by Paul Oakenfold

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

One thought on “And don’t call me Shirley”

  1. Stick at it Ian. Remember that the filming of every Blackadder episode was absolute misery for the cast as they had analysed every joke to death in order to ensure it was funny. I’m sure your joke culling, whilst not much fun for you, will make for a better, more chucklesome, novel for your readers.

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