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.


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

Author: 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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