Last Saturday, as part of the WOW Festival in Hull, I attended a comedy writing workshop hosted by Lucy Beaumont. Lucy is a comedienne and was the winner of the BBC New Comedy Award in 2012 and nominated for Best Newcomer in 2014 Fosters Comedy Award. She has run many workshops over the years and her passion for sharing her ideas and encouragement for new writers of comedy is strong.
First, she was keen to get across that there is comedy in everyone. You don’t have to perform in a sketch show or be a stand-up comedian; comedy is used by us all, mainly as a coping mechanism, so that we don’t fear death. This idea confounded me. Really? Are we really laughing because we fear death? I still struggle to get my head around that, probably because it is a subconscious act.
Laughter is a natural response. We know this because babies laugh, which tells us that people since the beginning of time have always laughed. It is part of life and it is important. The world is a dark place and laughter can provide a release from the pain and torment that we see and feel. It has been proven to benefit our physical health as well as our mental well-being.
We formed an eclectic bunch on Saturday: actresses, performers, writers, producers, an engineer, a primary school teacher, a taxi driver, an artist, a social worker and a journalist – all of us wanting in some way to bring a bit of laughter into our and others’ lives. We started by analysing a simple joke. So,
What cheese would you use to tempt a bear down from a tree?
We are hard wired to think logically and automatically try to make sense of the situation put to us. The comic is relying on us listening to think of a logical answer to the question. This is the set-up. Our thought processes before we hear the answer is the bridge, the delay before we discover the punch-line:
Writers are professional observers of life and we use our observations in our writing. Make the most of this. A couple of attendees revealed funny moments that they had experienced recently.
A young sleep-deprived mother was walking her baby in the pram and a neighbour commented ‘Big lad!’ She, in her fatigue, heard ‘Be glad’ (her baby was sleeping). She replied, ‘I am.’ Moments later she realised her mistake and hasn’t been able to look her neighbour in the eye since. Simple misunderstandings like these can provide valuable material.
Another lady reported that she was on the phone with her sister the other day and telling her that she thought her daughter had a boyfriend, simply because he had bought her a pot noodle. Her sister’s response was, ‘Oh, what flavour?’ Alternative responses like these are surprising and make us laugh. As writers, we can flip situations and create an alternative outcome.
Comedy can also be used as a personal tool to deal with anger. Another attendee reported that she was astounded recently by her village getting together to create a supply of tea-towels for children to buy for Mothers’ Day (because every mother wants to be drying the dishes on her day of rest). She was incensed by this, as were we on hearing it, but she made us laugh. Comedy can also provide an opportunity to educate people, to advance people’s views.
Many comedians use self-deprecation to create laughs, thus making others feel comfortable. This highlights the fact that when writing, a character must be flawed in order to make them funny. Amando Iannucci shows this brilliantly in this DIY disaster clip. We see the horrific results of a man putting on a front, we laugh at the absurdity of it and then we are silenced by the serious, tragic message at the end.
For those of us writing about dark subject matter or stories set up in dystopic worlds, comedy can bring relief to a dark situation. There is not enough dark humour in the market and one of the main reasons perhaps, why David Walliams’ books, have been such a success, plus Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
As a writer, if you are stuck, a good starting point is to start with the surreal, something bizarre. The surreal but ordinary Alan Partridge is a good example of this, as is Dadaism in the art world. In children’s literature, the first one that comes to mind is of course, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Having just started my third novel and delving into the dark world of anorexia, I now feel inspired to lighten my protagonist’s world with elements of comedy. I hope, after reading this, that the writers amongst you will find inspiration from the highlighted sections here.