‘Get your hands off my miscarriage!’
Series 2, Episode 1 of Fleabag. Since watching this a few days ago, I haven’t been able to shake that line out of my head. Reading it back in isolation, it seems a bit disturbing. But such is the skill of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing – a quasi-comedy delivery which tempers the impact, while simultaneously heightening its emotional poignancy. The potency of the (dark) humour in that scene is why I’m thinking about it still, days afterwards. It’s also why I’m considering writing a comedy myself, as well as inspiring this blog.
Laughter and laughing is a massive priority to me, and I think most people would agree with it’s emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits. That naturally extends to when we’re in ‘entertainment mode’, whether reading, watching a programme or a film; we seek out and appreciate laughter in those spaces too. When executed well, comedy truly elevates writing/a story into something immeasurably more gratifying. My sense of humour bends towards darker, obscure, satirical, situational, and character-based, and screenwriting offers a much richer and diverse landscape than fiction.
At first blush, I struggled to recall any comedic fiction at all. I scraped a list together of books that I’d read, which features the likes of The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch), Bridget Jones’ Diary (Helen Fielding) and Feeding Time (Adam Biles) but funny fiction isn’t on my radar, or in my library, as much as it is on the screen.
It feels like there’s less comedic breadth in fiction, but offbeat/eccentric/obscure/farcical stories and characters tend to be a safe bet in fiction. Some of Murdoch’s unconventional characters spring to mind or the hyperbolic and repressed Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons). Clumsy/underdog/hapless type protagonists traditionally do well too, sometimes with us laughing with them, but often at their expense. We’re championing as much as laughing at Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones in their frequent misfortunes; they’re the gift that keeps on giving, and us reading.
Unfortunately, comedic fiction is forced to wrestle with some tangible limitations. By its very nature, the screen allows for more varied and nuanced comedy; it can leverage timing and delivery in a way that fiction can’t, as well as its other obvious visual advantages. The Favourite (Tony McNamara & Deborah Davis) was a hilarious gift of a script, but it’s the genius portrayals and mise-en-scène that make it truly remarkable. Because the playing field is much smaller, written fiction has a tougher job of making people laugh out loud, which is the desired response when writing comedy.
When you compare comedy to other fiction and entertainment genres, I would say that it’s prone to date more, and has less resonance and impact over time. Does Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing (I had the pleasure of watching a live recording of this for the BBC with Maxine Peak and Sue Johnston, but the ‘datedness’ of it at times was palpable) and Wooster and Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse) still make the masses laugh like they used to? Do we still watch shows like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum or Benny Hill?
And yet, despite all the challenges, I’m still drawn to the idea of writing comedy and its potential to create an elevated experience for the reader/audience. Not just because they enjoy a greater range of emotions, but that it often challenges them to consider how they relate or react to things in the world. This works especially well in dark/obscure comedy. Biles’ Feeding Time is the story of a group of residents in an old people’s home staging a coup. The reader is repeatedly served with sharp, deranged, and uncomfortable speech, action and imagery, but it’s brilliantly funny. Till you question yourself – am I really laughing at this? Should I find this funny? On the stage they call it Epic Theatre, where you’re provoked into rational self-reflection, being critical of what’s in front of you, and understanding your response to it. I think the best comedy does just that.
There can be a unique, honest beauty in well-crafted humour when it captures and creatively communicates a ‘universal truth’. The League of Gentleman and the hilarious ‘Job Centre sketch’ is a good example of this. Pauline’s contempt and need to put the Jobseekers down (especially Ross) in order to feel ‘powerful’ herself is something most of us can relate to. Her fatal flaw and reason behind her condescension is the pitcher that throws gag after gag, and the reason why we laugh when she herself is humiliated – simply put, we don’t like people who take pleasure in humiliating others (nor jobsworths).
At its best, comedy heightens characterisation and the audience/reader’s experience. Funny situations can often reveal a new layer or depth, in turn, they often lean on the audience/reader’s understanding of the character to reveal the humour in the first place. Using the Fleabag example, when our ‘underdog’ protagonist Fleabag’s uptight and repressed sister, Claire, says ‘get your hands off my miscarriage’, it’s the various facets of her character that bring that line to life. Combining Claire’s personality, with her and Fleabag’s challenging relationship and Claire’s role in that (her condescension and misunderstanding of her sister), ‘get your hands off my miscarriage’ halos with humour because it’s so true to character. At the same time, that’s what makes it more tragic; because Claire can only handle it the way she handles everything.
I am fascinated with the idea of writing comedy fiction but pulling it off well is going to be a challenge, and I have my doubts how well humour survives and thrives in the editing process, but we shall see. If the idea of writing a comedy keeps knock knocking at me after I’ve finished writing the AC sequel, then I’m going to have to open the door.