After a humourless participation that resulted in a withheld prize for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize, we investigate—what’s the secret to successful comic literature?
It seems these days there’s no end to ridiculous politics and worldly-happenings which we can make fun of, considering that poking jest and dark humour have always been a popular way to make the masses laugh. So, why then did the 62 entrants fail to impress the judges for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize? Is it due to a seasonal lull, harsh judges or, more despondently, is comedic literature simply a dying art form?
Said judge, David Campbell, the publisher of Everyman’s Library, “Wodehouse is so incredibly great, he really does make you laugh out loud. But that’s not an easy thing to do at all. There were lots of very good novels, but nothing outstandingly funny… Nothing stood out this year. There were a lot of witty submissions, bloody good novels, but they weren’t comic novels. The alchemy was not there.”
Wodehouse with his Royal electric typewriter in his study. The photograph was taken in 1975, one week before his death
"His erudition is second to none and his ability to describe scenery with minute detail for comic effect"
Generally, nowadays, it seems that the younger audiences are the ones who hunt for a laugh in their reading. With no shortage of funny children’s books to choose from such as Roald Dahl’s The Twits, the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series or any Dr. Seuss book, there’s a constant and flowing competitive writing culture when it comes to humorous books for the young. It’s when we get older that the funny books we know and love seem to be the ones that have been around for a while and not a lot of new quality content is incoming.
Take the competition’s eponymous author PG Wodehouse and his work. He is largely heralded as the king of comedy writing and his intelligent wit and large pool of context to draw from displays some of how his mind worked. In a Telegraph article that called to keep his books as reading material rather than on TV or plays, the author states,
"Part of the reason is Wodehouse’s references. However lightly delivered, they depend on at least a passing understanding of classics, English literature and the Bible; Wodehouse won a senior classical scholarship to Dulwich College in 1897. He never shows off how clever he is, but he does assume a certain level of knowledge in order for the reader to laugh at, say, Bertie Wooster in Right Ho, Jeeves: ‘I retired to an armchair and put my feet up, sipping the mixture with carefree enjoyment, rather like Caesar having one in his tent the day he overcame the Nervii.’ "
Which exhibits the very centre of comedy and capturing people’s attention. The main thing to look for when writing comedy is relatability and that’s what Wodehouse got so right, his erudition being second to none and his ability to describe scenery with minute detail for comic effect. Whether it’s through Wooster’s plethora of problems and life obstacles or in Jeeves’ helpful mannerisms, and the irritability in which they are received, the audience is painted a picture that’s quite relatable; a somewhat selfish and dim yet good natured fellow who is being guided by a wiser and magical-seeming parental figure.
In a 1975 interview with Gerald Clarke in the Paris Review, Wodehouse explained his thought process when creating a comic scene for his books, “For a humorous novel you’ve got to have a scenario, and you’ve got to test it so that you know where the comedy comes in, where the situations come in... splitting it up into scenes (you can make a scene of almost anything) and have as little stuff in between as possible.”
Perhaps this is the winning formula, as well as admitting he liked to “re-use” the template for his stories but with different scenarios each time, it seemed that Wodehouse had settled in his successful way of writing, the public continued to want more and he gave it to them. In other words—if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. For the writers seeking to execute the genre with flying colours, it seems the above would be a good rule to follow, in short; know your template, stick to it and break the humour into smaller “scenes” rather than attempting to make a plot you already have, funny.
"Satire is different to comedy / they are two wholly separate beasts"
To truly write like Wodehouse and delight in the world of comic literature, you must disengage, as he did, with reality. To quote the master himself, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going deep down into life and not caring a damn...” In other words, create a convincing realm that’s similar to the one we live in, while skimming the dark realities that usually encircle life. In doing so you will create, as he did, a world of caricatures—experiences and people that, if stripped of their peculiarities, would be quite at home in reality.
In his novels, everyone and everything had a backstory and this only added to the awareness he gave his audience so as to increase their level of commitment and understanding. It also makes it all the more hilarious when, to give one example, a valet named Brinkley from the volume, Thank You, Jeeves who has tough left-wing opinions threatens Bertie Wooster. Had his past not been made clear, the situation would not nearly have been so amusing and ridiculous, also, this backstory serves as a future comedy set-up when in a later publication, he comes into property and professes to be extremely right-wing, funny stuff.
One extremely important part of humour in novels is the understanding that satire is much, much different to comedy. In fact, they are two wholly separate beasts. To implement comedy productively one must first notice all the grim and depressing undertones that life carries. After all, comedy is born of a need for laughter; without darkness, how would the want for merriment arise? And, within those dismal states, if you look hard enough there will always be silliness, in depths of no return there are moments so contrary to the depressing surroundings that there’s no way it couldn’t be funny. Take, for example, Wooster’s encounter with Stoker from the book Thank You, Jeeves,
“He eyed me musingly. ‘There was a time, when I was younger, when I would have broken your neck,’ he said. I didn’t like the trend the conversation was taking.”
Sinister, subtle and speaks for itself.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the words on the page. The way words are used in any novel is, of course, of utmost importance. Many scenes can be painted with the correct order of text and Wodehouse was no stranger to using prose to his advantage; a surprise word here and a slang term there only amplified the fact that the writing was light-hearted and fun no matter what the subject. A prime example is this Code of the Woosters play on words—“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled”—a perfect depiction of how funny a sentence can be without having to go into over-wrought detail.
Simplicity, and humour, at its finest.
*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.