My friend Paul has taken to telling me off for putting ‘sad bits’ in my novels. Why don’t you just write out-and-out comedies, he says. You’re very funny. I try to explain that life encompasses tragedy and farce and all points in between, and that I want my stories to do the same, but to no avail. He just wants me to make him laugh.
I take it as a compliment that Paul believes me capable of writing comic novels, but I think he underestimates the difficulty of the task. Very few authors manage it successfully. Here’s my personal top five (in reverse order, naturally).
5) Tom Sharpe
Like many people, I suspect, I discovered Sharpe’s scabrous novels in my late teens and used them as light relief during my A-levels and beyond. Sharpe’s comedy is propelled by a righteous fury at the idiocies (and worse) of the world, and his best books (the two set in South Africa spring to mind) are satirical masterpieces.
Recommended reading: Indecent Exposure
4) Douglas Adams
Another favourite from my schooldays and student years. True, the Hitchhikers’ Guide… series ran out of steam by the end, but the first three books are glorious, full of clever ideas brilliantly realised. One of those authors who managed to plant ideas in the heads of a generation – not least the answer to the ultimate question about the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
Recommended reading: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
3) Jerome K Jerome
The Edwardian era may be the golden age of English comic writing, and the oddly-named Jerome was its master. There is (gentle) satire in his work, but mainly he created funny situations for his characters to bumble through. Ignore the over-rated Three Men in a Boat, which is too sentimental for my taste, and start with its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, in which the hapless trio go on a bicycle tour of Germany. I’ve read it more times than any other book I own.
Recommended reading: Three Men on the Bummel
2) Matt Beaumont
I’m not entirely sure Beaumont belongs in this list, as some of his more recent books have moved away from out-and-out comedy. But at his funniest, he is the most hilarious writer of the modern age, and the way he uses contemporary communications to send up his stupid, venal characters is genius. e is told entirely in emails, and in its successor, e squared, he broadens his palate to take in instant messaging, Twitter, texting and more. It’s one of those ideas other authors must have kicked themselves for not thinking of first.
Recommended reading: e squared
1) PG Wodehouse
Who else could be number one? The undisputed master of comic writing, the man who created a wonderful, unchanging world of his own where (let’s be honest), we’d all like to live, despite the fierce aunts and intractable romantic complications. There is satire in Wodehouse’s work (Roderick Spode and his Black Shorts is a delicious send-up of Oswald Mosley), but most of the humour is gentle, and all the better for it.
Recommended reading: anything, really – but Summer Lightning is a great introduction to the Blandings series, usually overshadowed by the Jeeves stories