While preparing my first novel for publication I struck upon it.
The idea that a book could and should be as funny as the sitcoms and comedy films that we all quote by heart,
while being brisker and less pompous than the modern novel.
Where a novel might use humour as an accessory to storytelling,
I would use storytelling as an accessory to comedy.
Evelyn Waugh writing for Seinfeld, Lord Byron meets The Hangover.
—Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.
THREE times I attempted to finish watching Trainwreck. Three times the immediacy and abundance of its ordure prevented me from doing so.
It is a superbly modern film. It opens with a lecture on the impossibility of monogamy. Amy Schumer is a daughter who has to say about her parents only that her mother was fuckable and her father a dick. Her colleagues are obsessed with masturbation, her friends adopt foreign children. Trainwreck’s one attempt at placing itself as a work of art is a comparison to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The flirtation with contextualisation ends in a blowjob on a park bench. Amy revels in her own horridness, is defiantly fond of her fatalistic promiscuity, and dependent on drugs.
With Judd Apatow’s latest undertaking so stands the comedy film.
Trainwreck is not art. And none of its comedic predecessors aspire to be art. In the magnifying language of the journalists Trainwreck is “a film about commitment”. But Amy neither acknowledges nor wants such a thing. If it is “about” anything it is about ignorance. Amy has to be told by a colleague that the urge to go on a second date with someone even exists. Sexual commitment to a stranger is not one of the eternal struggles of the human soul. It is a fear of the terminally inconstant modern. It is here that we hit upon the artistic failure of the comedy film. They are for the most part vacuous.
The most serious of Apatow’s films, Funny People, is about a comedian who has come to realise that his whole life has been a bit silly. Comedies explore no eternal theme, offer no great insight into human experience. True, while Old School explores scrotum-stretching and lesbian lube-wrestling, it touches upon a form of Peter Pan syndrome. Frank The Tank has tried adulthood and so wishes to be juvenile forever. Neighbors breezes over the question of ageing—theirs an enthusiasm for the maturity of sleep-ins and brunch and being surrounded by sterility rather than a reverence for the sagacity that age might bring. There is vastly more talk of semen in the apocalyptic depths of This Is The End than there is of religion. Not for the comedy film any gravitas, heroic or otherwise.
Are novels then, to be our source for explorations of the human condition?
The comedy film has two artistic requirements. The first is profit. This, we know, the film industry each year perfects and elevates, every sequel eclipsing entirely the takings of its predecessors. Its second imperative is to amuse. The Heartbreak Kid, The Life of Brian, Duck Soup, Annie Hall, Bridesmaids, Clear History—these are funny.
Now if a comedy film is funny and has made money, then it is an artistic achievement. If it is funnier and has made more money than its predecessor, it is the greater artistic achievement. Once it has amused and made profit, we intelligent people may then begin to consider whether or not it is a great work of art, worthy of inclusion among the poetry of mankind. This, admittedly, rarely happens. Alone Woody Allen aspires to beauty in his humour. The rest are content with laughs and money. They are all surface. Happy Gilmore does not for a moment require one to think. We could doze through 7/8ths of The Hangover and at film’s end be reasonably certain of the nature and content of the narrative that has taken place.
The novel at least pays us this respect—it treats us as capable of thought. It is, in theory, on a higher plane than these entertainments. Its minuteness of detail and wealth of incident, in the hands of a skilled author, hides a meticulously planned structure which can build a novel into a cathedral, magnificent and edifying. No concealed columns elevate Dumb & Dumber to a higher meaning.
In the shadows of the spires of Jeeves and Gatsby the comedy film is a self-assembled garden shed.
The novel, with its structural depth, even allows it to encroach upon what should be the comedy film’s unchallenged ground. The insult, long confined to the jester (Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,) ought today to be abundantly excellent in the hands of so many comedians. Yes, comedy films are full of them. ‘You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?’ ‘You’re a smelly pirate hooker.’ But rarely are they subtle or timeless.
But an insult as a full portrait through the course of 300 pages of prose? There is no more supreme an affront. To loathe somebody strongly enough to immortalise their loathsomeness! Let the man with many enemies write a good novel. Insults in films are throwaways, the actor improvising a dozen for the director to eventually select his favourite. Fleeting are the film’s jibes. But a young man’s vanity, a teacher’s lisp, an old assistant manager’s fondness for bestiality—a character insultingly written within a book widely received—this a memento vivetis within an author’s memento mori. The receiver of literary insult shall live in ignominy long after the rest of us have decayed.
How important this all is for the intellectual stature of the reader over the viewer.
Contrary to five hundred years of evidence we still equate the reading of books with intelligence.
What then of the artistic imperatives of the novel? It has but one. The ladder by which it rises to the firmament is runged with neither money nor hilarity. While the comedy film immortalises itself by amusement and profit, the novel in English may approach the condition of art only by English prose. Yes, it must have a story and characters. These are not sufficient to ensure permanence. It is only by the elevation and perfection of its prose that a novel may approach the condition of art. All works of art (here I assume my opinion differs to that of most people) must be at least an attempt at beauty. So any novelist who claims to be an artist must work in beautiful prose. An author’s story may be as flat and wrinkled as a forgotten balloon. Still the masterful use of his medium will carry the thing through. Henry James never told an enthralling story; his style makes his work eminently pleasurable. Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time would send anybody to sleep were it not for the singular agreeableness of his writing. Cormac McCarthy’s is coarsely a beautiful style. Ernest Hemingway reached beauty through the plainness of his truths.
Then there is the question of length. Ninety minutes seems to be the agreed upon length for a comedy film. John Cleese was convinced that it was impossible for a film to be funny for longer than an hour. Judd Apatow wishes to change this—he complains that it is stupid of people to claim that a comedy film drags on before going home to watch nine hours of sitcom on Netflix. Here he saw what he is trying to deny. The sitcom has the advantage.
Seasons of episodes, stories twenty to forty minutes long, pieced together to form a story the length of a novel—these enable us best to delve into the soul of a cast of characters. Thus the twenty-nine episodes of Eastbound & Down are as profoundly heroic as any of the thirteenth century’s narrative epics. ‘Mortals falter. Kings Act. And the mortal who acts…?’ Kenny Powers is the greatest literary embodiment yet of Nietzsche’s Will To Power. After four seasons we readily admit him to Valhalla. He sucks his dream’s dick, gives it up for love, immortalises himself on film, and dies in extreme old age after finding in the Kenyan bush the ancient consolations of tribe and family. After 180 episodes we know George Costanza better than we do our closest friends. He is so complete a character that we are most of us ready, though ashamed, to admit that he abounds within us.
But the true Comedian, an intelligent person, longs for more than just laughs in his entertainment. He wants some small measure of intellectual and spiritual nourishment. There is little of either in Anchorman. Almost always he must separate laughter from fulfilment. In the one hand he holds a Russian novel, in the other a remote control; oscillates between Raskolnikov and Ron Burgundy. He may for ninety minutes sound the miserable depths of his own soul, for the next ninety enjoy a weightless reminder of the laughter that might be harvested of life. For decades he can pass his evenings on this see-saw of diversion.
But we Comedians. We have discovered the rarest of things…
Not since Shakespeare have the two been found together. Shakespeare, the artist-entertainer of yesterday, wrote for all classes. He was at the same time, often from one line to the next, bawdy and noble. Now consider for whom our present novelists write. They exclude you, you watchers of comedy films. They call vulgar the subjects upon everybody else’s lips. They think immature the jokes of the thirty-something manchild. They think you stupid, you impersonator of Borat—for you share not the novelist’s obsession with equality and domestication.
And think too of for whom our comedians write. They exclude you, you readers of literature. They find frivolous the spiritual agonies by which you pass your time, pretentious the culture you alone claim to understand. They think the history you study is irrelevant, you suffragette worshippers, for you do not share their obsession with today and with farting. The comedy film is idiotic, the novel is pompous. The novel is too boring, the sitcom is too shallow. The comedy film is too short, but the novel is too long. But the Comedy Novel…
You’ve not yet heard of such a thing. My dear reader, the Comedy Novel is thrilling and the Comedy Novel is profound. The novel is domesticated and stale. The Comedy Novel is epic and hilarious. The film is modern and frivolous. The Comedy Novel sees the world sub specie aeternitatis and works at permanence.
The comedy film is outlandish and unstructured; the novel is tediously detailed. The Comedy Novel is a plain narration of things the writer has seen or heard, arranged in a meaningful way—Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are. The novel is obsolete. The comedy film is just a film. Write the things which shall be hereafter.
The Comedy Novel is the art and entertainment of tomorrow—the comedy film’s capacity to amuse, the novel’s capacity to amaze; the comedy film’s brevity, the novel’s depth. The comedian’s jokes, the novelist’s eloquence.
We invent little. We magnify much. We select, we compile. We weave the tapestry, though others spin the fabric. We are naturalists in our art, we writers of comedy novels. Our ears are widest open for mankind’s stories—all incident, shocking or inspiring, we include in our narratives as heard or seen. The comedy novel does not dispense with vulgarity, for the comedy novel is a perfect reflection. There is to the comedy novelist no such thing as vulgarity. There is only true or untrue reflection. Obsession with lowness is heavy upon the world. If humanity is vulgar, so shall the incident of the comedy novel be.
The sitcom has hitherto been the supreme vehicle for the most laughs in the shortest amount of time. The Comedy Novel here arrives and seizes the laurel! We work in laughs-per-page. The Comedy Novel is not to be as funny as the comedy film, it is to be funnier—not solely by the number of jokes, but also by the higher faculties of wit and poignant structure. Waugh said that Oscar Wilde’s wit was ornamental while Ronald Firbank’s was structural. This synthesis too falls to the comedy novel. Novels can be structurally ingenious, and entirely boring; comedy films are ornamented with the funniest jokes, and completely devoid of arrangement. The Comedian possesses a talent for both. Seinfelds, Iliads, Nibelunglieds, Arrested Developments—these are to be the structural battlegrounds for our great comedic portraits. The Epic Sitcom. The Episodic Novel. The Comedy Novel.
The Comedy Novel takes its ornament from life, its structure from poetry, its humour from…
It cannot be discussed. Who believes Bruno Kirby in Good Morning Vietnam when he says, ‘In my heart I know I’m funny.’? Though ye believe not me, believe the works. There are links enough to Waxed Exceeding Mighty and Exquisite Hours, and GRIEVE is on its way.
How then do we return people to the novel as the chief source of both entertainment and artistic pleasure? How do we ourselves turn away from our screens? How do we turn from rewatching an episode of a sitcom to rereading a chapter of a novel? How do we fill the fifteen minute gap between having a shower and going out at night with a recited page rather than a glimpséd film?
We do it by giving the world pages that are hilarious enough to be recited; prose so good that it cannot not be reread. We do it by so comprehensively amusing people that it is the dialogue of the comedy novel that they recite on their drunken nights out.
“Mr Wodehouse will survive solely as an epicures’ delight. He will enjoy a serene ascent into a rarer atmosphere, a little above the clouds, away from the crush where only the keen and the noble can follow.”
Such was Waugh’s opinion of Wodehouse’s enduring ability to please. But we must descend, we comedians. Nothing but the attention of the world is the aim of the Comedy Novel. We want nothing less than to amuse mankind. All of it. So we descend. By the comedy novel shall we turn people’s attention from domesticity and triviality and platitude, to danger and eternity and spiritual wealth—to life itself!
Only by we Comedians can the novel be reborn. Only by spreading the word can the novel be dragged from the trenches of the housewife, the intellectual, the journalist.
We assholes, we novelists of the future—we know how to write an elegant sentence. We drunken mermaids, we Comedians—we know how to amuse. We know how to crack-up. We know how to enchant.
We the artists know how to entertain.
GRIEVE is coming. My third novel is a step further in the evolution of the Comedy Novel, and magnifies the comedic element over the literary even further than did Exquisite Hours.
It is the story of Hector Grieve, a young man who after seven years of gallivanting in Southeast Asia returns to the outer suburbs of Melbourne. At every turn having to battle with self-serve checkouts, gluten-intolerant yogis, and parking inspectors, he quickly remembers why he left in the first place—
He was once the angriest young man in the world.
With GRIEVE is the Comedy Novel truly born.
Pleasure shall abide in reading us, we comedians of the future.
Welcome to the resistance.
J.H. June 2017
You can order inscribed copies of GRIEVE and Exquisite Hours here!
And you can order plain uninscribed copies of Exquisite Hours and Waxed Exceeding Mighty here.