Can there be comedy without tragedy?

Jaques Hattie wonders if his life was too easy for jokes

As I try to make my way in the world as a writer of comedy, I’ve come up against a bit of a problem; to be funny, you have to have suffered. Well that’s the theory, at least. To make people laugh you must have been a victim yourself.

Tony Hancock is the classic example; a man who effortlessly split the sides of an entire nation, yet was so tortured by unrelenting psychological demons that he was driven to drink, and ultimately suicide. Hancock was the epitome of the weeping clown. Laughing in the public eye, but in the lonely room he slugged vodka and counted out the amphetamines. But would he have been able to pull off the performances which so regularly caused us to splutter Ovaltine into our wirelesses had it not been for the flawed persona, the crippling introspection?

The list of great comedians and comic performers who have channelled suffering to improve their art is immense. Richard Pryor was raised in a brothel by his prostitute mother, who sexually abused him. Drug addiction haunted Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, and drink has been the downfall of more comedians than you can shake a Martini at.

But many other performers cite less obvious trauma as the spark that lit their comic flame. Being the victim of bullying is a common theme. Many comics are the kid who didn’t fit in at school, through no fault of their own, and who found themselves singled out and victimised. Learning to ingratiate yourself with your oppressors through laughter is a skill which comes quickly to many in those circumstances. But it is the emotional pain caused by these incidents which gives the victim energy and purpose. From the tragic comes the comic. It is the yin and the yang.

But what if you don’t have a Yin?

Here’s my problem; my childhood was utterly Yinless. I grew up on a farm in the countryside with a loving family, some chickens, rabbits and a goat called Ermintrude. My parents were hard-working, dedicated and caring. My sister could be a bit scatty but she was harmless. I went to an average comprehensive school, played cricket in the summer and went sledging in the winter. The height of excitement was when Ermintrude got her head stuck in the fence. You should have seen it! We dined out on that one for months.

At university I got drunk (a lot), slept around (a bit) and generally had a jolly nice time, thank you. The closest I got to tragedy was losing my ticket to see The Pixies down the back of a bus seat.

And since then, things have idled along nicely enough. Career, marriage, mortgage. All very nice, and all very perfect in their own way. But now, as I try and establish myself as someone who can do ‘funny’, I look at the comic writers and performers I admire and part of me envies their still-tender psychological scars.

When Billy Connolly talks about growing up in poverty around the shipyards of Glasgow, he can call on countless stories and characters that give colour and authenticity to his performances. I look back into my past for a tale of suffering and all I can come up with is the time I couldn’t tune the radio into Test Match Special. Oh Aggers, do stop it.

So can you be funny without having experienced tragedy in your life? Of course you can. Comedy is a truly astonishing self-defence mechanism. You develop it when you need it, but only the individual concerned can decide what it is defending them from. For some people it is a defence from physical harm. For others, it protects against the psychological attack of our demons. Or guards us from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And for some of us it simply serves to hide, or maybe disguise, our own fears and uncertainties, whatever they may be.

But would I make a Faustian pact, and swap my cosy, safe childhood for one of hardship, if it guaranteed me a career writing comedy? That might make the premise of a good comic novel. Is David Nicholls reading this…?

  • Jacques Hattie tweets as @jacques_aih
  • Published: 31 Aug 2011

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