Michael Hock’s debut story, “The Artisan-Cheese Incident” appears in EQMM’s current issue, November/December 2022. It’s a comic mystery—a type of story we don’t very often see, although, as the author points out in this post, there are some natural affinities between comedy writing and mystery writing. A recent MFA recipient in fiction at George Mason University, Michael has previously had a few comedy pieces published, so he speaks from experience with regard to both forms of writing. —Janet Hutchings
Comedy is subjective. The idea of subjectiveness and comedy sounds like an undeniable truth, such as “the sky is blue,” “grass is green” or “the rival team to my favorite sports team doesn’t play quite as well as mine, and if they do, they cheat.” These statements themselves have their own paradoxes to them. After all, the sky is blue only a portion of the time; grass, while green, tends to be greener on the other side; and your favorite sports team had a losing record for the past four seasons and it’s probably time to realize that they’re well past their “rebuilding year.” Thus, these statements themselves lend themselves to their own subjectiveness.
Perhaps the only real factual statement might be that comedy comes in threes.
My first story for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, “The Artisan-Cheese Incident” is funny. At least it is supposed to be, we’ll get to that in a minute. I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh, whether it’s through a quick joke, a well-intentioned pun—and your puns should always be intentional, folks—or through the written word. It wasn’t until a few years ago I had even thought of combining comedy writing with crime or detective stories. But it makes sense. After all, a mystery is inherently funny. There are misunderstandings. Things that might be puns if you examine them just right. And the success of a mystery story, like the success of a good joke, depends on the cleverness and unexpectedness and even the timing of the ending. But unlike a punchline, there are variations to just how a story might end. It could be comedic, such as the aforementioned misunderstanding, like everyone thought the heiress was killed, but she was merely on vacation. It might be tragicomic, like the heiress was killed while on vacation, but through a series of odd circumstances. Or it might be tragic, such as the heiress goes on vacation without informing anyone and returns safe, and the detective hired to find her killer is not paid.
The preceding paragraph includes three examples, and thus is the very definition of comedy.
The novel that made me realize that crime and comedy could make a winning combination is the 1999 novel Big Trouble, by noted comedy writer and to that point not noted crime novelist Dave Barry. In fact, until that book, he had been known mostly for telling stories about Florida, albeit in ways that are supposed to be funny. Again, we’ll get to all of that in just a minute. The novel involves a mysterious suitcase, some Russian arms dealers, the FBI, some police officers, a shady company, someone who should have known better than to steal from a shady company but did it anyway, some criminals in way over their heads, a toad, some teenagers, and an author surrogate, which every debut novel should include.
While I do realize that there are other comedy crime novels and this is not a new thing, this was the first one that really grabbed me and made me consider just how comedy could work in the crime novel. After all, this book, while taking us through the weird world of Florida crime, still dealt with the issues of “what would happen if a nuclear bomb accidentally fell into the hands of the stupidest people on earth.” Which are pretty heavy issues, not ones that lead to comedy. After all, there’s a bomb, which isn’t very funny, but it’s given to someone who’s very stupid, which is always funny.
The previous sentence only involved two examples, and thus, it’s not clear if that sentence was particularly funny or not.
What grabbed me about Big Trouble was the way it managed to weave the comedy so deftly into the crime itself. One of the more exciting scenes involves an assassination attempt on Arthur Herk, a shady man who does shady work for an even shadier place of employment. The use of shady three times here was an attempt to portray how much shadiness is in this novel, not necessarily an attempt at comedy on its own, but you’re more than welcome to find it funny if you’d like. Regardless, during this assassination attempt, his daughter is about to be “assassinated” herself. Jenny is involved in a game in which teenagers spray each other with water guns as part of a game. This leads to the hilarious misunderstanding in which the real hitmen accidentally run into the fake, teenage “hitmen.”
It’s the blending of the two realities that leads to the comedy, for me. On the one hand you have the very serious idea of this guy who’s about to be killed. He’s unsympathetic, which might make his death hilarious to some, but at that point in the book we’ve only seen that he’s kind of stupid and hasn’t quite reached the full potential of being fully a jerk who might deserve to die. This is largely because at this point he is yet to purchase the possibly nuclear MacGuffin that would draw our many characters together. What works is the heightened reality in which the teenage hitmen . . . hit boys, maybe? . . . work. They are coming from a place just as serious as the other hitmen. After all, teenage popularity might be just as important, if not more so, than skimming money from the shady company that one works for, which was Arthur Herk’s crime. And they are right to be as nervous. They are not only not supposed to be there, but they are very afraid of the same things the other hitmen are worried about, namely that someone in the house is armed (As Barry notes, this is South Florida). Also, one of the boys has developed a crush on his target, Jenny, which makes his “assassination” of her merely awkward teenage flirting. It is not clear at this point if the regular hitmen hate Herk, Florida, or both, but the tension is much more heightened, which only adds to the comedy of the fake hit boys.
What Barry does that works so well is that he treats this moment of comedy extremely seriously, and he uses this particular scene to fully demonstrate why they work together. Both groups are deadly serious—the worlds of shady corporate espionage and high school having their own very high stakes. However, to one group the assassination is a game and to the other it’s a dark moment of real danger. This is a moment that happens very early in the novel—spoilers for an almost twenty-year-old book, I guess—but lays out just how comedy is going to work in this crime novel. Mostly that there will be something serious that happens layered on a similar comedic moment. It works because it takes something that we may not relate to, but then loops it into something we can, and then makes a joke. The real hilarity here coming in the fact that at this point, both groups are wildly unsuccessful. Herk goes on to live, and Jenny remains “unassassinated” by the rules of the game. This is early in the book, so there’s plenty of time to correct both things later. But it’s also comedy in reminding you that these people committing the crimes aren’t exactly the smartest. Barry treats these moments with a clarity that everything is serious, right up until the point that it’s not
Which may be the thing that defines comedy writing more than anything. Not only that it comes in threes, but that most things are serious, right up until the moment that they’re not.
Before I go into my final paragraph, I wanted to point out that I used these interludes that talked about how comedy comes in threes exactly three times before this—which is funny—but here I am pointing it out in a fourth—which means it’s not. Make of that what you will.
That’s where the intersection of comedy and mystery works so well. It’s all serious. The crimes being committed, the detectives figuring it out, the mystery itself being something elusive. Right up until the moment that it’s not, and there’s an absurdity to it that everyone has to admit. In Big Trouble, a very serious moment is broken up by the fact that it’s very unserious people involved in every step. But that’s also where the subjectiveness comes in, and that’s the line that comedy writers have to walk. Sure, it’s funny. But is it funny to everyone? Often times writers spend a lot of time crafting a joke, but once that period hits the page, it turns out to be just a regular sentence. That’s an impossible task, because as mentioned, just like the color of grass or your favorite sports team or the sky being blue, comedy is going to be subjective. What you can do is show audiences just what being funny is by contrasting it with what’s not supposed to be funny. Reminding people of what comedy might be, because the alternative can be too serious.
Of course, sometimes it’s just a good reminder that you have to laugh.