I’ll Tell Ya, I Don’t Get No Respect

Jeffrey Cohen
“Because they laugh at (comedians), I don’t think people understand how essential we are to their sanity.”–Groucho Marx
ARLINGTON, VA–The Malice Domestic mystery conference, which is held once a year in celebration of mayhem, murder, sleuthing and, apparently, hats, is always a pleasure to behold. Rarely does one get a chance to visit with actual readers (book signings don’t count, especially since in my case, nobody ever shows up) and find out what they like about your work, and other things. Especially wonderful this year were the generous comments about Murderati. I’m glad you’re out there reading it. Don’t ever stop letting us know what you think.

But that’s not what I’m posting about today. You didn’t think I’d stay gracious for a whole post, did you?

Saturday morning, I participated in a panel entitled (if memory serves): The Role of Humor in Mystery. There was a subtitle about Mirth Among the Murders or something like that, but I don’t pay attention to such things, as the subtitles to my non-fiction books will attest. They’re each about 400 words long, and in some cases, longer than the first chapter of the book.

But I digress.

One of the topics raised at the panel (which was a hoot, by the way, and you should have been there), addressed by the likes of Karl Fieldhouse, Jeff Marks, the lovely and talented Parnell Hall, Barbara Workinger, our very own Ms. Denise Dietz (who moderated beautifully) and Sheri Cobb South–who isn’t fooling anyone with that accent; we know she’s from Britain–was:

Why isn’t humor recognized with awards? Why is humor considered a less prestigious sub-genre? Why, indeed, are some authors advised not to even mention the word “funny” in relation to their work?

Those of us who traffic in humor will tell you: we’re the Rodney Dangerfields of literature. I’ll tell ya, we don’t get no respect. No respect at all. (You can imagine me pulling manically on my tie, if I wore ties: I consider it one of the perks of being a freelance writer that I virtually never have to wear a tie.)

Why not? When the literary world looks down upon genre authors, and some genre readers look down on mystery, why is the humorous mystery considered even more inconsequential?

The best comedy seems natural, spontaneous and worst of all, effortless. When it’s done right, comedy is something that doesn’t seem to be forced, that happens as an organic outgrowth of the situation and the character involved. If you can see the sweat and tears that went into its creation, it probably doesn’t work. This leads to a number of popular misconceptions, not the least of which is that comedy is EASY.

Um, no, it’s really not.

If I were to write a serious mystery that didn’t hit the mark, it might be reviewed as a less-than-stellar effort, something that doesn’t “transcend the genre,” (as if the genre needed transcending), an interesting misfire.

In other words, a mediocre drama can still be seen as something with at least potential value. An interesting failure; a noble effort. But if one attempts to do comedy and everything doesn’t work right, it dies. A horrible death. There is nothing louder than silence where laughter is intended.

But when comedy is done well, when the seams don’t show and the actors seem to be making up their dialogue as they go, it is still considered in some way a lesser art form. Name the last comedy to win an Academy Award for best picture (okay, it was SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), but that’s beside the point). Now, think about how long it was before that. (ANNIE HALL, 1977.) So once every 20 years someone makes a really good comedy?

This is not a plea for awards. I don’t think that because my books make (some) people laugh, that they should automatically be given an Edgar, an Agatha, or a Morris, for that matter. But the idea of awarding something that works at being funny shouldn’t be outlandish. Left Coast Crime has an award for the funniest mystery of the year, and that’s great. But is it too much to ask that comedy should be on equal footing with drama? Is it somehow inferior, and therefore in need of separation in order to be noticed? Is We’ll Always Have Parrots really a worse book than The DaVinci Code?

Here at Malice (you knew I’d get back to Malice, didn’t you?) the book reviewer Maureen Corrigan, who writes for the Washington Post and reviews on NPR, spoke on the great elements of mystery writing, and I asked her why “humorous” mysteries (I HATE that word!) don’t get no respect. She said–am I’m paraphrasing–that sometimes authors get so caught up in being funny that the humor sits down on the plot, or seems contrived. I agree. That’s BAD comedy writing. Corrigan said, refreshingly, that she thinks it’s very difficult to write humor well, and she appreciates it when it is a function of character and when, in other words, the writer is good at it.

So maybe we get a little respect. But not that much.

By the way, in the introduction to the Humor in Mystery panel, Ms. Dietz said (with my approval, so I’m not complaining) that “Jeffrey Cohen is the author of the Stephanie Plum series, and a multimillionaire. In order to keep his adoring fans at bay, he has created the pseudonym Janet Evanovich.”

All I’d like to say is, we were just kidding, Janet. Honest.

7 thoughts on “I’ll Tell Ya, I Don’t Get No Respect

  1. JT Ellison

    Jeff, your insights, as always, are profound. It’s one of life’s little mysteries (no pun intended) that we love to laugh, are told that laughter results in health and happiness, yet don’t reward the efforts that go into it’s creation. A good topic for discussion. What do y’all think? Can we do something about this?

    Reply
  2. Lorraine T.

    I’ve no ideas about rewarding people who write humor beyond reading their work. I love it when I find a book that causes me to laugh out loud and I always mention it when I tell others about what I’m reading.I’ve never read a Cohen book because all the references I’ve seen to them on discussion forums, etc. referred to an illness that I’m not familiar with and I thought they might be aimed at an audience of folks dealing with that particular affliction.Now that I’m learning they are humorous, I’ll have to seek them out.Lorraine

    Reply
  3. Elaine

    All one has to do is read one of Jeff’s books to know he’s one of a handful who’ve managed to masterly pull murderous comedy off! Great post!

    Reply
  4. Jeff Cohen

    Lorraine, while Asperger Syndrome (a form of high-functioning autism) is an element in my books, the books are, first and foremost, meant to be funny mystery stories. It’s kind of like saying that Julia Spencer-Fleming’s novels will only appeal to Episcopaleans–I think they’re terrific, and I’m so not an Episcopanlean you wouldn’t believe it. It’s part of the book, but not the main part. Fact is, I put the Asperger’s stuff in there because I want people who AREN’T informed on the subject to get a little info while they’re (hopefully) laughing. I hope you do check out the books and let me know what you think.

    Thanks to everyone for the generous comments.

    Reply
  5. Sue Trowbridge

    So for those of us who couldn’t make it to Malice, who won the Agatha Awards? I’ve searched on other blogs and found no answers. A couple of my clients were nominated, so I’m especially curious!

    Reply
  6. Lorraine T.

    Sue,Pasted from a post by Jeff Marks on Dorothy L:Best First: Better Off Wed by Laura DurhamBest Novel: The Body in the Snowdrift by Katherine Hall PageBest Non-fiction: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her byMelanie RehakBest Short Story: Driven to Distraction by Marcia TalleyBest YA: (tie) Down the Rabbit Hole by Peter Abrahams, Flush by Carl Hiaasen

    Reply

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