Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tragedy is funny

The line between existential and black comedy is a seriously thin line. I mean thin, like Lindsay Lohan right before her latest stint in rehab, or thin like your patience with hearing about Lindsay Lohan. Seriously thin.
Basically, noir fiction is about bad things happening to someone. Repeatedly. Bad things that just get worse and worse, spiraling downward-- not out of control, necessarily, but in a never-ending descent; I’ve always fashioned my stories like water running down a drain, going faster and faster as the protagonist searches in vain for a stopper. And the closer it gets to running out entirely, the faster the spin of water down the drain.
See why I never use metaphors or similes in my work? I suck at them. But you get the point.
Now look at a good black comedy. The Coen Brothers ‘Barton Fink’ comes to mind. If you described the plot of that movie to someone, without mentioning that it’s a comedy, you’d be describing a noir: neurotic NY playwright comes to LA to write for the movies, suffers surreal case of writer’s block, feels like he’s losing his mind in a dingy little hotel room, meets a strange and mysterious salesman who may be a psychotic serial killer. And what makes the movie a comedy? There aren’t any jokes in it, right? There’s not even any physical humor to speak of. The comedy is solely in the situation, in subtle reactions and sly dialogue.
This link between comedy and noir occurred to me recently when someone asked me to explain a bit about the book I just started working on. I began describing some of the action (without giving away too much, I hope), about a protagonist who makes a huge mistake, takes an even huger risk to fix it, screws THAT up, and winds up with a dead body he has to get rid of. Then, of course, it turns out the guy he’s killed is very important, and the protagonist has to scramble to cover his tracks and of course, the water starts spiraling down the drain from there.
I was describing this to someone, and this someone started laughing at the absurdity of the story. And the more I went on, the more the person laughed. And it dawned on me: Oh, yeah. This IS kinda funny, isn’t it? Because noir and black comedy have the exact same story pattern.
It makes me wonder how hard it would be to turn some classic noir, say Double Indemnity or maybe Night of the Hunter into a comedy. Maybe if Walter Neff does a spit take when Phillis suggests killing her husband? Or if Reverend Powell is continuously getting smacked in the nuts in his pursuit of those little brats?
Mel Brooks famously said “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole and die”-- and noir is about a protagonist falling down an open manhole, falling, falling. The punch line is when he hits the bottom.


  1. Spot on post.The Coen's are a great example. Guthrie's Savage Night is another.

  2. "Burn After Reading" is another delicious noir comedy, although it's not as serious.

    I write noir too. I like to experiment and stretch the borders of the genre, but what I do respects the structure you're talking about here.

    The mention you make of a character hitting the bottom though is I think a bit nebulous. The way I see it, in noir, when a character hits the bottom, he realizes that's where he belongs. He finds a certain comfort and utility in the worst case scenario.

  3. Savage Night is a great example, Paul-- also Bust, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr...
    Ben, I love Burn After Reading, I think you're right. As far as hitting the bottom and realizing that's where you belong, yeah, for sure, writers like David Goodis really exemplify that. But the bottom always looks different to different protagonists. Some of them don't even survive the descent!

  4. Never read David Goodis. Am going to check him out.