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The Humour of B.S. Johnson

The following is the talk given by David Quantick to loosely-affiliated with 3:AM B.S. Johnson event ‘Value This Man’, held in Clerkenwell last year, reproduced here for those unlucky enough not to hear it.

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He wrote a book about a man so aggrieved with life’s injustices that he decides to poison everyone in London. Another about an old people’s home where the inmates are phsyically and mentally tortured. Not generally the basis for a laff riot.

And this is the sort of thing he said about humour in writing — when I depart from what may be mistakenly extracted from the above as rigid principles, it is invariably for the sake of the comic. As a catchphrase that’s never going to be up there with “Yeah But Not But Yeah But No”.

On the other hand, B.S. Johnson is one of my favourite comic authors. Dry, yes. Sometimes a bit fond of using long words you’ve never heard of, for comic effect. But he makes me laugh. There’s a deadpan quality to the writing:

Christie Malry was a simple person. It did not take him long to realise that he hd not been born into money… and that the course most likely to benefit him would be to place himself next to the money. He therefore decided that he should be a bank employee.

I did tell you Christie was a simple person.

There’s the odd epigram:

Lots of people never had a chance, are ground down and other cliches. Far from kicking against the pricks, however, they love their condition and vote Conservative.

There’s a great visual humour in Johnson. Travelling People — the one he called a disaster — is a brillant comic novel that stands up as well as anything from the early 1960s. House Mother Normal, while horrible, has a fantastic gross inventiveness — sexual and geriatric gross out — that craps all over Nighty Night and its ilk.

There is a certain streak of irony in Johnson that can be wearing — “You always knew there was a writer behind it all? Ah, there’s no fooling you readers!” is the sort of thing I mean, but it’s not, ironically enough, a distancing effect. This isn’t Johnson being all Brechtian and saying, ‘Oi, look, it’s a play, now vote Communist’, it’s Johnson saying, this is me, Bryan Stanley Johnson.

His humour has compassion, I compared House Mother Normal to Nighty Night but the difference is Johnson shows that he cares about these people. All the tricks and humilations visited on these people, no matter how ridiculous, are actually quite moving because he is, as he said, only human like the rest of us.

One of the best scenes in the movie of Christy is the tour of Tapper’s factory — it brilliantly reflects Johnson’s real affection for Christy’s workmates — the scenes with the pupils in Albert Angelo — particularly their essays about their teacher — HE IS A BIT OF A FILM STAR, HE ACTED THE PART OF GORILLA — there’s real compassion and warmth here.

But most of all, there’s the Milligan-esque surreal. Johnson’s obsession with form, with constantly going Look it’s not real!, went back to Laurence Sterne — Jonathan Coe has written that something about B.S. Johnson reminded him vaguely of Monty Python — and for me, reading Christy Malry in the mid 1970s, it was the whole kicking in the fourth wall bit.

“I don’t know,” said Headlam, crying into his beer… “But since I seem to be the comic relief in this novel..” “It needs it,” said Christie.

Christy Malry is stuffed with that sort of thing. Characters live solely because Johnson says he likes them. The Shrike’s mum is honoured to be in a book. It’s silly — not a word associated with Johnson much. Although ten seconds of Fat Man on a Beach reveals him to be on occasion daft as a brush.

That surrealism is a large part of contemporary humour. And so, ironically, is the statement that Johnson made that would be a great T-shirt slogan: OH FUCK ALL THIS LYING.

While saying ‘fuck this lying’ wouldn’t meet much approval in modern fiction, where everyone from Salman Rushdie to JK Rowling seems to think dragons are real — it’s becoming the basis of comedy. Two shows — The Office and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm — are particularly obsessed with a kind of truth. To the extent that the main reason given for there not being a third series of The Office was that a documentary crew wouldn’t have come back to a paper supplies firm in Slough that many times.

To the extent that Ricky Gervais met Larry David, they had a long conversation about how they both hated it in sitcoms when someone says something funny and people don’t laugh. To the extent that — Sterne again — when Michael Winterbottom made Tristram Shandy as a movie, he concentrated not so much on the original story as on the real-life wannabe relationship between Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.

Like B.S. Johnson, comedy loves to point out the artificial. Like BS Johnson, comedy loves to show the truth. And like comedy, BS Johnson is funny.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Quantick is a freelance journalist, writer and critic who specialises in music and comedy. A former staffer on the NME, TV credits include The Day Today, Brass Eye and Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 11th, 2007.