Compare the following two pieces of writing.
There was a knock on the door. Still in his dressing gown and slippers, and wondering why whoever it was hadn’t just used the doorbell, Stephen shuffled down the hall to answer it.
‘Hello, sir. Would be interested in buying some trousers?’
On the other side of the door was a scruffy-looking man: he looked about fifty and was in need of a shave, a bath and a haircut, while his clothes hung from his thin frame, sunlight peeking through the holes.
‘Ah, no,’ said Stephen, ‘not really.’
‘But they are not just any trousers, sir,’ said the man. ‘They are special trousers.’
‘What’s so special about them?’ replied Stephen, wishing he had not opened the door after all.
‘What’s so special about them?’ said the man, his face falling into a mask of indignation. ‘The fact that I’m wearing them, sir!’
‘You want me to buy your trousers?’
‘Why, yes, sir,’ said the man, pinging a pair of braces that threatened to break between his fingers, ‘I’m a trouser salesman! Finest quality, sir, as you can see. Only twenty pounds and I’ll throw in the belt and an extra leg for free.’
‘No, they don’t look that good quality to me, said Stephen, edging several inches back and reaching for the door. ‘They seem quite worn.’
‘Worn? Well of course they are worn sir. I’m wearing them right now!’
‘No, I mean, I can see they have holes in the knees, and in the… crotch area.’
‘Well, I have been wearing them a long time, sir. Now, are you sure I can’t interest you in these trousers? Tell you what, just for you, special deal. Fifteen pounds, and I’ll throw in the belt, an extra leg, and a pair of underpants.’
Stephen felt a little sick in the mouth. ‘Would these, by any chance, be the underpants you are wearing now?’ he said.
‘That would be right, sir.’
‘And if I were to say that these underpants were a pair you had been wearing for some time, would I be right?’
‘You would be correct, sir, yes.’
‘But if I’m not interested in your worn and holey trousers, why on earth do you think I’d want your dirty pants?’
‘Well, looking at you,’ said the man, eyeing Stephen from head to toe, ‘I’m guessing they are your size.’
‘No, no,’ said Stephen, pushing the door shut, ‘I don’t want to buy your trousers or your pants. I’m going to close the door now, good day.’
The man shot out his foot, the door hitting it with a nasty crunch. ‘Here, take the shirt off my back why don’t you!’ he cried, removing his disintegrating shirt as he balanced on one leg, and wincing with pain from the other.
‘Go away!’ shouted Stephen. ‘I don’t want your shirt, your trousers, or your smelly pants. Just go!’
Stephen managed to remove the foot from the doorway with his own and closed the door.
The letterbox snapped open, and a pair of trousers, filthy underpants, two hole-ridden socks and finally a pair of shoes, one clunking after the other, fell onto his ‘welcome’ mat.
‘Go on, take it! Take it all! It’s yours! For nothing! You can’t say fairer than that!’ The voice filtered through the door.
Through the frosted glass, Stephen could see a running, naked figure. He did not look again until he was sure he was gone.
There was a knock on the door. Stephen, up bright and early and riding his unicycle, pedalled towards the door and opened it with a flourish.
‘Hello, sir. Would be interested in buying some trousers?’
On the other side of the door was a scruffy-looking man: he looked about fifty and was in need of a shave, a bath and a haircut, not that Stephen cared about these things, while his clothes hung from his thin frame, sunlight peeking through the holes.
‘Why, yes!’ said Stephen. ‘I always need more trousers, as I like to fly them like flags from my chimney every morning, whether it’s the Queen’s birthday or not!
‘Excellent,’ said the man, unbuckling the trousers he was wearing and pulling them down around his ankles. ‘Twenty pounds ok for you?’
‘I’ll give you twenty pounds, a lollipop, and a spiky hedgehog I’ve made from sausages!’ said Stephen, rummaging in the pockets of colourful shirt.
‘You’re very kind, sir,’ said the man. ‘What about underpants?’
‘Underpants?’ said Stephen. ‘Underpants are brilliant for throwing in the air when you’re doing the Charleston. I feel like doing the Charleston right now. Would you care to join me?’
‘I don’t mind if I do,’ said the man, taking off his pants and throwing them in the air as Stephen suggested, while he swiftly mastered the dance steps. ‘My, this is fun isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it is!’ cried the entire neighbourhood, as they all joined in, doing the Charleston and throwing their pants in the air.
‘What japes!’ said Stephen, as he thought about dressing up a root vegetable as a woman and marrying it.
What I’m hoping to show with these two examples is that in comic prose fiction (although perhaps less so for film and television) you need a centre of normality in order for it to work. While Example A may not be a masterpiece of comic writing (I’ve checked, it’s not) it is at least recognisable as a scenario that could potentially lead into further incidents as part of a longer story. Example B, however, can lead nowhere, because all the characters are eccentric, and will therefore potentially do anything. And if anything is possible, it doesn’t really matter what does happen, and so there is no potential for an engaging story.
A good demonstration of this principle is Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Although he has some funny lines, and does funny things, the main character of Arthur Dent is essentially a normal bloke, as perplexed and exasperated by the craziness that surrounds him as the reader would be in his situation. If the main character was two-headed space lothario Zaphod Beeblebrox, however, then chances are the readers wouldn’t like the books that much, as the protagonist would be as crazy as everyone else, and there would be no safe-point of indentification at the heart of the story.
Ultimately, comic writing can be seen as a balancing act between the normal and the strange. If everything’s absolutely normal, then obviously you’ve got no jokes, but if everything’s crazy, you’ve got yourself a mess, and probably no readers after the first few chapters. Always give them something to hold on to if you want them to stick with your story. They may come for the jokes, but it’ll be character and plot that will keep them hanging around.