Sunday, 29 May 2016

Poo bum willy - John Dougherty

Forgive the entirely crude title to this piece, but - inspired by the post my friend Tamsyn Murray put up on Wednesday - I've been moved (if I can say that in this context) to pen a few words about toilet humour.

As Tamsyn observed, if you're a children's author there are those who will advise you to put toilet jokes into your books. There are even those who think that this is all you really need to make your book a success.

Are they right? Well - probably not. There's a lot more to writing a children's book than repeatedly shoehorning the word 'poo' into your prose. Otherwise, the top-selling titles would all be books like Pooey McPooface and the Enormous Poo. Which, actually, would get a bit of a laugh.


But probably only once. Taboo-breaking humour is funny precisely because it pushes at the boundaries of a taboo. But the more you break a taboo the less, well, tabooey it feels. Someone walking naked down your local high street would provoke a reaction - perhaps shock, perhaps laughter, perhaps both. But if you could guarantee the sight of a streaker every time you wandered into town, then - even if the prohibition on public nudity remained, and even if the police were to respond with an arrest every time - the effect on passers-by would diminish rapidly. After a few weeks, a passing exhibitionist would be lucky to get an eye-roll.

So am I saying that you shouldn't bother using toilet humour at all? Well, no. But I am saying that it's not an easy option. Writing a good toilet joke - or a good willy joke for that matter, or indeed any joke that pushes at the boundaries - is no easier than writing any other kind of joke. Or, put another way a poo joke has to contain a joke as well as poo.

This is on my mind at the moment partly because my latest book Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickers, contains a poo joke. In fact, if I can say this without being misunderstood, it contains a running poo joke.

And, actually, it might appear to the casual reader that the joke is simply about the repetition of the word 'poo'. But I'd like to think it's a bit cleverer than that. The first time the joke appears, one of the badgers - the villains of the piece - has defaced a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, writing the words 'And then she did a poo' at the end of a paragraph. So for the young reader, there are two taboos being pushed against here: the 'toilet talk' taboo, and the prohibition against writing in books. The scene continues with some of the other badgers getting very silly and giggly about this piece of vandalism, and another getting cross about it even though he secretly thinks it's a bit funny as well - so now the joke is not about the word 'poo' itself, but about how people react to it.

As the story progresses, the badgers get hold of a copy of Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickers itself, and discover that by - among other things - writing in the book, they can change things to their advantage. But one of them doesn't quite get what's going on, and keeps suggesting that they write 'And then she did a poo'. So now the joke is about comprehension, and incongruity, and context, and focusing on the trivial at the expense of the bigger picture.

Yes, all right, and it says 'poo' as well.

But - seriously - writing humour isn't the piece of cake it's sometimes seen as. And that goes for writing poo jokes as much as any other kind.


Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickersillustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, is the latest in John's Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series.

His other new books in 2016 will include the sixth Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face title, his first poetry collection - Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones and published by Otter-Barry Books  - and several readers for schools.

First Draft, the author band featuring John, Jo Cotterill and Paul and Helen Stickland, will next be performing at the Wychwood Festival in early June.

1 comment:

C.J.Busby said...

Sounds as if Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face is starting to get distinctly metatextual... as well as scatalogical. It'll be the subject of a PhD before you know it!