Comedy examined: Britain vs. America

Nov 26, 2012

Old movie directorOften British people dismiss American comedy as below their own.  Humour is a subject dear to me and many of my countrymen, having a ‘good sense of humour’ is an extremely desirable trait in Britain. We, more than likely, share our sense of humour with our closest group of friends. It connects people more deeply than say, our financial state or education.

It’s a received wisdom in the U.K that Americans don’t get irony, from the Americans I know, this isn’t the case. It’s true though, that it isn’t used quite as regularly as we use it. It’s evident in some American comedies such as The American Office and Modern Family, but socially, irony and sarcasm are not used quite so much. We however, use sarcasm in everyday use, to tease one another, but what is more vital to understand is that we use it as a defence. Americans seem more straight forward, and less ashamed to express their aspirations and fears. We try to avoid this level of sincerity. We avoid expressing these emotions; the fear of looking smug, arrogant, or weak is too strong.

In the U.K the typical TV comedy hero is a loser. Usually lower middle class and their comedy is in their failure not their success or wit. Blackadder, David Brent, Del Boy, Basil Fawlty all fall into this stereotype. Americans tend to be wise crackers; the jokes tend to come from their wit. Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey would be to very typical American TV comedian actors. I will admit there are exceptions, Larry David in Curb would be one, and Homer if you include animation. Ultimately though, these trends are pretty constant.

As for stand up comedians, the story is similar and the pattern continues. In the U.K, stand up comics are on a level with their audience; their material would not work if they performed it with swag. His or her outlook is often downbeat, and the topics are generally of failure, embarrassment or fear. Here, when the audience can relate to their stand up, and laugh at themselves, they find it comforting.  Americans, on the other hand, don’t enjoy laughing at themselves so much.

It goes without saying that there are instances of congruity. Comedy plays a huge part in British and American entertainment, therefore, there are bound to be exceptions to these observations. I’d like to suggest that at the top of each countries comedy offerings it would be difficult to choose between the two. Personally I prefer the British attitude in comedy, despite this, my favourite stand up is Bill Hicks who of course has far more American characteristics.

Ricky Gervais, who transferred his very British comedy, the office, into an equally successful American re-make said that “Americans are more optimistic, and that’s due to the fact that Americans are told that they can become the next President of the United States, and they can. British people are told ‘it won’t happen to you’”. This is perhaps the defining reason for the difference in British and American comedy.

George Marsden


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