The differences between American and English humor


“What’s so funny about that?”  That’s a question I ask myself and my roommate as she is chuckling to yet another insipid sitcom on CBS.  She is watching “Everybody Loves Raymond” – a show as brain deadening as sniffing glue.   While American’s share the English language, their sense of humor is notably different than the Brits.  I’ve been grappling with this conundrum since I moved here.

Firstly, the American sense of humor is much more slapstick than in Britain.  There is much more reliance of physical and observational humor.  Some of their jokes are more obvious and lacking in subtlety.  Movies such as Dumber and Dumber and American Pie demonstrate an over the top quality.  On the other hand, British comedy tends to be dry and ironic.  The tendency for biting sarcasm is more frequent.  

American sitcoms are based around the family and workplace situations. In my opinion, the humor in these shows is rather casual and folksy.   “Friends”  typifies many of the jokes, for example:

Ross: “Dad’s still telling the story about how you tried to escape from fat camp….”

Monica: “I wasn’t trying to escape!”

Ross: “Then how did you get caught in the barbed wire?”

Monica: “I was… helping out a squirrel…”

Ross: “You were trying to eat it!”

They usually last half an hour with a season of 20 or more episodes.  On the other hand, British sitcoms are inclined to veer into black humor.  They commonly feature people trapped in dysfunctional relationships, such as Only Fools and Horses. A typical theme in sitcoms is the British class system, where parodies of pompous or dim witted upper class are shown.  In Blackadder, one of my favorite shows, the hopelessly cruel Blackadder berates his underling, Baldrick:

Blackadder: “Baldrick, your brain is like the four-headed man-eating haddock-fish-beast of Aberdeen.”

Baldrick: “In what way?”

Blackadder: “It doesn’t exist.”

Here the humor is presented in a less apparent, underhanded way. Usually, six episodes are written per season.  

When LA-based British actor Tim Curry, was asked what he missed most about the UK, “Irony.” He said, unhesitatingly.  Irony could be construed as the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning.  While irony and its country cousin, sarcasm is used daily in the UK; the Americans would rather save it for special occasions such as watching a satirical comedy on a couch.  The simple use of irony in everyday American daily life is limited to a “just kidding” tagged at the end of the sentence.  For example, an American says, “If you don’t come out tonight, I’m going to have you shot…just kidding.”

It is a common misconception that Americans do not ‘get’ irony in more complex forms.  Take Seinfeld for example:

“It’s ironic.”

“What’s ironic?”

“This. That we’ve come all this way, we made all this progress, but, you know, we lost the little things, the niceties.”

“No, I mean, what does `ironic’ mean?”

(Elaine and woman on subway, in “The Subway”)

It is harder to find a British show without irony.  The show ‘Coupling’ is typical of many.

“You know, I have never understood the male obsession with lesbianism – a whole area of sex with nothing for them to do. Just answered my own question,  haven’t I?”

(Sally Harper in “Coupling”)

There is a multitude of reasons why some British shows never make it across the Atlantic and vice-versa.  An obvious answer would be cultural differences.  Americans are noticeably more extrovert and open in nature.   The pervasive friendliness towards strangers and outsiders is unfamiliar to the more introverted English.  Sincerity and ‘shooting straight from the hip’ is prized whereas the sardonic Brits prefer to cloak our speech with hidden meanings.

Finally, there are funny shows in both countries.  Laughter is a great way to appreciate idiosyncrasies in another culture.   

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