Thursday, February 16, 2012

American humour vs British humour: What's the difference?

As it’s a subject that fascinates me, I thought I’d do a little research before I wrote my American humour vs British humour comparison, so I read what British comics, Ricky Gervais and Simon Pegg had to say on the subject.  Overall, there seems to be a surprising amount of consensus on the similarities and differences, although I do differ from Ricky and Simon on certain things.  I also read an article by the Ausie comedian, Tim Minchin, recently, which is another interesting take.

So what do I think are the differences between American and British humour (apart from the obvious fact that they spell it ‘humor’ in the USA!)?

Well, every article you read always includes something on Americans not “getting” irony, so let’s get that one out of the way for starters.  It’s true that irony is a far less common feature of US culture than it is in British.  Irony virtually runs in the blood of Brits, we use it as a way of mocking our enemies, play fighting with friends, and laughing at ourselves.  In the US it is used much less in everyday life and it is generally seen as inappropriate in situations where it is normal in the UK.  I have had ratchet back on my use of irony considerably since I got here. 

I think there are 3 ways that irony can be misunderstood or cause confusion when a Brit uses it here:

1. It is being used in a context that is appropriate in a British context, but simply not done in the USA

2. Although “taking the piss” is seen as fun in the UK, there is an ever present danger of you being perceived as being mean-spirited in the USA.

3. Generally speaking, Americans are much more serious in their approach to life, their beliefs, and themselves than the Brits.  It’s actually quite rare for an American to be seen laughing at their own foibles, in my experience, so they are suspicious of others doing it.

To avoid problems, many Americans who use irony will often "signpost" it - they will add an "only joking" to the end of an ironic statement (which seems to defeat the point of irony to me!)

There are, of course, positives to the American not-taking-the-piss approach in that there is far less of the negative dragging down that can happen when people use humour to ridicule people in the UK.

That is the general picture, of course.  Ironically (!) some of the best American humour IMHO swims against the mainstream tide, in that it is laden with irony and self-deprecation and absurdity – I’m thinking of programmes like Curb Your Enthusiasm (one of my favourite comedies of all time).  There is lots of great "smart" humour here, but it sometimes seems to be overwhelmed by "dumb" humour.

Obviously America is a big and varied place and no matter what your style of humour, there will always be *someone* somewhere who finds it funny.  However, I would differ from the people who say that the sense of humour is essentially the same and would personally put the overlap at about 85%.    

At one end of the scale is the extreme end of the mainstream American humour, which is simply not funny for most Brits – you rarely see it on British TV because the TV execs know that it’s not worth buying for a UK audience.  On an everyday level, British blogger, Iota Quota described it as feeling a bit like being hit on the head with a rubber mallet.  Some of it is so unsubtle that I am often not even quite sure whether it is supposed to be humour or not, unless and until I can grasp the context or see someone smiling. 

At the other end of the scale is the ultra dry British humour, delivered without a smile, and with even the irony being implied, rather than overt.  This sort of humour is especially common in Yorkshire, where I lived for 20 years.  Most (though not all) Americans struggle to recognize the extremely dry as humour.  Other styles of British humour that don’t really feature so much here are wordplay, like puns, which are nowhere near as common (thankfully?).  There are also peculiarly British things such as our penchant for men dressing up as women (Monty Python, Les Dawson, Shakespeare) which are generally alien to the American mind (there's a classic episode of The Simpsons which jokes on this, but I couldn't find it on Youtube).

Humour is tied so much to culture at the end of the day.  I generally like the way that Americans take things seriously and it’s a novelty to be living in a culture where people actually believe in things – but I sometimes wish that Americans could laugh at themselves a little bit more, occasionally.

I guess I would sum the whole thing up as the British are essentially miserablist, but this is tempered by their ability to find humour in everything, including themselves.  Whereas Americans generally have a more positive attitude to life, but this is tempered sometimes by their tendency to take themselves too seriously.

24 comments:

  1. You describe it perfectly, I think. And I mean that - I'm not being ironic! And I'm not just being complimentary because you name-checked me. I don't recognise that reference, actually. Did I say that? I hope so - it's rather good. But are you sure it was me?

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    1. It's possible I've got it wrong, but I am pretty certain it was you. I can remember the post, but not the title of it, so I couldn't link directly - it was months ago and you are one of the more productive bloggers. :-)

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  2. So true. I love that Britians can make fun of themselves and really take a joke. A lot of Americans can't. I wasn't a big fan of British comedy until we had British Sky for two years. There were some AMAZING comedy shows on there that were hilarious (Peep Show being a fave). What I really hate about American comedy, is that everything is sooooo obvious. And if they try to make it 'smart' people don't get it for the most part. Very interesting, once again!!

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    1. I wonder if American culture is so diverse, there is a tendency in the mainstream media to try too hard not to offend and that is its weakness? I don't know. There is some excellent US comedy and humour, as well, of course.

      Peep Show is great. I'm a big fan of David Mitchell especially.

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    2. I come from an extensively British family, and have asked my mother countless times, all leading to one answer;
      Superiority complex;
      American humour is based on the fact that the comedian in front of you is suggesting; quite vaguely; that they are top dog, more important than the audience or any race they don't belong to or any disease they don't have. And regular toilet/crude humour is involved in their comedy. Just think about their most popular TV comedies. All M-MA rated, right?
      And the British; they're more likely to make fun of their own family, or something they screwed up a few days ago. If they make fun of a race, it's usually directed at THEIR country, not Islam or Asia or whatever. However, they are less optimistic and more dry humoured.
      That's basically it...

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  3. Purified to a more serious form, I find that Brits are put off by our Audacity of Being Earnest. Y'all think we take ourselves far too seriously. I don't entirely disagree but find it interesting when Brits are unnerved by our earnestness. Of all the differences, large and small, this is the most profound. And it is easiest to see in humor.
    Oh, Iota, about name checks, I just did you too, but on sports for kids in the US. It was last spring. Seven year olds playing soccer. Send me a link, please? Or just stick it in the comments on my American motherhood rant.

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    1. Yes, American earnestness can be charming, but as a Brit you aren't sure how to react sometimes. Even by British standards, I am not a gushing person, and living in Yorkshire for 20 years has probably made me even drier.

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  4. Sometimes on this side of the water we don't get the in jokes from abroad, but like you say, America is a big and varied place. I'm thinking the Florida experience would be different living in Pensacola - not necessarily better or worse, but certainly different. I will say some people I've met from Tennessee and the Carolinas have had a wicked dry sense of humor. I wonder what the least funny state would be - maybe Utah? Still, there's always someone somewhere who'll make you laugh.

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    1. The closest humour that you have in the USA to British is Jewish humour, I would guess? There is a darkness and surreal slant in it. The Jewish influence appears greater on the New York scene than the Irish influence, it seems, though I'm no expert.

      Within Britain there are different styles of humour too, even though it's a small place. The Northwest of England, where I am from, has its own distinctive style and many of the stand up acts are from there.

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  5. Well I think you have been very polite about it but the truth and the bottom line is British humour is almost (but not always) intelligent (you mentioned subtle) and is unexpected whereas American humor is slapstick, bang you over head stupid and you can see it coming a mile off. If it doesn't involve causing someone pain then it's about insulting someone but as you say it is done without the subtlety of irony. It usually makes me wince rather than laugh. That about sums it up simply. American sitcoms are really not worth watching for anyone with half a brain in their head. I was addicted to the British series Coupling and couldn't wait to see the American premiere of it. I recognized all the words from the first British show but it just wasn't funny. The actors didn't get it at all and their delivery didn't work. They never made any more shows past that one and for good reason. The show Being Human was wonderful in Britain but the American show is no where near as good. The actors just don't have the aliveness and personality that was present in the British version. (You can't like them so you don't get involved in the same way at all) I have lived in the states for 40+ years and love most all of it but never will appreciate the heavy handed attempts at humor.

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  6. I have to be polite, Chris as most of my readers are American! :-D

    But seriously, I think when one grows up in the UK, you think that you know American humour reasonably well (I certainly did!) - but what you are actually seeing on British TV is only the stuff that someone has decided might work for a UK audience. When you come to the US, however, you find that there is a lot of material which just doesn't generally work for the average Brit.

    I suspect also, that because the US is such a large and varied country, there is a tendency for the US TV execs to water everything down to try and please everyone, as well as try not offend anyone - the result can sometimes be a blandness that even many Americans don't seem to find amusing.

    I would agree with you on acting too. The quality of American acting is generally much more patchy than it is in the UK, with some surprisingly low (as well as high) quality to be found on even the top shows.

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  7. American sitcoms are often fast and slick with lots of snappy gags. This is partly because of the commercials butting in every 90 seconds or so - you have to fit the funny bits between the ads. U.S. shows are team written. This has the advantage of production of more episodes and a level of consistency, but it sacrifices quirky originality. One thing I hate with a passion is laughter tracks. Why do they think we need to be told when to laugh? If it's not funny, I'm not going to laugh, regardless of how many fake roars of laughter you assail me with! I used to live in the U.S. too, and I soon found that putting your tongue in your cheek was likely to get you in trouble:) Interesting blog, Paul.

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    1. I agree with you, Mazzy. US sitcoms tend to be written by groups too, rather than one or two people, like in Britain. I think this can improve the quality in some ways, but the show can lose vital quirkiness and uniqueness. I do love some US shows, but they are almost all of the style labelled "smart humor" here.

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  8. As a Brit and having lived in Korea with many many American friends (I have lived in the US for a couple of months too) I'm always interested in the difference between us and it's great you have an American following too!

    In agree of course about the humour, and like to spread peep show around as much as i can. I was watching Frasier today though and god that show is hilarious! :)

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    1. 'Frasier' was an excellent show, although it unfortunately went downhill for me towards the end, after Niles married Daphne. ('Cheers', the sitcom it came out of, was v good too).

      My American brother-in-law lives in South Korea, so I hear reports from Seoul sometimes! :-)

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  9. Well-written post. I agree with a lot of what you say, although I think there have been some major changes on the American humor landscape in the last few years. There are a couple of recent shows that are kinda "miserablist" in their own American way. They're not dark in the same way that some British humor shows are, but are dark nonetheless.

    one example is the heavily underrated niche show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which despite its cheerful name, is one of the darkest comedies ever. There is absolutely no room for sentimentality or the usual "sunny" tropes one sees on network TV in America. The humor is about the miserable lives of 5 intensely selfish and mean people, almost David-Brent-ish in their darkness. I especially loved how unapologetically dark they were in subverting the pregnancy trope they were forced to confront because Kaitlin Olsen got pregnant in real life.

    The League is another show that is similar, with incessant "taking the piss" among a group of friends.

    Community is another show that falls in the same categorically, although not all its episodes are as dark and unflinchingly brutal as the other two.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations. I will check those out.

      My (American) wife and stepdaughter generally love British comedy, especially some of the whacky stuff like The Mighty Boosh - but I once showed them an episode The League of Gentlemen and they said it gave them nightmares for a week!

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  10. I've always wondered if Jeremy Clarkson is just being dry in that Yorkshire way, or if he genuinely dislikes America and Americans. I'm not sure why I wonder that, but I do.

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    1. I personally find Jeremy Clarkson chauvanistic on pretty much every level. But lots of people like him all around the world for reasons I can't fathom!

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  11. Ironically author original article doesn't seem to be clear on the difference between irony and sarcasm.

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    1. Sarcasm is a subset of irony, essentially irony that is used to mock or put someone down - not sure how helpful it is to state a definition?

      Sarcasm is used far more in the UK than the US and is less taboo - not a good thing generally, as it can often dip into cynicism. (Unless you are on the side of the sarcastic person, in which case it can be amusing, an example being the sarcastic comments uttered by the Maggie Smith character in Downton Abbey.)

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  12. To be academic about it (!), which I have unfortunately only seen Stephen Fry really do in regards to this question, I would like to share some quotes from an excellent book on modern American humor which does a good job of providing historical analysis on the subject, The Humor Prism in 20th Century America:

    "The British laugh at a thing for being so ridiculously what it is; Americans are more prone to be laughing because the thing is not what it should be, or what they expected it would be." This ties in well, I think, with Stephen Fry's major point on the topic, which is that Brits are empiricists and Americans, culturally, are rationalists. Again from The Humor Prism: "Characteristic English humor is defensive, while American humor prefers to strike first. The English enjoy the sudden, defensive brilliance of wit under fire. They do not understand why Americans like to play jokes on the unwary" (47). Which is one reason I always smile whenever the old reliable line about Americans not understanding or using irony comes up -- Americans adore *dramatic irony*, in which the audience along with one or more characters knows something one or more other characters don't, until the unsuspecting is parted with his/her ignorance.

    "A principal trait of American humor is its anti-romanticism." Yes, you read that right. "We love to puncture an illusion, to burst an iridescent bubble of hot air." The 'sucker' is our comic hero, not, as Stephen Fry thinks, because we wholeheartedly embrace the overconfident guy in the room with "the biggest knob", but because his confidence means he's been taken in by some illusion, and we want to see him disabused of it. We laugh at Aunt Abby Brewster saying that "Reverend, this Mr. Hitler isn't a Christian!" in a play written in 1939 *because* we find her over earnest moralizing attitude ridiculous, even as we recognized it in ourselves, and our laughter takes both her and ourselves down a few pegs. A surefire way to accomplish this with regard to the American white man is to have an American woman, black person, Latino, etc. right there to do the honors, which is why it is interesting that every discussion of this topic I've yet seen seems to have the attitude that "American humor" equals "male WASP humor". Nothing could be further from the truth. "

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  13. Yes, Brits are more likely to take the piss out of themselves and Americans as well. They are, however, very sensitive when Americans take the piss out of them. They seem to want it both ways.

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  14. I remember I upset a coworker a while back and was called a Limey. I couldn't help laugh. I could tell by the other people in the room that it was supposed to have been pretty insulting. Naturally I had heard the expression but had to go home and check the internet to figure out what the big deal was. Still don't have a clue what the problem was , in fact I found it quite educational since I didn't know that the royal navy used to supplement the sailors rum with citrus juices to prevent scurvy which I thought was quite cool.

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