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.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Got my US temporary work permit, but-

Okay, so my wife and I were on our way somewhere and we stopped off at the mailbox to see if we’d got any parcels or correspondence and there was a letter from the USCIS in there.  I must admit that I was a little worried.  I got my 2 year green card in August, which should be all I need for working and travel and should have meant that I was free from any immigration concerns, at least for now - so why were the US authorities writing to me?

I consider myself to be pretty scrupulous when going through all the bureaucracy that officialdom throws at me, but there is so much of it, it crossed my mind that I’d missed sending in a form, or neglected to provide some crucial piece of evidence, or even worse, I’d let something expire, and the USCIS were writing to tell me of the terrible consequences.

But no, when I opened the letter, I found a plastic card inside and a letter saying that here was my temporary work permit.  It was completely useless of course, given that I already had my green card.  The temporary work permit is something that you are supposed to get whilst you are waiting for your green card.  When I checked the dates on the card I couldn’t help but be wryly amused – it was valid from May 2011 until April 2012!

That made it approximately 9 months late!

Oh well, I guess that gives me 3 months to use it before it expires.