How the differences between US and British humor reveal much about the two nations
Due to the fact that people in the USA and people in the UK speak similar languages and for the most part can understand each other tolerably well, there’s a certain amount of cross-cultural interaction that occurs in the realm of popular entertainments. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of comedy: most British people are familiar with at least a few US comic performers and most US citizens are familiar with at least a few British comedy programs.
The question therefore tends to arise: what’s the difference between US and British humor?
One difference arises from those who produce content. British comedy has historically been dominated by graduates from Oxford and Cambridge and therefore aimed solidly at the middle-class. Working-class (blue collar) viewers had to content themselves with Benny Hill, the nearest thing the British have ever produced that resembles generic lowbrow US comedy. In the USA, Hollywood producers and writers aim squarely at the mass market, which means simple formulae and a great deal of very obvious and very labored business. Laugh tracks were pioneered in the USA to ensure that the good folks at home would know when to join in the merriment — they couldn’t be trusted to work it out for themselves. To their eternal shame the British then imported this appalling innovation, which is why so many British productions of the 1970s and 1980s have grating laughter interrupting the humor on an annoyingly regular basis.
As a consequence of the fact comedy is created by and aimed at quite different sets of people, the British tend to answer the question about difference by complacently asserting that “Americans have slapstick whereas we British have wit.”
And it’s certainly true that a lot of British humor is unintelligible to those lacking the right sort of education. It’s easy to juxtapose The Three Stooges against the plays and dinner conversation of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward and see how the Brits benefit from the comparison. It’s just as easy to point to the British (original) version of The Office and the mindless mumming of the US version to illustrate the enormous intellectual gulf between the two nations. Everything in the US is…