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 dumbed-down, everything assumes the audience is brain dead, and every joke must be signaled at least ten minutes in advance and then played up with knowing winks and other theatrical gestures lest the audience fails to realize it’s time to laugh again.
A British audience will squirm self-referentially when a character desperate to appear middle-class accidentally gives themselves away by saying garridge rather than garaahj. A US audience will laugh uproariously when a character suddenly falls down a hole.
Subtlety is not a word anyone would ever associate with any US comedy production at any time in its long history.
Unfortunately for the British, this comparison is by no means the most pertinent and revealing.
The British comedian and writer Stephen Fry has given what I personally believe to be the most useful and insightful account of the main difference between US and British styles of humor.
According to Fry, the lowbrow-midbrow distinction is far less relevant than the distinction between who does what to whom.
To illustrate his point, Fry cites a US movie of long ago in which the comedian James Belushi walks into a room where a man is attempting to strum a guitar and (badly) sing a folk song. Belushi seizes the man’s guitar and proceeds to smash it to pieces before looking into camera and wiggling his eyebrows.
Like Belushi, most US comedians dominate their surroundings. Sergeant Bilko, Colonel Hogan, and even the hapless Homer Simpson all overcome the vicissitudes of their respective worlds to come out at least even and more often than not on top. Conversely, British comedians perpetually have their aspirations crushed by some enormous turd that inevitably falls upon them from a great height just as they think they’re going to achieve their dream. British sitcoms such as Dad’s Army, The Office, and Fawlty Towers are all comedies of disappointment, of dashed hopes, of humiliation.
As Fry tells it, in the USA Belushi is the comedian; in Britain the comedian would be the woefully incompetent folk singer getting his guitar smashed. In the USA the comedian is the one throwing the pie; in Britain the comedian is the one receiving it in the face.
Seventy-six years ago the USA emerged from World War II as the world’s undisputed superpower. Britain emerged as a bankrupt shell. The Suez Crisis eliminated any residual doubt the Brits may have been clinging to: henceforth they were a second-rate nation doomed to decline and irrelevance. Ever since then, an endless series of babbling British politicians has been pretending that the UK can find some sort of global role commensurate with its delusions of past glory. Harold Macmillan talked up the (failing) economy; Harold Wilson inserted the white heat of technology into every speech he could lay his hands on and committed the UK to the expensive but commercially pointless Concorde program; Margaret Thatcher talked about invigorating our people; Tony Blair kept trying to get other people to sign up to Cool Britannia; and now the current Prime Minister and former third-rate children’s party clown Boris Johnson keeps talking about the spirit of the Blitz in a pathetic attempt to rouse the nation behind whatever inane scheme his advisers have dreamed up for this afternoon. And these attempts always fail. British people don’t have the inner confidence, the self-belief, the optimism necessary for such babbling to take hold of the national psyche.
Meanwhile the USA is full of people who believe in The American Dream.
The awkward fact that the USA has had much less social mobility than Europe over the last twenty-five years is fortunately unknown because US citizens have no clue about the rest of the world. They don’t know they’ve been left behind in nearly every aspect of modern life; they think they live in the best country on Earth. Ignorance really is (temporary) bliss. But one critical aspect of this ignorance is that the country is full of people who don’t realize they’ll never get what they want because the rich and powerful are keeping it all for themselves. Therefore they keep dreaming and keep hoping and keep identifying with life’s very few winners instead of with life’s very many losers.
Every US bookstore is crammed with self-help books. The NLP Method for Losing 300lbs; Meditate Your Way To A Youthful Complexion In Just Ten Days; Winning in Las Vegas Through The Power Of Love; Spiritual Exercises For Business Success; Seven Habits of Highly Defective Winners; How to Grow Taller With Confidence; Five Secret Tips To Turbocharge Your Brain. The list is endless, the belief unquenchable.
Meanwhile in Britain, the few remaining bookshops stock titles like Small Baking With Leftover Candles; Twenty-Six Recipes For Broken Fish Fingers; Five Not Really Very Good Recipes for Using Up Fragments of Stale Cake.
Brain-dead US voters elected Trump because they believed his infantile lies about greatness. Brain-dead British voters voted for Brexit because they didn’t feel they could compete with other European nations and preferred to run away and hide under the metaphorical bed instead.
The primary difference between US and British humor is confidence.
US comedians have confidence even when they’re seemingly on the ropes; British comedians come from upper-middle-class privileged families and graduate from Oxbridge and in the deepest recesses of their being feel that no matter how hard they try they’ll always fail to get the job, get the girl, or even get out without having bird-droppings splatter their only jacket.
US humor is brash, crass, and as subtle as an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. UK humor is the sotto voce humor of failure, of smallness, of hopes crushed and of disappointments stretching out into the future forever. US humor is about victory; British humor is about making the best of things in the face of perpetual defeat.
Britain is a small, increasingly irrelevant, backward-looking, dreary country. The USA is a large, increasingly desperate, internally-divided, spectacular country. It’s hardly surprising that the humor of each should be so different.
But as both fall into further decline and as both increasingly look backward instead of forward, it’s inevitable that ultimately both nations will end up being the butt of the very same not-very-funny joke.