Quite possibly the funniest man who ever lived, John Cleese, famously said that an Englishman would rather be told he’s a bad lover than that he’s not funny. Some of my fellow countrymen might share my indignity of, at some point in time, having it suggested that we’re equally inept in both disciplines. But setting sex aside for a moment – which is a phrase I never thought I’d write! – lets focus on the topic of humour (that is too the correct spelling!).
What’s funny? Who’s funny? What makes those who are considered funny, funny? And does what’s considered funny really vary that much between my former and present homeland? ‘Funny’ is clearly very subjective. But is what’s considered funny in England versus what’s considered funny in the States so very different? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is also yes.
There are two areas of pop-culture in which the Brits excel — or at least where Americans hold us in high regard; one is music, the other is comedy. From the Beatles to Monty Python, from the Rolling Stones to, unfathomably, Keeping Up Appearances, Americans love us.
This is on the surface of it rather strange, because America does a pretty great job of churning out its own much-revered music and comedy. From Elvis to M.A.S.H., Dylan to Seinfeld, America has much to be proud of. So why then are heads and hearts turned so readily to comedy from the other side of the pond?
Because it’s different, that’s why. But is it better? That’s for you to decide. It’s certainly different in tone, sensibility, and delivery – and I’d like to suggest a reason for that.
With the very notable exceptions of Monty Python, The Goons and the highly risqué Pete & Dud, British comedy and American comedy were for the longest time not so very different at all. We used to share such classical wits as Wilde and Twain. Later, the “comedy-for-all-the-family” vaudevillian stand-up acts were the toast of both nations’ theatre scenes. More recently the formulaic sit-com, where the settings may vary but the characters largely remained rigid stereotypes, proliferated our respective television channels.
Then in the 1980s, something changed. No, ‘changed’ is the wrong word. The comedy landscape in Britain shifted so dramatically as to be almost unrecognizable from anything that went before, as well as irrevocably influencing most everything to come.
Societal shifts in the UK (Google ‘Thatcher’s government’) provided a fertile climate for a new wave of comedy, and with it a new type of comedian. Suddenly, comedy became biting, satirical, politically-charged, inane, anarchic even. No holds were barred, almost no topic taboo. And though curse words began to creep into the comedy lexicon, the sharpness and smartness of what was being said was far more indelible. The public embraced this exciting new medium because aside from just being incredibly funny, it represented them. Comedy was the peoples’ weapon; a semi-civil means by which to attack civil servants, to expose them and hold them to account.
I’d suggest doing a YouTube search for anything showcasing the immense talents of Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Billy Connelly, Pamela Stephenson, the pairing of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, or the mind-blowingly creative talents of the Spitting Image team. The 80s and early 90s was truly a golden age of British comedy.
America had some edgy, progressive comedians of its own at the time too, with Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Sam Kinison, and the like. However, I think it’s fair to say that aside from the phenomenon that was (past tense) ‘Saturday Night Live’, long-running sitcoms such as ‘Cheers’, ‘Happy Days’, ‘Mork & Mindy’, etc., monopolized the American comedy consciousness.
Today, though the gulf has certainly narrowed, the divide clearly remains. Granted, US cable channels offer edgy animated comedies that push the boundaries. They’ve also provided polished satirists such as Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert, with their acerbic, anti-establishment edge. These examples and a scant few other aside, the American funny bone remains largely in the grip of gentle and proliferate sitcoms. Overwhelmingly, Americans appear placated by caricatures and canned laughter.
I suppose I’m not convinced that ‘funny’ carries the same prestige here as it does in England. To test that theory, circling back to the estimable Mr. Cleese, it might be amusing to ask the next few American men you talk to, would they rather be considered great lovers, or funny?