The Difference Between American and British Humour

Apart from the spelling of the word, obviously

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Left; NBC: Everett

It’s often dangerous to generalize, but under threat, I would say that Americans are more “down the line.” They don’t hide their hopes and fears. They applaud ambition and openly reward success. Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers. We embrace the underdog until it’s no longer the underdog.We like to bring authority down a peg or two. Just for the hell of it. Americans say, “have a nice day” whether they mean it or not. Brits are terrified to say this. We tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to sound insincere but I think it might be for the opposite reason. We don’t want to celebrate anything too soon. Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner. This is due to our upbringing. Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States. Brits are told, “It won’t happen for you.”

There’s a received wisdom in the U.K. that Americans don’t get irony. This is of course not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. It shows up in the smarter comedies but Americans don’t use it as much socially as Brits. We use it as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly take the piss out of people we like or dislike basically. And ourselves. This is very important. Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out.

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This can sometimes be perceived as nasty if the recipients aren’t used to it. It isn’t. It’s play fighting. It’s almost a sign of affection if we like you, and ego bursting if we don’t. You just have to know which one it is.

I guess the biggest difference between the U.S. version and the U.K. version of The Office reflected this. We had to make Michael Scott a slightly nicer guy, with a rosier outlook to life. He could still be childish, and insecure, and even a bore, but he couldn’t be too mean. The irony is of course that I think David Brent’s dark descension and eventual redemption made him all the more compelling. But I think that’s a lot more palatable in Britain for the reasons already stated. Brits almost expect doom and gloom so to start off that way but then have a happy ending is an unexpected joy. Network America has to give people a reason to like you not just a reason to watch you. In Britain we stop watching things like Big Brother when the villain is evicted. We don’t want to watch a bunch of idiots having a good time. We want them to be as miserable as us. America rewards up front, on-your-sleeve niceness. A perceived wicked streak is somewhat frowned upon.

Recently I have been accused of being a shock comic, and cruel and cynical. This is of course almost solely due to a few comments I made as host of last year’s Golden Globes. But nothing could be further from the truth.

(VIDEO: Ricky Gervais on Talking Funny, The Office and Hosting Awards Shows)

I never actively try to offend. That’s churlish, pointless and frankly too easy. But I believe you should say what you mean. Be honest. No one should ever be offended by truth. That way you’ll never have to apologize. I hate it when a comedian says, “Sorry for what I said.” You shouldn’t say it if you didn’t mean it and you should never regret anything you meant to do. As a comedian, I think my job isn’t just to make people laugh but also make them think. As a famous comedian, I also want a strict door policy on my club. Not everyone will like what I say or find it funny. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are enough comedians who try to please everyone as it is. Good luck to them, but that’s not my game, I’m afraid.

I’m not one of those people who think that comedy is your conscience taking a day off. My conscience never takes a day off and I can justify everything I do. There’s no line to be drawn in comedy in the sense that there are things you should never joke about. There’s nothing that you should never joke about, but it depends what that joke is. Comedy comes from a good or a bad place. The subject of a joke isn’t necessarily the target of the joke. You can make jokes about race without any race being the butt of the joke. Racism itself can be the butt, for example. When dealing with a so-called taboo subject, the angst and discomfort of the audience is what’s under the microscope. Our own preconceptions and prejudices are often what are being challenged. I don’t like racist jokes. Not because they are offensive. I don’t like them because they’re not funny. And they’re not funny because they’re not true. They are almost always based on a falsehood somewhere along the way, which ruins the gag for me. Comedy is an intellectual pursuit. Not a platform.

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As for cynicism, I don’t care for it much. I’m a romantic. From The Office, and Extras to The Invention Of Lying and Cemetery Junction, goodness and sweetness, honour and truth, love and friendship always triumph.

For me, humanity is king.

Oh and for the record I’d rather a waiter say, “Have a nice day” and not mean it, than ignore me and mean it.

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47 comments
ameiliusdotcom
ameiliusdotcom

I loveeeeeeee Gervais - but, hes about it for comedians from across the pond... maybe Izzard too.


http://ameilius.com - A Collection Of Funny Internet Findings!

MikeOrr
MikeOrr

could you have said what you said more concisely!!??

DymaSuchkin
DymaSuchkin

I did not read the article. It is not funny.

Catt_A
Catt_A

I'm curious if Robert Irvine is well known in his native U.K. He's the "nice" version of Gordon Ramsey. Conversely, Ramsey himself is much meaner and confrontational on U.S. television than U.K. I guess that means when we Americans do have a villain, we want him reallly villainous.  

AmitGupta
AmitGupta

The most humorous part here is that both TIME and Ricky are making money here while the people(Americans and Brits alike) who have paid for the internet connections are fighting via comments.

LaurenKlein
LaurenKlein

Name one British comedian who's funny and I'll name you every American one who actually is.

LynnGraceCorbin-Lohmanns
LynnGraceCorbin-Lohmanns

Re: "Brits are persemists and Americans are all brought up to believe they can be the next president." 

And other hackneyed cliches. This piece sounds like something John Cleese would have written in the '80s - that pre-Kurt Cobain decade of naive American optimism. As a Brit domiciled in the US, I have never, ever, ever, met an American who thought that becoming president was a plausible childhood goal. 

LiaamJoneees
LiaamJoneees

I personally love to make people laugh, and I do that a lot through sarcasm and making fun of myself or others. So this was an interesting read for me, it definitely made me think! 

scooterdie
scooterdie

If there isn't already, there should be a line in stand up comedy, "know your audience."

MuricanBob
MuricanBob

Difference between American and British humour: MURICAN humor is actually humorous!

Whatanotion
Whatanotion

As an unwilling trial attorney I soon learned how the un-humorous envy those who can muster laughter at a funeral.  I mostly appreciated Ricky's:  "...my job isn’t just to make people laugh but also make them think."  Americans hate people that think much.  Ricky's failure is to assume that many Americans care to think.  Most of them don't.  Hating is a serious sport on this side of the pond.  It's an irony since intellectual property is codified in our Constitution (Art 1. sec. 8 cls. 8) and since we apparently hold very much of it.   The wings peeling off of that airplane taking a nose dive as it crashes and burns its cargo of cash are justice and wisdom in USA.  Ha ha.  Brings a tear don't it?

  I learned in an interpersonal communications class, that the situation comedy, All in the Family was actually a psychological experiment designed to show bigots how foolish they were being.  Turns out the Americans took it largely as reinforcement for such behavior.    

We minorities pretty much are left with grouping Anglos as; Germans and Brits who have a love/hate relationship, and the rest of us can eat cake.   Irony is the large number of mixed race majority/minority gay relationships over here.    


chococat212
chococat212

I found the article very interesting until it became all about Ricky and his comedy. We all know you don't give a flying #@$% about what people think in regards to your Golden Globe jokes and that's fine. I think more power to you and I love comedians who think this way BUT, enough is enough, please stop talking about it. I was really looking forward to reading about the cultural differences of comedy and I did get some of that but it got cut off halfway through and was replaced by a personal diatribe. If you want to write an article about what kind of comic YOU are then do it (I'd read it) but don't just go on an unchecked tangent. Regardless, I find Ricky incredibly funny, I like both halves of the article I just would have liked two full articles. 

eagle11772
eagle11772

I think he's awful and COMPLETELY UNFUNNY.  (And i LOVE irony, and puns and "dry" humor).  I think he should stay on his side of the pond, since according to him, his brethren love his sense of "humor".

callmecheez
callmecheez

Thanks for making the American The Office possible - best ensemble TV comedy is a long time

JamesDurham
JamesDurham

This sounds like the american hipster. You can laugh at yourself,  at your own failures, stupidity, fallacies, and refuse to let the feedback you hear change the way you think. Humor is a great way say what you mean but mask what you think about it personally.

Americans are loosing respect for reality and become more absorbed by irony (in themselves) as well, especially the young population. 

There are also the more realistic among us, who make fun of what they see. Those live in reality and find humor in the things that are like and true. They don't need to lie to themselves to feel better about the outcome of something, and they don't need to humorize anticipated failure. They simply observe...and laugh at what they can actually see happen that isn't 'supposed' to happen, is different, or is outrageous in general.

steffclarke
steffclarke

@kristineabshier If you must quote Oscar Wilde out of context, at least use the whole sentence: "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence."

Pigalina
Pigalina

@interceptinglight   The Office (UK - accept no substitutes) Christmas Special makes my heart happy every time I watch it.  Gervais is a total romantic.  Tim and Dawn <3

scholz
scholz

@Catt_A Also he is not American, so maybe the parallells from this article is even more evident when a villainous character from the U.K. bullies the more sweet and innocent Americans. 

deathgripz
deathgripz

@LaurenKlein Jeez, Lauren. You don't find one person from a country of 70 million people funny? Cheer up.

Because Monty Python, Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Noel Fielding, Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson, Billy Connelly, Craig Ferguson, Armando Iannucci, Steve Coogan, Chris Morris? None of these?

calumcan
calumcan

@LaurenKlein Hahah if you think American comedians can be offensive then look up Frankie Boyle, they have got nothing on him

seckboy
seckboy

@LaurenKlein What's funny about this comment string is that it appears to be an American (LaurenKlein) saying something nasty and what appears to be a Brit (coolredmudball) getting a little uncomfortable and defensive - the opposite of what the article says about Brits expecting negative comments and Americans trying to be positive.

RuthlessDman
RuthlessDman

@LaurenKlein John Bishop, Tim Vine, Dawn French, Tim Minchin, Bill Bailey, Eddie Izzard, Russell Howard, Jack Dee, Lee Mack, Jack Whitehall, Lee Evans, Shappi Khorsandi

coolredmudball
coolredmudball

@LynnGraceCorbin-Lohmanns

As a Brit living in the US, I do know that the average US citizen is not hampered by the class system as I was in the UK - so in that sense, I think he is right that one believes that one can acheive anything if your mind is put to it.

LynnGraceCorbin-Lohmanns
LynnGraceCorbin-Lohmanns

Btw, The Office UK: It was broadcast twelve years ago now, and he's *still* dining out on it! The poor man's Armando Iannucci

MuricanBob
MuricanBob

Lolol jk those cheeky Brits are pretty damn hilarious. Humor is universal unlike (most of) MURICA!

BrendanStrange
BrendanStrange

@Whatanotion Actually, I think you'll find that All in the Family was created as a sub-par American version of the British sit com Till Death Do Us Part which was MUCH nastier and funnier than the lame remake. For other examples of lukewarm US remakes see: Sanford and Sons (they had a car! they were rich), The Office (let's face it, Gervais obviously doesn't like it and, the unspeakable US version of Shamless (if they'd wanted to keep them white, they should have at least set it in the South). I'm also convinced that Girls is a rip off of the far superior UK show Pulling - anyone agree?

JeffBlanks
JeffBlanks

@Whatanotion:  I always knew, even as a kid, that Archie Bunker wasn't supposed to be the good guy, but I think the show's point was somewhat undercut by the foibles of the other characters (or at least the other Bunkers).  I can see how Norman Lear might've wanted to avoid Sanctimonious LIberalosis, but maybe he went too far in making Archie a little too lovable (or the other characters not worthy enough of some respect) in the end.

Kovah
Kovah

@chococat212 He can only speak for himself, he does not know what every other British comedian thinks about the topic.

TobyHarding
TobyHarding

@eagle11772 you are toxically thick. He never once says that us in Blighty "love his sense of humour", it is merely a happy coincidence that many of us do. Why would anyone care what you personally find funny? you embarass yourself and invalidate your own opinions with your stupidity and brash self-importance. well done sire. well done.

also *I, *humour and brackets dont comprise a full sentence with full stops.

TomPrice
TomPrice

Pretty sure Ricky couldn't care less if you find him funny. Plenty of other people do. Move along now. Nothing to see.

AmericanMom
AmericanMom

@seckboy @LaurenKlein Lauren, I am appalled. Are you serious? Both Americans and Brits can be good comediens, but I have to say I am far more likely to laugh at British humor than at American humor. As an American I do recognize that we are not the best at subtlety. 

coolredmudball
coolredmudball

@RuthlessDman @LaurenKlein

 .... and you left out the classics starting with Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Bob Hope and on to Peter Sellers etc ... I guess Lauren doesn't understand humour unless it slaps her in the face










PatrickGerard
PatrickGerard

@coolredmudball @LynnGraceCorbin-Lohmanns Social class is certainly still more of an issue in the UK (and the economy may have reversed some of the progress that had been made there, as people retreat to old norms and prejudices whenever the economy is bad).

HOWEVER, the UK has better adapted to protect the very poor than most areas of the United States have done. Your education and student loan programs are more favorable. And in terms of INCOME class mobility, a person's odds of improving an income class within their lifetime are higher in the UK.

There is less punishment for risk taking there and more income mobility. What the U.S. affords is SOCIAL class mobility and even that depends largely on the ability to emulate rich white people here. If you can perform the part, we'll let you act like you belong and lease a car and house outside your means while doting admiringly. But statistically you're less likely to go up a rung.

I think in the UK, even with some unfortunate austerity measures, the odds of entry into the upper or upper middle class are very good for someone outside of that group. The odds of falling out of that group are slim. But you will never FULLY rise beyond that station either, even if you get an OBE or a knighthood. Well, I suppose getting honors like those probably increase your chances of raising a social class beyond upper middle to what every American's odds of social advancement are with a high school diploma.

I suppose in the US, it's a bit like we all get our OBEs/knighthood at birth but we trade in good wages and social security programs for the privilege of being able to pass as aristocracy with nothing more than a thrift store suit, a comb, and half an hour cleaning up in a washroom. Anybody who does that could pass for being a millionaire and a millionaire could infiltrate MOST social strata here (though Trump DID get turned down from some posh clubs). In the UK, you won't pass and your money won't buy you access but you do have sizably better odds at getting the money, getting an affordable education, and being provided for if you fall.

CaleyMcGuire
CaleyMcGuire

@LynnGraceCorbin-Lohmanns Btw, The Office has spawned US, French, German, Isreali and Swedish versions, with a Chinese version on the way. Of course Gervais is *still* dining out on it. He gets a huge piece of every one of them. It'$ the gift that keep$ on giving. He's not anyone's 'poor man.' And he's had countless projects since. So, your approval isn't actually necessary.

kylec93
kylec93

When did Liverpool seperate from England?