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.

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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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70 comments
rickleite2002
rickleite2002

As a brazilian who lived overseas a lot, I'm used to brit sense of humor and actually get it - most of my friends of choice were from UK and I could relate to them.  Back in Brazil, people always thought of me as rude or sarcastic, so I instantly clicked with brits for that matter.  Americans, on the other hand, find me obnoxious (and I don't really care about it) but I try to tone down a notch among them.  In between Americans, I sound like a looser just whining about life (even when they laugh about my mishaps) and I kind of envy their confidence.  But talking about Comedy...   ...british sense of humor and points of view are far more witty.  

Andrew_GW
Andrew_GW

But I believe you should say what you mean. Be honest. No one should ever be offended by truth.

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

Which one is it?

TomOwen
TomOwen

@Andrew_GW Both these instances are examples of people saying what they mean - He is just telling us that he would rather be told the first one - I don't see your point?

AustinTylerDean
AustinTylerDean

I find your article a juxtaposition in it's entirety. My plebeian understanding of what you said desires more. Perhaps if you are in the San Francisco Bay area, I could find out a bit more of your point if you would join me for dinner. Sincerely.

PaulLaimal-Convoy
PaulLaimal-Convoy

I've found that my American (and Japanese) friends and colleagues don't really get everyday sarcasm. In the UK, even gun-toting police officers can receive (and dish out) sarcastic comments because I feel that both myself and other people in the UK use sarcasm without even realising it. It's just part of British communication.

It's quite stressful for me living outside the UK, as more often than not, even casual quips can quite often be misunderstood, and then follows the American ethnocentric attitude that I'm "rude", etc. However, I suppose conversely, it's unfair to hide behind a victim mentality (even if they are dumb Yanks!).

Perhaps that's why Ricky Gervais seems more cuddly and child-like on American TV, compared to his more acidic and sarcastic persona adopted on British TV interviews?

Galesito
Galesito

"But I believe you should say what you mean. Be honest. No one should ever be offended by truth."

OK Ricky, Derek sucked after Karl left, his replacement was pointless.

TonyRandel
TonyRandel

"A gentleman is never accidentally rude." - Wilde

timshel
timshel

He's absolutely right about us Brits though, we've adopted a subconscious use of sarcasm and piss-taking as a mechanism for showing our feelings. We really don't feel comfortable being warm and fuzzy, at least not with fellow Brits. There's something dark and cynical about how we're nurtured, which makes me often envy American optimism. However due to our upbringing we tend to be quite analytical and try and find truth, bad or good, in everyday life, it's probably why we have some great creative comedians like Ricky Gervais and Sean Lock. I'm a massive fan of Louis C.K. though, he seems to have a British style of humour but does it better than our own!

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!

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."

MikeOrr
MikeOrr

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

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

DymaSuchkin
DymaSuchkin

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

IanCook1
IanCook1

How do you know if you didn't read it?

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.  

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. 

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.

DavidDunne
DavidDunne

@LaurenKlein - what like those old reliables such as Larry the Cableguy? look, you have a few excellent ones, sure. and you have a truckload of just...average ones also. most of them are average and try to tie religion into a performance, or some type of honkey humour with repetitive multi-purpose catchphrases such as "Git 'er done!" - which is about as funny as an amputation, in my opinion.

calumcan
calumcan

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

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. 

kylec93
kylec93

When did Liverpool seperate from England? 

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.

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?

AlexisNz
AlexisNz

Are we not forgetting Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle?!

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










WillHappen
WillHappen

Whoosh!!!!!

You only have to name one Britsh comedian and will name all American comedians. Now, think about that...

AndyMcCullough
AndyMcCullough

@LaurenKlein Billy Connolly. John Cleese. Michael Palin. Eric Idle. Graham Chapman. Terry Jones. Spike Milligan. Tony Hancock. Peter Sellers. Rowan Atkinson. David Mitchell. Fry and Laurie. Ronnie Barker. Sean Lock. David Baddiel. Frank Skinner. Rob Newman. Bird and Fortune. Rory Bremner. Rob Brydon. Dawn French. Jennifer Saunders. Victoria Wood. Julie Walters. Peter Cook. Sacha Baron Cohen. Rhod Gilbert. Jo Brand. Paul Whitehouse. Harry Enfield. Sarah Millican. Ade Edmondson. Nigel Planer. Rik Mayall. Jon Richardson. Sean Lock. Catherine Tate. Hugh Dennis. Steve Punt. Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. Charlie Brooker. Jason Manford. Ross Noble. Omid Djalili. Phill Jupitus. Tim Brooke Taylor. Robert Webb. David Walliams. Shappi Khorsandi. Matt Lucas. Graeme Garden. Paul Merton. Simon Amstell. Richard Ayoade. Chris Addison. Marcus Brigstocke. Jack Dee. Andy Hamilton. Milton Jones. Norman Lovett.

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