Monday, January 14, 2013

More British and American humor differences

I have written about this topic before, but I was inspired to explore it further after stumbling upon a fascinating Stephen Fry video recently (more on that later!).  Humour really is a fascinating area - what people find funny really does give an insight into their philosophy, culture, and general world outlook.

Some of the feedback that I got previously was that some Americans felt I was a little harsh in my previous writings, where I said that Americans were generally more serious and that a lot of British humour gets lost in translation in the US, particularly irony. 

I will try to explain these two points a little more, but first I think it’s worth pointing out that I suspect the average American maybe underestimates how many differences there are, when it comes to British and American humor.  Yes, there are large areas of overlap, but also major differences.  Okay, you may have seen Monty Python and Mr Bean, but humour operates differently in all sorts of ways in the UK that don’t generally reach or work on this side of the Atlantic.


One major difference that I remember the US writer, Bill Bryson pointing out in his book: I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away, is that humour generally is far more revered in the UK than in the USA.  Bryson cites the classic (and rather great) John Cleese quote that: “An Englishman would rather be told he’s a bad lover than he has no sense of humour”.

You can actually get away with almost anything in the UK, as long as it is presented as humour.  You can insult the queen, your employer, religion, the army, whatever, as long as you do it right and make some people laugh.  Even if someone were mildy offended they wouldn’t generally protest, they tend to be more worried about appearing to have no sense of humour, which, as Cleese says, is a major taboo in the UK.  America, with its diverse population, devout religious communities, and occasionally rigid political correctness, can sometimes seem very sensitive from a British perspective.
A portion of British humour might be also labelled as “smart” in the US, where although some people might find it funny, you can also get into trouble for it more easily than you would in the UK.

Of course, it's also true to say that British irony can also very easily devolve into cynicism and sarcasm too, which are less appealing sides of the English psyche.
Americans are more serious?

Generally speaking, the American philosophy and approach to life is very different in certain respects.  Americans are generally optimistic: life is an opportunity for success and it has real meaning and there are always avenues of improvement open.  The British philosophy tends to be much more downbeat: yes, life can be good, but often it can be an ordeal, tinged with absurdity, and sometimes you just have to just grin and bear it.

Mark Twain
What gets lost?

What Bill Bryson describes as “verbal sleights of hand” are just far less common in the US.  Wordplay, double entendre, and yes, irony, are far rarer here and the average American often just doesn’t expect such trickery to occur in general conversation and so it goes straight past them.  (When I was first living here, I had the opposite problem, I tended to over-analyse things that Americans said, when almost always, they were being completely literal.)

That doesn’t mean that I am saying that all Americans don’t get irony, by the way, it is more a question of degree.  Obviously, there have been many great American humorists, such as Mark Twain, who were masters of ironic humour and there were thousands of Americans  who bought his books and found them funny.

The humour differences can make things difficult sometimes though, if you are a British expat.  We Brits don’t do overt shows of emotion much, so when our ability to communicate through language and humour are limited, it can feel a little stifling sometimes.

Stephen Fry

Anyway, back to the excellent Stephen Fry video that I mentioned at the start.  In it, Fry explores another aspect of British and American humor that differs considerably.

Essentially, the British comic hero tends to be a loser.  He or she has high aspirations (and may also be pompous, or pretentious), but he/she is constantly failing to pull him or herself out of the hole. 

The American comic hero, on the other hand, tends to be a success - he or she is a wisecracker, throwing out clever quips at the expense of the idiots that surround him or her.

Americans tend to celebrate success.  Brits love a failure.

Fry says it better than me though…


  1. This subject never ceases to amaze me, Paul, and now we're at it with a different angle as both my English husband and I are living outside of NYC instead of in England! He's spent a good amount of time here, but I still notice many ways that he stands out.

    One show we've discussed a lot is Seinfeld. I know some Americans who don't think it's funny, but my husband has always contended that he doesn't get it. After about six months of working in NY, though, he has started to love it. Can't put my finger on what could have happened--would be curious to hear your reaction if you've ever watched the show.

    I do agree that Brits are, on the whole, more irreverent although some comics/writers/TV shows here are extremely irreverent (Arrested Development, SNL, Modern Family).

    That earnestness (American) is a big difference, and I think it overlaps with optimism.

    Are you a fan of Mock the Week? That show seems to be a wonderful example of the sharp wit--including word play/irony--of the Brits. We both miss the show terribly.

    1. Larry David is actually one of my biggest comic heroes and I love virtually everything he does. It took me some time to get into Seinfeld, I didn't fully start to love it until I'd run out of Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes one time and decided to try Seinfeld again. I think you need to keep watching before you get the running jokes and the characters' neuroses, it doesn't come instantly.

      As I remember it, Seinfeld takes several seasons to get going. The first couple of seasons are fairly mediocre, then it is brilliant for several seasons. Then Larry David leaves the team and it goes downhill. Then Larry David rejoins and it is brilliant again.

      Seinfeld was a hit in the UK, but the show was more of a cult success than a mainstream one, and not as big as it was in the US.

      I do think that having a good sense of humour is more highly rated generally in the UK. You can be quite a failure in many respects, or even an awful person, and people will still say: 'Ah, but he has good sense of humour!' You don't get that so much in the US.

      I have some very funny, clever, and sharp American friends and I sometimes think: You would be much more appreciated in the UK. America undervalues you.

    2. PS Yes, I like Mock the Week! :-)

    3. Generally, TV shows and radio aren't an issue in the internet age, as I can watch pretty much what I want. I do occasionally miss the humour of everday life though back in the UK. Yes, there is more grumpiness and miserableness in British life, but it is offset by the humour to a large degree. Eve at Queen's English wrote recently about a comical train announcement about the poor service when she visited the UK recently. I do like the earnest desire to help that you get with US public services, but admitting a service is crap and making a joke about it has its charm too.

    4. Yes, America has given the world some of the very best comedy shows, movies, literature, comedians. Yes, I have lots of American friends who are witty with a great sense of humour. But I would still stand by the point that humour is less widespread and is perceived as less impostant in the US, it takes different forms and some British humour does not translate, and American comic heroes commonly have different qualities.

      Why the Brits put more emphasis on humour is an interesting topic too. Some argue that having lost its world empire and suffered bankruptcy after World War II, Brits turned to other qualities, such as monarchy and humour? What I do know is that if the recent olympics had taken place in an American city, rather than London, the opening ceremony might have been just as good, or better, but there would almost certainly have been less humour involved.

  2. Love this post. Just added a comment on your older post on this topic. Now elaborating here too.

    I grew up in India in the 80s and 90s, primarily on a staple of British sitcoms on the Indian state-run network - Yes Minister, Fawlty Towers, Brittas Empire, Mind Your Language etc. Hated Benny Hill and most sketch shows (except ABOFAL). I was introduced to American sitcoms only in the mid to late 90s when the Indian government deregulated the TV industry leading to a plethora of private cable channels. I got to watch Seinfeld, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, MASH etc.

    For most of the late 90s and early 00s, I stuck to what is the dominant english-speakng-middle-class opinion in India (which for obvious historic reasons feels closer to british pop culture)- British comedies are funnier, edgier, "smarter" than American comedies which are sappy, gooey, predictable, and often dictated by formulaic situations and toe the acceptable line.

    But after moving to the US 7 years ago, I developed a more nuanced opinion on this matter. Especially after seeing first hand the difference between network-vs-cable-vs-premium cable. Most of the American comedies that are "exported" to UK or India tend to be network hits. And network sitcoms do tend to suffer from all the problems we agree on.

    But there's also a range of relatively "niche" humor shows that are completely different. These shows tend to be on cable, draw smaller audiences, but are successful in their own right. In terms of tone, darkness, irreverence as well as "smarts", they can go toe-to-toe with British shows. I mentioned Always Sunny, The League etc in my comment on the other post.

    This network-vs-cable difference arises from the cultural difference you mention. Network shows need MASSIVE audiences to stay on the air. So those shows tend to cater to a wider range of tastes, and end up with a watered-down, predictable, done-before brand of stale humor. It's like eating at McDonald's. Familiar, comfortable, accessible.

    But on cable, where shows don't have to ring up the same numbers, you see better quality humor. Simpson and Family Guy on network are nice and irreverent in their own way, slightly pushing the boundaries of acceptability. But South Park on cable makes both those shows seem like Sesame Street, both in terms of tackling controversial topics, attacking holy cow, and generally not giving a damn.

    Two other recent shows with similar settings demonstrate the network-vs-cable divide perfectly. NBC's 1600 Penn is a network show about an American president. Oh sooooo booooooooring. Stupid. Lazy. Hate it. But on HBO, you have Veep. About an American Vice-President. Granted, the creators are British, but the tone and irreverence of the show has an unmistakably American gene.

    I never got to see this "other" irreverent America, be it on TV in real life, until I moved to America. So I too clung to the half-truth of American humor and culture being simple and safe. Yes, a lot of it is. But enough of it isn't.

    1. Thanks for that great reply, Gaurav. I tended to watch all the US 'smart' humour and dark stuff when I was in the UK, so my view was skewed - When I started living here, I found that the majority of the humour wasn't like that at all.

      My family don't have cable or anything like that, we just use streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. but I am sure that I will be able to find some of your suggestions.

      By the way, I am more than aware that Britain has lots of terrible comedy shows too, of course, which are formulaic, or predictable.

      What interests me most, however, is how much humour is a keyhole through to the wider underlying culture, in some ways. That's why the Stephen Fry video prompted me to write about it again.

      In that sense, I find how people interact on an everyday level just as interesting as TV shows etc, well probably more interesting. But it can be harder to explain the everyday in writing. I think Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry maybe do it best for me.

  3. One British show that I watched at Xmas (on Youtube) that I really don't think translates into US culture is One Foot in the Grave. Victor Meldrew is a great character, but a lot of the humour is derived from Brits perceiving complaining about things, such as customer service etc., as embarrassing. Brits love to moan, as long as it about nothing, genuine complaining to get something changed fills them with anxiety. Americans have no such neurosis in this area, which is probably healthier, but means One Foot in the Grave isn't quite so funny. Just a theory.

  4. I forgot the name of the show we watched with Stephen Fry hosting. That was way different than prime time American humor, more raw... and heady. I like that kind of stuff. A few years ago I got into the show "Coupling" (think that's the name). Only saw like four episodes, but I liked it.

  5. QI is the Fry-hosted show - I didn't get into that until I moved to the US, ironically, but it is well-represented on Youtube. The teen likes it too, so we can watch it as a family.

  6. My comment is alarmingly brief, but still:
    "Obviously, there have been many great American humorists, such as Mark Twain, who were masters of ironic humour and there were thousands of Americans who bought his books and found them funny."
    'Thousands'? Really? Only 'thousands'? Ohhh, were being ironic! (indulgent smile)

    1. I think the old cliche that Americans don't "get" irony is unfair and inaccurate, as well as condescending - however, I do think that it's reasonable to say that it is employed far less than in the UK, so much so, that it is entirely unexpected by many people.

      I also suspect that the English protestant groups who influenced the US early on, encouraged "plain speaking". I wouldn't pretend to be an historical expert, however.

  7. Paul, first off, great article, very interesting.

    I'm an American student studying advertising in Edinburgh, and I wondered, being in the states now, do you find these differences you've mentioned (along with Fry, Gervais, and Pegg) to be present in the TV commercials you see? I know, for me, the humor used in TV over here, along with the British sense of humor, is exactly as you describe it: ironic. At first, before I knew that "taking the piss" didn't mean relieving yourself, I absolutely saw the British sense of humor to be much more sinister and borderline offensive compared to its American counterpart. I'm just curious, have you found the same differences in American and British humor in the advertising from either side of the Atlantic?


    1. I find that difficult to answer for a number of reasons, one being that I tend to watch TV via Netflix and other streaming services nowadays, we ended up getting rid of cable! That means that the only adverts that I see tend to be internet ads.

      If you forced me to give an answer, I would say that US advertising generally tends to be far more direct than the British equivalent. I think humour's employed slightly less in the US, but when it is used, it is often for advertising the same sort of products and aimed at similar target audiences. Beer ads, for example, very often seem to employ humour, and often the jokes are similar, whether it's in the USA or the UK.

      You asked a good question, but I don't really see enough of both British and American ads to say much more. :-)

  8. Hi Paul,

    I can say that as an American, my travels in Britain have shown that most – if not all! – perceived differences between our two countries are little to non-existent. Neither country is funnier, smarter, or better than the other. And if more people where honest with themselves, they’d admit as much. Bandying around stereotypes like these is pointless and intellectually lazy. As geographically distant as our countries are from each other, we couldn’t be more alike. But that notion makes for poor comedy, I guess. And would otherwise render blogs like this useless. In my experience.