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. I’m sure many of my fellow countrymen 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! — I’d like to focus on the subject of humor.
What’s funny? Who’s funny? How are 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
This is, on the surface, rather strange because America does a pretty great job of churning out its own much-revered music and comedy. From Elvis
and Bob Dylan
has much to be proud of, so why then are heads and hearts turned so readily to comedy offerings 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 and 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 on 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 – and the public embraced this exciting new medium because aside from just being incredibly funny, it represented them. Comedy was the peoples’ weapon; a civil means by which to attack the "establishment," to expose them, and to 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 even in to the 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,
and the like. However, I think it’s fair to say that aside from the phenomenon that was (post tense) "Saturday Night Live
," itself at the time an apparently endless stable of impressive talent, long-running sitcoms such as "Cheers
," "Happy Days"
and "Mork & Mindy"
monopolized the American comedy consciousness. Our nations’ comedy paths had deviated noticeably.
Today, though the gulf has certainly narrowed, the divide clearly remains. Cable channels offer edgy animated comedies that push the boundaries, and polished satirists such as Jon Stewart
and Stephen Colbert
provide an acerbic, anti-establishment edge to the comedy landscape, but beyond these and a few other outliers, the American funny bone remains largely in the grip of sit-coms and soft-coms. Overwhelmingly, Americans seem to be perfectly 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 what most American men would rather be considered: great lovers or funny?
Mark Turner is formerly of Oxford, England, but has lived in America for the past 15 years, the majority of that time in Colorado. Mark enjoys playing soccer, hiking and biking when the weather's good, and when the weather's rotten writing blog entries that he hopes will amuse and entertain. Mark can be followed on Twitter @melchett