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General > Is Britishness inherently funny?

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message 1: by Nigel (new)

Nigel Cole | 24 comments All.

as a writer, I've often relied on the fact that being British is inherently funny. Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and a host of other Brticoms relied heavily on the fact that the stuffy British upper and upper-middle class have a natural absurdity to them in stark counterpoint to the 'cheeky chappy, downtrodden but philosophical' lower class/working class stereotypes'. Sandwiched between you have the social-climbing aspirational but generally idiotic lower middle and middle class.

But how well does this consistently class-based humour travel? Monty Python certainly did OK in the USA, but what about literary comedy? My own work is doing quite well 'stateside', but so far I have no feedback as to whether the humour really travels, My own comedy is character driven but not so much class-based, yet as soon as you have two Brit characters talking there's immediately a class element driving both camaraderie and conflict at some level.

So the question is, primarily for the non-Brits of course, how well do you think Britcom travels?


message 2: by Joel (last edited Mar 03, 2016 01:29PM) (new)

Joel Bresler | 1545 comments Mod
Air. Hair lair, Nigel (class/accent joke, for all the Yanks),
I suspect that Americans who appreciate your more language-based humor have at least some consciousness of class. We may not get all, or even many, of the subtleties of the county set, but we are at least aware of the difference between, say, Derek & Clive and someone who isn't.


message 3: by Nigel (last edited Mar 03, 2016 11:42AM) (new)

Nigel Cole | 24 comments Thanks for the air-hair-lair joke reminder Joel!! Not heard that in some time. The equivalent working-class accent one is
whale-oil-beef-hooked.
And Derek & Clive are an excellent example of what I'm talking about...


message 4: by Melki (new)

Melki | 3512 comments Mod
Having been a rabid Python fan since childbirth childhood, my first response when encountering a Brit is to point and laugh (even at the fully-clothed ones. . .), so I may be a bit biased. Judging from the number of Wodehouse books this group has read and the fact that American Public Television has been showing nothing but Britcoms every Saturday night since I was a teen proves that the humor and yes, even the humour, does travel well.


message 5: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 5437 comments Mod
Much of British humour travels well, but some is (often highly) dependent on cultural references. If cultural references have a universal analogue, they easily travel the world. However, the more obscure the reference, the more limited the audience.

The ability to recognize stereotypes follows a similar pattern. The more obscure, the more limited.

I happen to love British humour, but as with all things foreign, it sometimes requires a bit of translation.


message 6: by Nigel (new)

Nigel Cole | 24 comments The stereotype is an interesting one as I think there every country has 2 sets of stereotypes - the ones the inhabitants themselves recognize, and the ones the rest of the world see. So for instance, with Mary Poppins, Disney perpetuated the middle-class and working-class stereotypes that most of the rest of the world would recognize as typically 'British', whereas the I think Simon Pegg's Shaun of the Dead (or his TV series Spaced) are a truer reflection of the modern British stereotypes.

I'm assuming Spaced did make it out of the UK?


message 7: by Melki (new)

Melki | 3512 comments Mod
"You've got red on you."

Spaced is available on Netflix for anyone who hasn't seen it.


message 8: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 445 comments One of the funniest things in the world is watching an American trying to "do" English humour. Or understand history. Or irony.

Monty Python broadcast their television show between 1969 and 1974. That's more than 40 years ago. The institutions and class issues that they were mocking were rooted in the 1950s and earlier.

Fawlty Towers? That was broadcast between 1975 and 1979.

That's not Britishness. That's ancient history. It would be like us Brits saying that Americans are inherently funny because of Charlie Chaplin.

"as soon as you have two Brit characters talking there's immediately a class element driving both camaraderie and conflict at some level." ??? I can't agree. We've moved on a long way from the Frost report class sketch.

And that was fifty years ago - 1966.

Being British is inherently funny? Sorry, but that is lazy stereotyping and borderline insulting.


message 9: by Melki (new)

Melki | 3512 comments Mod
Oops! Sorry if I offended you, Will. I can think of plenty of Brits who aren't funny.


message 10: by Nigel (new)

Nigel Cole | 24 comments The lazy stereotyping and perpetuation of an outdated class conflict is exactly my point Will. We SHOULD have moved on a long way from the Frost report sketch, but have we really? As I said earlier, it's not how we perceive our own stereotypes that's interesting, it's how those not living in the UK perceive them when the popularity overseas of shows like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers (and indeed Benny Hill!) persists. Those may have been shows made in the seventies and products of their time, but the earlier responses to this thread confirm that they are still out there and solidly entrenched in the consciousness.

'Us Brits' may not see that kind of class conflict as being at the core of British humour anymore, but what about those who aren't 'us Brits'?

And it's unlikely we'd think of Americans as funny because of Charlie Chaplin as he was a Londoner (sorry Will, couldn't resist).

But still, we digress. My original question was about British humour's ability to travel, and as this is a site devoted to all that is best in literature I think we might be best keeping clear of screenwriting and stick to more literary works :-) as this could well be a can of worms where the lid is best left on!

Douglas Adams, anyone? (yes I know he was a radio and screenwriter first, but I'm talking about the books) :-) Now Arthur Dent must be up there as a contender for the ultimate British sterotype...


message 11: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 5437 comments Mod
America no longer produces A-bombs with a Fat Man or Little Boy design, but those designs still offer a lot of bang for the buck.

An appreciation of classic comedy does not take anything away from modern comedians. Nor does it necessarily invite comparisons.

Is John Cleese funnier than Eddie Izzard? Is Izzard funnier than Dan Howell and Phil Lester?

Who cares? You might as well ask if Margaret Thatcher was funnier than David Cameron!

Monty Python and Fawlty Towers may have been produced 40 years ago, but then Gilligan's Island was produced 1964 to 1967 and is still in worldwide syndication. I Love Lucy, produced even earlier, is still popular on the rerun channels, as is The Jack Benny Program, The Burns and Allen Show, and many others. Charlie Chaplan, and W.C. Fields movies still play also.

I happen to think Stephen Fry is funny as hell. Is he now too old to be considered a British comedian? Are his comments on current society to be discounted because he also commented on British society many years ago?

Will wrote: One of the funniest things in the world is watching an American trying to "do" English humour. Or understand history. Or irony.

How is that NOT "lazy stereotyping and borderline insulting?"

Comedy, by design, is to be appreciated by an audience. Classic comedy may not have a modern flair (or even a currently-widely-understood reference), but it can still generate a lot of laughs.

Is there any reason that we must label a laugh as a stereotype, dated, etc.?

Why not just enjoy a laugh whenever and wherever you find it?


message 12: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 5437 comments Mod
Nigel wrote: "My original question was about British humour's ability to travel, and as this is a site devoted to all that is best in literature I think we might be best keeping clear of screenwriting and stick to more literary works :-) as this could well be a can of worms where the lid is best left on!..."

How exactly is a screenplay not a literary work?

There was nothing wrong with your original question, Nigel. British humour does indeed travel or we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Apparently, the problem arises when it's asked if British humour travelled using a map or GPS.


message 13: by Nigel (new)

Nigel Cole | 24 comments Fair comment Jay, and I'm certainly not suggesting that a screenplay isn't literary product or in any way inferior to a novel, I was just trying to distinguish between humour that may have a visual element and one that would not. Nor do I disagree that just because comedy is from a different generation it should be seen any differently - comedy is comedy, whenever it was created.

I think I may have to rephrase my question to get it back on the intended track. So let's go with 'do the colloquialisms, slang and idiosyncrasies that writers often use by virtue of the country they hail from/live in detract from the reading experience for those less familiar with them?'

I like that, the question sounds almost clever :-)

As a for instance, does the following work everywhere, or are the key references that's supposed to make the line funny only valid for a Brit?

For Sale: Deluxe electric stair lift. Boxed, never used, complete with manuals, accessories and attachments. Unwanted competition prize. Contact Mrs. E. Peevey, Rose Bungalow, Falston-on-Wold.


message 14: by Whitney (last edited Mar 04, 2016 07:04AM) (new)

Whitney (helloooooo) | 9 comments First, I imagined the words to be dictated by one of the Monty Python men doing a woman's voice.

Yes, a Brit's inherent knowledge of geography and the types of people who are named "Mrs. Peevey" would help a lot to make the lines funny. For everyone else, we are welcome to roll our eyes at the silly competition prize--electric stair lift. We understand about lame game show prizes.

My opinion about the treasure that is British humor: it is extra-dry and an acquired taste, like coffees or wines or beers. People who get it GET IT, and they brag about it. And self-deprecation goes a long way too. Stereotypes about Americans show Americans as never subtle; always trying to be positive and look good. They do not get why a Brit makes jokes and remarks about his or her own "weaknesses." Stereotypical Americans are also intimidated by sarcasm, irony, wryness, etc. (I speak from experience. I display all these symptoms of British humor, and most acquaintances perceive me as some sort of Eeyore who lacks ambition. Arg.)


message 15: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 445 comments Laughing at a joke because it is funny - that's humour.

Laughing at an entire race or country because they are "inherently" funny? That's prejudice.

Yes, there is a British style of humour, but that is entirely different from saying that the British (what, all of them?) are inherently funny. Or thinking that Britishness equates to fifty year old comedy sketches which were exaggerations in their day.

Where do we go next with this train of thought? Black people are inherently funny? Gay people? People with disabilities?

If the question is "does British humour travel?" then that is a fair question. We could talk about that. But the statement that "being British is inherently funny" is a wholly different question.


message 16: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 5437 comments Mod
Will wrote: "If the question is "does British humour travel?" then that is a fair question. We could talk about that. But the statement that "being British is inherently funny" is a wholly different question."

I see your point, Will.


message 17: by Whitney (new)

Whitney (helloooooo) | 9 comments Good morning, gentlemen. I was wondering if a couple aspects typically inside many types of British humor would appeal to a more international audience, e.g. the "subtle" sarcasm and self-deprecation.

It looks like everyone already agrees that being from a particular place does not make one automatically funny.


message 18: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 445 comments Jay - Thanks for that. Moving on ...

There is no single style of "British" humour. I see several different overlapping phases - different comedic themes - which have come and go over the past few decades.

We had a long affection with slapstick, smut and innuendo stretching from the Victorian music halls through the Carry On films and through to Benny Hill in the 1970s and 80s. That's largely died out now.

There was a wave of anti-establishment humour which was at its peak from the Goon show, through Monty Python, Douglas Adams, Spitting Image and the "alternative" comedians (Ben Elton, The Young Ones, Blackadder, etc). Again, that seems to have faded. We currently have far less satire than we used to have.

There was a trend for absurdist humour from the Goons onwards.

The current trend seems to be more for observational and character-based humour. Modern comedians and comedy writers will often look for laughs in the clash of one character against another or one character against a situation. Think of films like Shaun of the Dead or The Full Monty. Stephen Fry doesn't so much tell jokes as just be himself.

I'm having a strange experience at the moment. Now that my son is 15 I am letting him watch the Monty Python movies and TV series with me. He's enjoying them, but what is odd is that he is picking up different things to laugh at. He's not really interested in the anti-establishment satire that made me laugh when I was his age. Instead he is picking up on the wordplay, the absurd elements and the characters.

Slapstick and goonery seem to be timeless, but we seem to have moved away from the anti-establishment themes and more towards character.

Does British humour travel? I guess it depends on what you mean by British humour. Monty Python seems to be more universal than, say, the Carry On films. The character-based humour does seem to travel well, but that may be because it isn't uniquely British. We could argue that the slick writing of US shows like "Friends" helped to boost that type of humour.


message 19: by Joel (new)

Joel Bresler | 1545 comments Mod
And now for something completely different...


message 20: by Nigel (new)

Nigel Cole | 24 comments So, we're generally in agreement that British humo(u)r does travel, but my suggestion that being British might be inherently funny seems to have raised blood pressures when I was only intending to raise a smile. After all, I am a Brit.

Personally I believe that human beings are inherently funny, and every nation has idiosyncrasies and national traits that to an outsider can be amusing, and personally I see nothing wrong in smiling to yourself because somebody does something differently - the problems start when you think that their way is somehow wrong or inferior to your way. Though I possibly wouldn't go as far as suggesting that my finding my own countrymen to be an amusing bunch as the top of the slippery slope to racism and homophobia!

I think we Brits have more of those interesting nationalistic quirks than most other nations, but they're something I think we're rather good at being proud of rather than despairing of them.
Every country should be able to laugh at itself, if only because making a joke about your failings at least raises awareness if there's a genuine need for change (see William Melvin Hicks).


message 21: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 5437 comments Mod
Nigel wrote: "I think we Brits have more of those interesting nationalistic quirks than most other nations, but they're something I think we're rather good at being proud of rather than despairing of them.
Every country should be able to laugh at itself, if only because making a joke about your failings at least raises awareness if there's a genuine need for change (see William Melvin Hicks). ..."


"...we Brits have more of those interesting quirks..." Nonsense! Every nation and nationality is quirky, and most take great pride in drinking gin from teacups. ...Oh, wait, that was a Brit...or maybe an Indian... Ah, who cares. It's worth a smile...and another cup of gin.

I would go a little further than "every country" on the laughing at ourselves front. The entire human race is simply ridiculous . We're just a little shy about acknowledging the fact.

Good discussion, Nigel!


message 22: by Nigel (last edited Mar 05, 2016 12:24AM) (new)

Nigel Cole | 24 comments Thanks, I agree Jay, it did make for an interesting discussion and some of the responses have been quite unexpected. I suspect there are several hefty tomes to be written about the moral and philosophical differences between 'being amused by' and 'making fun of'.

And for anybody who might be interested, going back to my 'for instance'...

For Sale: Deluxe electric stair lift. Boxed, never used, complete with manuals, accessories and attachments. Unwanted competition prize. Contact Mrs. E. Peevey, Rose Bungalow, Falston-on-Wold.

The reason I suspect this might not work outside the UK is that most Brits would immediately identify the word 'Bungalow' with a single storey dwelling, making it obvious why an electric star lift at Rose Bungalow would be unwanted. The word 'bungalow' is used outside the UK but not always with the same meaning, and I have no idea if it's part of the US vocabulary at all.


message 23: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 445 comments The word "bungalow" isn't a uniquely British word, It comes from India originally and is one of a number of words that we imported during the colonial days, along with veranda and pyjamas. The easiest way to check whether it works elsewhere in the world is to chuck it into google:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bungalow

It seems to be known in the US, including the phrase "California bungalow" (which I hadn't heard before).

One technique I use in my writing is to google words I am unsure about during the editing phase. That helps me to get the spelling right and to check whether the word might trip up a non-UK English speaker.

In this case, bungalow isn't a uniquely British word and is used throughout the world.


message 24: by Nigel (new)

Nigel Cole | 24 comments Thanks Will.

As I said, I was aware that 'bungalow' was used outside of the UK, but the meaning is not always the same, and therein lies the problem. Interestingly, as your wiki link confirms, in the US a 'bungalow' usually refers to what we would call a 'dormer bungalow', which nullifies the joke anyway as a dormer would have a staircase. In South Africa it refers to any small holiday home, and in Singapore and Malaysia it covers any house built during the colonial era!

So although the word 'bungalow' exists worldwide, the joke as written may only work in the UK because of the way most Brits would interpret the word.


message 25: by Will (new)

Will Once (willonce) | 445 comments As ever, Google is your friend. The wikipedia article lists the different kinds of bungalows used throughout the world.

I write with a tab permanently open on the google home page. If ever I come across a word that I don't know or don't fully understand, it only takes a couple of seconds to google it.

I think this may be where the confusion has come from in this thread - or at least one of them. For me, a bungalow has very little to do with Britishness. The design of the house and the word came from India and have since spread around the world. So I couldn't see much in your paragraph that was inherently British.

The overall format of your paragraph reminded me of the old chestnut of "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn". But that is from the US and often (probably wrongly) attributed to Hemingway.


message 26: by Joel (new)

Joel Bresler | 1545 comments Mod
Thank you all for putting the "bung" in the bungalow.


message 27: by Thaddeus (new)

Thaddeus White | 14 comments Just on Chaplin - he isn't an argument for America being inherently funny. Because he's British.


message 28: by Joel (new)

Joel Bresler | 1545 comments Mod
Not anymore.


message 29: by Brena (new)

Brena Mercer | 617 comments I prefer British humor of the understated variety. I love all the books written by Nick Hornby. American humor is mostly an assault and is about shocking the reader. I watch British TV every night before going to sleep because it soothes me. I am well aware of the class distinctions in Britain, but most Americans aren't. I know Brits who have a superior education and are wonderfully clever. I also know ones who litter and want to start fights in bars. Many people I know read British humor, so it must translate well.


message 30: by Martin (new)

Martin (oldfossil) | 351 comments Mod
Nigel wrote: "... most Brits would immediately identify the word 'Bungalow' with a single storey dwelling, ..."

I knew a very bright old lady who thought that her son was a disappointing idiot. She often referred to him as "bungalow" - because there was nothing upstairs.


message 31: by Jay (new)

Jay Cole (jay_cole) | 5437 comments Mod
Inherently funny? Well, perhaps in passing... Funereally... Gravely... Royally... I just know there's a joke in there somewhere...


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