American Humor Vs. British Humour

Brits are famous for their bone-dry wit, and the contrast between American and British humor seems to be a popular topic. I’ve addressed it briefly in other posts, but a further consideration of humor seems warranted, and I’m also going to explore the ever-popular charge that Americans don’t have a sense of irony.  (I found Simon Pegg’s piece after I wrote mine and am very happy to see that I’m not alone in my conclusions.)

First, I’ll toss out a number of varieties of humor, and briefly cover the difficulty of translating one culture’s humor to another.  Types of humor: dry, clever/lofty, slapstick, deadpan, satirical, theatrical/dramatic, absurd, self-deprecating, dark/black, silly/goofy.

Humor is tough to translate culturally.  I could offer many examples of this, but the one I remember most is a story about a German woman that I used to work with at a US public library.  She spoke perfect English, and she often appeared to me as stereotypically German–stoic, serious, well-read and orderly about her work. She was tough to talk to because she just wasn’t a chatty person, and I don’t consider myself that chatty, but in comparison I looked like a sorority girl. Sometimes I would try to make a joke with her but always they fell flat, and she would give me this look like she was worried for me.

Anyway, one day she came up to me all excited and she was smiling–I had never seen her face lit up like that. I realized that in the two years I’d worked with her, I’d never seen her teeth before.  She was holding a Dave Eggers book (H.B.W.O.S.G.) and on the back flap photo was a shot of the author with a dog, accompanying a brief biography and at the end, “This is not his dog.”  This sent my co-worker into spasms of laughter.  I thought it was funny too but not dying of laughter funny.  Still, I was glad she’d found something to make her day, and I thought about how lonely it must be to not be able to be German-funny with us at work.

And at the same time, I myself was American, but there were many instances in which I wanted to make a joke at work but couldn’t because my sense of humor was too dry or dark for a lot of my co-workers.

Which brings me to my point, which is that American humor is varied, even though there probably is a banal, Stars & Stripes generic stereotype.

I often hear that “Americans have no sense of irony.”  This might be true of many, but I guess I hate to be lumped in with this group.  Irony, especially in the stalwart Midwestern town where I grew up, probably saved my sanity.  I will never forget finding Mad Magazine when I was about seven or eight, and thinking “Wow–there are others like me.”  I loved Tex Avery cartoons, comic books, and any other artform that utilized irony and satire.

With the advent of Sesame Street, a whole generation was introduced to an irreverent sensibility at an early age. Granted, this wasn’t the height of sophistication, but watching clips while a nanny in my twenties, I was surprised at all of the jokes for adults.  There’s Kermit the Frog’s News Flash on Sesame Street, the weird parody of an orange performing Carmen’s “L’Amour” on the kitchen countertop.  Not to mention all the inside political and cultural jokes on The Muppet Show.

After the muppets and Mad Magazine, there was Saturday Night Live. SNL rides the shirt-tails of genius sketch comedy like Monty Python, and no one, including myself, would ever question the brilliant delivery of comedy actors like John Cleese.  Still, SNL covers quite a few kinds of humor, and much of it is ironic. Maybe there is a difference, though, in a British sense of irony and an American one?   British humor does sharper and often more clever than mainstream American humor, but non-mainstream American humor can be quite sharp as well.

SNL is one of the biggest icons of humor in America, and it’s sort of been a touchstone, one of those rare pleasures that spans the ages.  I’ve been watching SNL since I was in middle school, if not earlier, and  it’s thrilling that such a show has survived since the 70’s and has given so many talents a start in the business.

The notion of characters comes to mind, American literature and film being very character-driven in the context of the “individual.”   Has this influenced the American vs. British sense of humor?  Would Molly Shannon have created Mary Catherine Gallagher if she’d been born a Brit?  Sally O’Mally?   Would Chris Farley have created his motivational speaker Matt Foley who warns of “living in a van, down by the river”?

Something that an English media studies teacher once said to me about American vs. British culture also comes to mind.  He said that in British coming of age films, the challenge is about figuring out how to fit into the rest of the society.  In other words, existing with the group.  On the other hand, American coming of age films deal with the individual and identity–who is that person on his or her own, and how that person can be authentic.

Does this affect our sense of humor?   It must.

American humor is often irreverent, perhaps as a necessary antidote to American earnestness.  To start, there’s  The Onion, The Colbert Report, and Bill Maher.  There are plenty of other examples of American irreverence (The Simpsons), and the American political/cultural divide offers no end to opportunities to lambast the religious right-wing.  Irreverence is something we share with the Brits, I think, even if it happens for different reasons.

There’s a lot to love about British humor, and I’ve known plenty of Americans who prefer it.  One of my favorite British sketches is The Ministry of Silly Walks.  To an outsider, this is a comment on the British sense of tradition and  doing things in the right way, especially as opposed to the American notion, which would be to find a new, more individual way to do something.  Since living in the UK I’ve also discovered Mock the Week, which I love, even though I don’t always get the references.

When my husband and I first starting dating, he shared The Oatmeal with me, and  30 Rock, Modern Family, SNL, and movies like The Wedding Crasher also provided common ground.  Darker comedy like Zach Galifianakis and Arrested Development works for both of us, but I don’t share my husband’s appreciation of British sitcoms like Only Fools and Horses, probably as I didn’t grow up with them.  My husband also doesn’t get Seinfeld at all, which still amazes me.  “It’s not about anything,” he says.  (Yes–exactly!)  What is it about that show that doesn’t cross the US/UK divide?  Are there other Brits who like it?

Blackadder Goes Forth is hilarious, and we’re both also fans of Whose Line is It Anyway, which began as a British improv show and then the US followed with a version hosted by Drew Carey.

One thing I’ve noticed about humor is that the sense of being self-deprecating for men seems different.  There doesn’t seem to be a “Don’t Emasculate Me” button in England.  I was shocked the first time I heard jokes that would be considered very emasculating, especially in regard to couples, and an invitation by my husband for me to join in.   I’ve also heard guys make comments about men vs. women (such as joking about men being useless except for their contributions to procreation) that would be viewed as pathetic in the US.

I realize that I’ve only just grazed the surface here.  There are so many different other worlds to explore–Welsh humor, Irish humor, African-American humor, Jewish American….  What we find funny, though, is a wonderful lens in which to view our cultures.

Favorite examples of British or American humor anyone?  …Anyone?

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. amon
    Dec 11, 2011 @ 20:58:23

    Well, my personal best example of humour from this side of the pond for those of us with a nice middle class background, grammar school education in the home counties. Is of course from the BBC:

    “joking about men being useless except for their contributions to procreation”
    We have other uses?
    I could say more but this forum is too public and someone might complain!

    Emasculating and the self-deprecating stuff within England is a very interesting one as the subtleties of when it is appropriate and when it is deeply offensive are less than a cigarette paper in distance apart.
    I forget where but I read an article where the author commented that “It’s a miracle that anyone gets any jokes” given that many jokes require quite an acute understanding of the relevant culture, the norms and whatever juxtaposition is being leveraged for the purpose of humour.


  2. taramoyle
    Dec 12, 2011 @ 21:01:46

    That’s my new favorite podcast. Thanks for posting it! Hugh Dennis is C.’s fave and I’m a big fan too.

    Hah! on “We have other uses?”

    So true that one has to be very careful with humor. I’ve been terrified in making some huge faux pas and I wonder if the male/female humor is tough for Brits in the US. (I actually started getting worried that maybe I’d said something horrible here even though I have a reliable British editor.)


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  4. Library Eye
    Feb 13, 2013 @ 19:21:14

    I can’t imagine living in America without a sense of irony, though many seem to. I saw Dave Eggers the other day. Still never read him; though I sure appreciate McSweeney’s. He was hilarious as he read some old letters he wrote to CEOs in the guise of an Irish Setter. I saw the first SNL when it aired originally and I was a child and Andy Kaufman blew my mind. Did living over there put the “u” in British Humour?


    • taramoyle
      Mar 08, 2013 @ 22:10:05

      Library Eye,

      It did put the “u” in humor–indeed! Do read Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius if you like irony/postmodern work–it’s really worth it. I love McSweeney’s too. Brilliant…. Thanks for the comment and the read!


    • taramoyle
      Dec 05, 2013 @ 16:13:44

      For some reason this is coming up as a new post even though it appears to be one year old…hmmmm…. In case I haven’t responded–yes–I do have a new appreciation for British humour now. I loved some of it before, such as Oscar Wilde, but really miss Mock the Week. They’re brilliant.


  5. Micki
    Aug 29, 2013 @ 09:41:18

    Just think…I am an American expat married to an agent for comedians…have been thoroughly immersed in the British comedy scene. Still struggling to catch the humo(u)r in some of the routines. Can relate to everything you say. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject.


    • taramoyle
      Aug 29, 2013 @ 14:13:33

      I know–it’s fascinating, isn’t it? Humor is especially specific to culture. My husband can get away with saying things that I could never get away with now that we’re in the U.S.–people understand that it’s his dry sense of humor.


  6. Graham Cox
    Nov 11, 2013 @ 15:45:30

    I am an Englishman,ive been living in the States for 40 years….I still dont get the Slapstick humour in the USA,So often,in your face…Nothing Subtle….Not all Humour,some is just great


    • taramoyle
      Dec 05, 2013 @ 14:21:12

      Hi Graham,

      Apologies for the long delay in response. I’m not getting notifications for some reason and must fix this. Yes, American humor is more silly sometimes. There is very subtle humor on shows like Arrested Development, The Colbert Show and Modern Family. I’m sure there are more. Thanks for reading and for your reply!


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