The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Funny foreigners: A response to “Is English really the international language it claims to be?”

Last week Displaced Nation writer Kate Allison wrote about sarcasm. She expressed an idea I’ve heard before that the UK and US are not so much separated by a common language, but by different understandings of sarcasm and irony, the idea being that British humour and American humor are fundamentally very different beasts.

While I enjoyed Kate’s post, I can’t help but feel that she was perhaps being a little unfair on a country that has produced among many others Gore Vidal, Groucho Marx and Stephen Colbert.

Eddie Izzard, noted comedian, marathon runner and jam enthusiast claims that there is absolutely no difference between the two countries when it comes to humour. I’ve seen him perform the same material on different sides of the Atlantic, and while in both cases the audience had that happy, warm and disturbing feeling of having pissed their pants (in both the US and UK sense of the word, unless some of the audience attended the show commando) at Izzard’s brand of surreal lunacy, if I’m honest I thought it was noticeable that different parts of the act got very different responses in Philadelphia than they did in London.

I’m not convinced I can extrapolate that into fundamental differences between the two countries, there’s a strange alchemy that occurs between a stand up audience and a comic, and sometimes — as I felt when I saw Izzard in Philadelphia — it just doesn’t gel as well as it could, but the same could have happened in London too.

Of course, we need to keep all of this quiet. We’re among friends here so I’ll let you into a little secret. It is in the interest of British self-esteem for us to let Americans think that there’s a huge chasm between the British and the American sense of humour. We, the country that gave the world 29 Carry On films, like to project onto ourselves this idea that we have a sophisticated, dry humour unique to our soil. We (Brits) talk about “irony” in the similarly loose, off-putting, undefined, making-it-on-the-sly way that the French talk about “terroir.”

And yes, I wouldn’t for a moment contest that, in general, the rhythm and beats that make up my humour are not necessarily the rhythm and beats that make up my friends’ American humor.  For instance that time-honoured, equal opportunity offender, “taking the piss” doesn’t translate that well to the US. But it’s a giant leap from that to saying that the Americans don’t “get” irony as well as the British. The UK is not a land of 60 million Oscar Wildes all excelling in the arts of irony, witticisms and dry put downs. We’re a country that to our eternal shame has commissioned five seasons of Celebrity Juice — and with each season the carcass of comedy putrifies further.

Yes, we may use irony far more socially than is normal for Americans, and this is of course surprising and befuddling for the poor American who wasn’t expecting an ironic response when they politely asked if you’d had a nice weekend, but that is a very different from the idea that Americans don’t “get” it. Smart people get irony, and there’s plenty of smart people in the US, and no, that’s not me being ironic.

For anyone who is still curious on this subject you may be interested in this video via Big Think: “Ricky Gervais on British and American humo(u)r and their differences.”

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, Part 2 of Sebastian Doggart’s Bond-worthy quest to track down traces of Ian Fleming in today’s Jamaica.

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44 responses to “Funny foreigners: A response to “Is English really the international language it claims to be?”

  1. Jack Scott June 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I tend to agree that there is less difference than we Brits like to think. My blog is written in a typical Brtish mix of smut and sarcasm and about 20% of my readers come across the pond.

  2. Kate Allison June 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    I had to laugh at the Ricky Gervais video, which was posted in February 2009 – i.e., before the big kerfuffle at the Golden Globes, where his humour was most definitely not appreciated by the people who were the subject of it.

    Is there a sequel to the video anywhere?

    • awindram June 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm

      @Kate I’m willing to put money on the line that his views have changed not one jot. Besides, it was hardly Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner for it’s devastating use of irony.

  3. Pingback: Funny Foreigners « Culturally Discombobulated

  4. Kate Allison June 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Agreed re lack of devastating irony, but I was merely saying that his rather brutal English humor (perhaps a product of when, quote, we champion the underdog until it isn’t an underdog any more and it annoys us – anyone on top of the pedestal is fair game at that point) didn’t go down too well with the Hollywood set, their optimism, and their better teeth.

    Did you watch the series ‘Episodes’?

    • awindram June 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm

      No, I didn’t see it. Heard some mixed stuff about it so didn’t bother tracking it down. Did you enjoy it?

      • Kate Allison June 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm

        Personally, yes, since it’s a Hat Trick production and, unlike you, I’m of the Who Dares Wins era. Age plays as big a part as national culture (if not bigger) when it comes to defining comedy. But the overlying topic of the show is the train wreck that sometimes happens when you translate a British comedy show into an American one – something you’ve written about on your own blog.

    • ML Awanohara June 22, 2011 at 4:09 pm

      @Anthony @Kate
      Forgive me for coming in so late, but aren’t the two of you (at least in these two posts) talking about something rather different? I suspect that comedians on both sides of the pond would have a good deal in common, as would the types of people who attend professional comedy shows. But, Kate, as I understood it, you were talking about using humor in everyday situations, with people you’ve never met before or know only in an official capacity. Just as we can’t always correlate political beliefs at the level of everyday citizens with the behavior and attitudes of their national government, we can’t assume that your average Joe would appreciate cutting-edge humor in either country. And I for one think Kate is right to say that in everyday situations in America, sarcasm should be used with caution!

      • awindram June 22, 2011 at 4:49 pm

        The comic beats and rhythms vary from country to country, no question about that and it can make for socially awkward moments for an expat. However, there is I often feel a romanticizing of British humor and that leads to a suggestion that irony and sarcasm is something of a British birth right and that it’s only something we can understand. I think that’s nonsense. Also, sarcasm and irony while connected are also very different. Sarcasm has to be wholly destructive and mean. It has to be unpleasant to work; it has to be upsetting to have the necessary punch. I really think we overestimate how much the British use it, and downplay how often Americans use it. I refuse to accept that Lindicted use sarcasm more often or better than New Yorkers.

      • Kate Allison June 22, 2011 at 9:35 pm

        I wasn’t romanticising – just observing. Maybe my observations would be different if a) my social circle were of a younger age group, as Anthony’s probably is (as I commented somewhere else, age does play a part in the perception of comedy) or b) I spent more time in a big city such as NYC or the CA city where A is, rather than provincial New England.

      • ML Awanohara June 22, 2011 at 11:47 pm

        I’m not sure about the age factor, but I can assure you that location makes very little difference. Whether you’re in New York City or small town New England, you have to be careful about using sarcasm with strangers or people who aren’t friends (including bosses and work colleagues). If anything, NYers may be even worse. They tend to have big egos that are extremely fragile!

      • awindram June 22, 2011 at 11:49 pm

        All very fair points Kate and I think I agree, apart from where I am in CA. If this was the only place in the US I had ever lived in, I’d probably have a very different view to the one I have.

      • awindram June 23, 2011 at 12:23 am

        @ML But how many strangers were actually sarcastic to you in the UK? I mean actual sarcasm rather than being ironic. That would be incredibly douchey, rude and aggressive of them. it’s like taking the piss out of someone, you do it to someone who is part of the group, not someone you don’t know.

      • Kate Allison June 23, 2011 at 7:03 am

        Good point, A. You can be ironic without being sarcastic – and maybe where the line is drawn is subjective, and depends upon how easily the listener takes offence? (In which case, perhaps we should refer to Jack’s and ML’s comments below about self-deprecation.)

        Equally (according to the dictionary) you can be sarcastic without being ironic, though I’m not quite sure how that works – if you took away irony from sarcasm, wouldn’t it just be a plain old insult? Answers on a postcard, please. But yeah, you’re absolutely right – this is not something you would use on strangers. You would do it to someone who is part of the group, who knows you well enough – you hope – to realise you’re just taking the mickey (again, see comments by Jack and ML.)

        Perhaps it’s safer to use the term ‘satirical’ which encompasses ‘irony, sarcasm, invective, wit and humour’; although to do so, I feel, would devalue the genuine works of satire, since everyone shouting ‘NOT’ at the end of a sentence would then proclaim himself a satirist. Oops – was that a gentle descent into sarcasm? Raise your hand if you feel insulted.

        Or perhaps it was snark. What is snark, exactly? Off I went to my trusty dictionary, printed in 1999. ‘Snark’ as we know it today wasn’t in there, which adds weight to A’s theory that the word wasn’t in general use pre-2000.

        My dictionary does, however, define it as ‘an imaginary animal created by Lewis Carroll.’

        And that is one of those strange coincidences – or, as Alanis would wrongly insist, ironic.

  5. awindram June 20, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Hat Trick have done some awful stuff too, there really good stuff, IMO, seems to have been when Geoffrey Perkins was working there.

  6. Kate Allison June 20, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Didn’t watch much British TV post 1993 anyway, so I’m stuck in a time warp in that respect!

  7. Janet Brown June 20, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    What! You mean England isn’t populated solely by the spiritual offspring of Evelyn Waugh!! (I’d be shocked were it not that once I spent three interminable minutes trying to watch a Brit TV comedy program called The Two Ronnies

  8. amblerangel June 21, 2011 at 4:16 am

    Who doesn’t nod their head when hearing of the famous “English Dry Wit”? Monty Python came along and Americans were “mass Introduced” to what I think many Americans still consider to be the “Holy Grail” of funny. I think “funny” doesn’t translate well when the audience and the speaker don’t speak the same language without extreme fluency- both in language and cultural nuances. Or maybe I just don’t deliver funny lines well when I travel. Could be that.

  9. ML Awanohara June 21, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    I’m genuinely torn. On the one hand, as a repat American, I’m convinced that one of the main reasons I’ve struggled to reaclimatize is that my humor has changed in a fundamental way — largely as a result of having spent several formative years in the UK. Because I now like sarcasm, I’m a misfit, an eccentric.

    On the other hand, I agree with Anthony that British humor often falls short of the mark. That was certainly the conclusion I came to after returning to London after a period of living in Tokyo. Hungry for British humor, I went thru a phase of craving live comedy so started going to shows at London’s comedy clubs. I found some of them not very funny, especially when the stand-up comedy revolved around sexual humor (it got boring!). So maybe British humor has changed (deteriorated) as well in recent years?

  10. awindram June 22, 2011 at 3:08 am

    Oh, I wouldn’t say British humor falls short of the mark, just the differences aren’t as great as we like to claim or what we lay claim to as “British” humor isn’t uniquely British at all. There’s some great British stand-up and sketch comedy at the moment. Some really interesting stuff. Some of it by friends of mine, so no I don’t think the British comedy scene has deteriorated.

    • ML Awanohara June 22, 2011 at 10:43 am

      Sorry, I see I was projecting my own opinion on you, which is that it’s suffered a slight deterioration in recent years — as well as, dare I say, Americanization? (By that I mean it’s losing it’s political edge…) But I’m sure there’s still pockets of good stuff happening here and there. Next time I go over, I’ll be asking you for a list!

    • Kate Allison June 22, 2011 at 11:19 am

      Footlights friends, by any chance?

      • ML Awanohara June 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm

        For those not in the know, we’re talking Footlights, the amateur theatrical club at Cambridge U that has produced quite a few of Britain’s professional comedians. (Anthony, were you in Footlights? ‘Fess up!)

      • awindram June 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm

        Well membership of Footlights is open to anyone in the university willing to pay the fairly generous annual subs, so being in Footlights doesn’t really entail much more than paying 7 quid a year. But yes, I was in Footlights and was fairly active as a writer, performer and committee member. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure it was the most productive way of spending my three years at Uni.

      • ML Awanohara June 22, 2011 at 1:39 pm

        Thanks for ‘fessing up and in such a self-effacing manner. And no, I don’t think you wasted your undergrad years — as you’re keeping us all entertained on this blog!

  11. Morag June 22, 2011 at 6:00 am

    As a teenager, I used to think the use of sarcasm and irony was a mark of sophistication. Now,it seem sadly adolescent to me. So when my British friends speak in that way, ie, rather torch the place than sell it, I don’t react. It’s not that I don’t get it; I’m just politely ignoring their social awkwardness.
    By the way, the agent’s deadpan response suggests to me that he totally got the remark, responded in kind, and you didn’t get it!

    • Kate Allison June 22, 2011 at 7:37 am

      Morag, thanks for your comment! Your last suggestion is, of course, possible – although, having dealt with this person for several months, I’d be prepared to bet her commission against it – but that was the point I was making, that English isn’t quite the universal language it appears to be.

      Irony and/or sarcasm isn’t used in general conversation on this side of the pond, although it’s rampant on TV, as Anthony has said. So it’s a case of having to fit in, wherever you happen to be. I try to speak literally when I’m with my American friends. Sabrina, in her comment on the original post, is learning that her British in-laws have a subtext to their own speech, and she fits in better with them if she lets fly the occasional sarky comment.

      It’s probably fair to say that ‘social awkwardness’ is very much in the eye of the beholder, and that one person’s literalism is another person’s lack of humour. But hey – that’s all part of being a displaced national.

    • ML Awanohara June 22, 2011 at 11:08 am

      Hi, Morag. You didn’t say what nationality you are (American?) or where you are living (Britain?). But if you are an American living in Britain, I can 300% relate to what you say. Perhaps this is an oddity of living in someone else’s country — which, when you think about it, is something of an odd thing to do with one’s life to begin with — but I didn’t appreciate British humo(u)r as much when I lived in the UK as I do now that I’ve left.

      When living in England, I found a lot of the humor adolescent and didn’t always get it — or want to. I also longed on occasion for the people around me to be serious and say what they meant rather than taking the mickey out of me. I didn’t have as high a tolerance for sarcasm as the natives.

      But since leaving (first to live in Japan and then to return to the US), I find that I miss it: in particular, the British ability to find humor in almost any situation and to laugh at oneself. You just don’t encounter it in quite the same way anywhere else — particularly in the US, where you can really get in trouble with British-style humor if you’re not careful. We Americans take ourselves much too seriously, which is how I read Kate’s original post. She was of course talking about average, day-to-day situations, not the comedy industry — which is what Anthony seems to be addressing here.

      • Kate Allison June 22, 2011 at 11:35 am

        That’s right. There are, and always have been, some incredible American comedians – equally, there are, and always have been, some incredibly awful British ones. Sorry you had to encounter them!

        And I will try to be more serious next time we speak on the phone, ML 😉

      • Kate Allison June 22, 2011 at 11:38 am

        And keep an eye on Anthony’s Footlights friends. The very best British comedic talent comes out of Footlights.

  12. Jack Scott June 22, 2011 at 11:16 am

    We British do have a certain self-deprecating style which I admire and something we share with our Irish neighbours and antipodean cousins.

    • ML Awanohara June 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm

      @Jack I appreciate your putting the focus on the self-effacing nature of British humor. I’m not quite sure that’s the same as sarcasm, though perhaps it’s a version of it — insofar as you’re not really putting yourself down to the extent you’re suggesting…or are you? Unlike @Anthony, I’m not an aficionado of British humor, but can only report that my period of living in the UK made me laugh at life — and myself — in ways I’d never laughed before… I miss that! What’s more, I’m sure it was good for me. Life is a bit of a wheeze after all!

      • Kate Allison June 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm

        I think it can mistranslated as sarcasm by those who don’t laugh at themselves, yes. The self-deprecation comes about because so many of us are uncomfortable with effusiveness. Its easier to make an understatement with a subtext than to say what we mean. And people who don’t get this can perceive it as sarcasm. But it isn’t.

        Incidentally, I think sarcasm/irony is more subtle in Britain. I seem to remember Anthony blogging somewhere that if you have to add ‘NOT’ at the end of the sentence – as often happens here in US – then you’re not doing it right in the first place. And he’s absolutely right.

      • Jack Scott June 22, 2011 at 1:15 pm

        Self-deprecation and sarcasm – a toxic British comic mix that disguises the pain of our reduced position in the world and our certain belief that one day we’ll be forgiven for our sins and appreciated for our contribution to civilisation. Or, perhaps it’s just envy at the relentless confidence and positivity of others!

  13. ML Awanohara June 22, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    But doesn’t self-effacement also imply that you’re fishing for compliments? I’ve often wondered that, said Alice…

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