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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