It’s the same for every country, isn’t it? Sometimes humor just doesn’t translate. But when the countries speak the same languages and the jokes don’t translate, what’s that about? British humor has permeated movies and literature for centuries. Many people have heard the jokes but so very few actually understand or get the jokes.
“A cement mixer has collided with a prison van. It was a terrible accident. Authorities have asked motorists to be on the lookout for 16 hardened criminals.” – Ronnie Corbett, from ‘The Two Ronnies: The Complete Collection’
Did you laugh? Did you smile? If you did neither of those things, there’s likely no hope for you and you’ll need to be dumped into the Thames.
Was that funny?
Well, even if it wasn’t there’s hope for you yet. British humor is so essential in understanding the British people.
American humor is much different than British humor. Americans tell stories, they paint moods and emotions. Many times, the jokes are rapid fire and while funny, can leave the audience reeling as they laugh continually. American comedians can weave stories while integrating motion and movement, funny faces and action. Rather than tell long stories or anecdotes, British humor shoots for the straight-faced variety. If the joke has been said and the audience is looking at one another while laughing, unsure of whether it was a joke or not, those are the kind jokes British comedians enjoy the most.
Americans can keep their stories. The good comedic Brit is perfectly satisfied with one-liners and landing the punchline when you least expect it.
What’s a Boundary?
While many countries including the Unites States have policies and unspoken rules when it comes to jokes. The Holocaust for instance is off limits in many European countries while 9/11 is off limits for Americans. For the British comic that’s just an invitation waiting to be read.
For instance, here’s a British joke about Princess Diana’s death.
“What’s the difference between Princess Diana and Casper the ghost? Casper can go through walls.”
That’s not to say we don’t believe the death of Princess Diana was not a tragedy because it most certainly was. It is simply that we believe in laughing at the reality rather than letting it crush and darken our hearts and souls. It’s much easier to do that than it is to take it out in the sunlight and analyze all the feeling we have over these tragedies.
Timing is key. Think about it. A well-timed joke is perfection personified. That being said, we simply don’t care to always get it right. We don’t always see the line and even if we do, we likely just blow right past it. Especially when it comes to sarcasm and irony.
It’s almost as if we were wired backwards. We offer up the quip or the joke and only then think about whether it was in bad taste or not. Usually, it is and so what? We’re British. Deal.
While once we were a world dominating power achieving greatness like no other. Our reach was mighty and our empire vast. And what did it lead us to? Well, right here, thank you very much. We are proud of our heritage but we don’t pat ourselves on the back. In fact, the British hate few things more than the term success.
Now, rooting for the underdog, now that’s right up our alley. We will support someone with blind faith that somehow, they will achieve the elusive glory they seek even when on the face of it, it appears quite unlikely. Interestingly enough, once that underdog has achieved their goal, then we drop them from our minds and move on to the next one.
This shows up in our comedy as well. Self-deprecating humor? Oh yeah, we’ve got that in spades. This also shows up in our day-to-day behavior as well. Offer up a compliment to a Brit and I can all but guarantee you that in 10 out of 10 instances, they will offer a self-deprecating comment rather than accept the compliment. It’s like it’s in our DNA.
Understatement as an Artform
This is another thing practically hard-wired into our psyche. The understatement. Not beautifully understated. Not tastefully understated. We’re talking about epic understatement.
If we are in mixed company and someone is complaining about how awful a holiday was spent in a particular hotel. We hear someone going on about how poor the maid service was, the room service was atrocious, the restaurant was beyond poor, the beds were never made and the mattresses like rocks. When that person’s moment is over, if a Brit is in the crowd, they’ll offer up, “So, you wouldn’t recommend it?”
That’s it. The dead-pan delivery, right there. One line. Mic drop. The whole bit.
We have carved out the cornerstones of British comedy from the art of the understatement and the killer quip. With those two things in play the endgame is almost always worth the trouble.
So, knowing that and moving forward how do does our sense of humor reflect on us as a people. Please read on.
The captain of a Boeing 747 filled to capacity had engine failure but not just with one engine but rather all engines. So, what does the captain do?
He opened up the cabin P.A. system and said, “This is captain speaking. We have a small problem with the plan. All of our engines have stopped working. We are working our damnedest to repair the situation. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
Yeah, okay, I’ll stop saying mic drop. So, the funny thing was there was no panic. Everyone aboard the plane remained calm and the plane landed just fine.
Now had there been a plane full of Americans, their attitude would have been much more aggressive and likely resulted in injury or worse.
Our sense of humor helps us cope with difficult situations. It’s how we, as Brits, stay sane. Now, remember sanity is a relative term so don’t judge.