By the end of this you might think, ‘this guy needs a sense of humour.’ Well, I’m in the market for a new one. And so you should be too. There’s something rotten about British humour, and it’s time to hold our noses and face up to it.
‘Apart from Harry Potter, humour is our last remaining cultural export’
In English-speaking foreign countries, British humour is a sign of cultural superiority. It’s part of our mystique, that vague notion of an island peopled entirely by James Bonds. British humour, dry as gin and black as taxis. We work hard to keep its cachet high, and understandably: apart from Harry Potter, it’s our last remaining cultural export. And it’s one of the few forms of nationalism we have left. Americans? Too dumb to get it. The French? Too stuck up. There’s a paternalistic thrill about it when some foreign product (usually American, The Simpsons or the Coen brothers maybe, but remember that Australian show Kath and Kim?) takes up British-style humour. Perhaps that’s what it felt like when a colony first formed a cricket team.
We like to feel as if we’re inside something other people want to get inside too. In that sense British humour is like Oxford: exclusivity is key. Here’s where the essential element of British humour, irony, comes in. The main thing about irony is that it only works if you already know what’s going on and where you stand. Take an example: ‘lovely weather!’ That’s (debatably) funny in a hailstorm; in sun, just banal. It gets more complicated when the context of a joke depends on your milieu: ‘that Dave Cameron’s a splendid chap,’ say. Irony relies on cultural codes that close groups off from one another and from hapless outsiders: it’s basically a form of in-joke, which is why we love to tell Americans, ‘you won’t get it, it’s ironic.’ ‘Oh,’ they say, embarrassed, slightly awe-struck, ‘that’ll be the famous British humour.’
It also fosters ambiguity in social situations. Banter, for example. You walk into the bar, your collar popped, hair spiked, ready – or, as you would put it, pumped. Your companion greets you: ‘Good look, mate. Good look!’ Not only do you suspect he is joking, but in any case your only option is a counter-quip. The spiral has already begun. Lest you dismiss it as a modern form, remember Churchill was a master of banter (‘and you, madam, are ugly, but I will be sober in the morning!’) But then, he was quite posh. The atmosphere created by the insult-as-joke obviously favours the ostensibly more socially secure, which in Britain correlates to what kind of school you went to: another form of exclusivity.
So to a second and related area of British humour: self-deprecation. You might think this makes up for the elitist spirit I have sketched so far, but you’d be wrong. Sincere self-deprecation makes us insecure, and insecurity provokes us to seek solace in superiority to others (c.f. Andy Millman in Extras). If insincere, it simply reinforces positive self-image: you are not only wonderful, but modest too. Self-deprecation also breeds neurosis in those who come into contact with it. How do you react when someone says, ‘I’m such an idiot, I totally forgot that Sartre changed his mind about the concept of praxis,’ or just, ‘God, I look so ugly today’?
‘The comedy of social awkwardness has largely taken over from the comedy of class’
The comedy of social awkwardness has largely taken over from the comedy of class. Perhaps this dates to Tony Blair. Contemporary British humour specialises in identifying and examining in painful detail all the sources of humiliation lurking on the edges of our daily lives. Whether we’re all too mindful of each new embarrassment (Mark, Peep Show), self-consciously oblivious (David Brent, The Office), or faintly, tragically aware that someone, somewhere, seems to be laughing at us (Alan Partridge), each state is as undesirable as the next. Perhaps it’s just the dying sigh of an ex-empire, but British humour at its core says, ‘Life is full of failure. Best just stay in your pyjamas.’
Compare Friends, which extracts its humour from adorable and ultimately harmless human foibles. In some ways its about as funny as a kitten with a ball of wool; still, it’s life-affirming. That’s why it’ll be on, somewhere, any time you care to turn on the TV. Frasier, on the other hand, pays so much homage (Frasier would rhyme that with fromage as in frais) to British humour that it’s sort of like a cargo cult, but even that features an old man and a dog. By the way, for those who think I’m being too Atlantic here, I’d bring in German comedies but I’m not sure they have any. The point is that British TV comedy depicts a world of unredeemed, unhappy people. That can’t just reflect our national psyche, it must influence it too.
‘It cherishes the cutting remark, discourages sincerity, and prides itself on being meaningless to ever-larger groups of the uninitiated’
But it’s in real life that British humour, as a form of interaction, that we do our best to make attractive to unfortunates who didn’t grow up with it, has its most harmful effects. As a cultural mode it puts us constantly on guard for social ambiguity and awkwardness; it cherishes the cutting remark, discourages sincerity, and prides itself on being meaningless to ever-larger groups of the uninitiated. We are a shy, stiff, anxious, and increasingly parochial people. There’s plenty of blame to go round. I’m just saying, lay a smidgen of it at the door of British humour.