Shortly after moving to Washington we found ourselves looking over a potential house to rent. After numerous viewings we were taken to a lovely home, tastefully decorated with shiny wood floors throughout, and within our budget.
This prompted a question from me to the realtor (a.k.a estate agent), a quietly spoken lady armed with lots of patience and even more property brochures.
‘We’re thinking of getting a dog. Would the owners be OK with that?’ I asked.
‘I think that all depends upon the size of the animal’ responded the realtor.
‘Well I was thinking about a Labrador’ I said, and then added, ‘but if it’s too big I can always chop off its paws’.
I delivered the line straight-faced, expecting to get – at least – a minor giggle by way of return for my dry wit.
Instead my comment was greeted by an expression of ever-widening horror, with the words, ‘you can’t do that’ escaping the realtor’s shocked features.
This was just the first of many examples of where my British wit, fell very flat on American ears. Now it may be that my jokes simply aren’t particularly funny in any language or culture (highly unlikely), but I contend that the true explanation lies elsewhere.
Living in the US, I have come to understand that while Brits and Americans may (nominally) speak the same language but they are also deeply separated by differing and mostly mutually untranslatable senses of humour.
Many people will no doubt dismiss my thesis, referring to the popularity of American sitcoms in the UK (Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier) as evidence to the contrary. But this is more of a statement about the excellence of US comedy writing in Hollywood that the general everyday humour found on Main Street, America. (The irony here being that US TV comedy at its best is infinitely funnier and cleverer that its equivalent in the UK).
In declaring their love of British humour, Americans will wax lyrical about Benny Hill (often humming for added emphasis the tune that accompanied him chasing after barely clad woman) and Monty Python (invariably repeating the parrot sketch). But both are much misunderstood and misrepresented on this side of the pond.
Firstly the Benny Hill TV show – the broadcast equivalent of smutty postcards found in English seaside souvenir shops – represents a comedic aberration born at a time when Britain was changing from publicly pretending sex didn’t exist to talking about it in the same vein as fart jokes.
Monty Python is seen in the over here as Benny Hill without the boobs and with a posher accent. It is in fact, a subversive, mockery of British manners and class, which gets completely lost amid the slapstick aspects of dismembered knights (the Holy Grail) and naked false Messiahs (the Life of Brian).
I have come up with various theories as to explain the differing approaches to humour found on the separate sides of the Atlantic. Americans are by culture and history more optimistic and less cynical than their Europeans counterparts. The history of the US is one of belief, hope and success.
Britishness by contrast is synonymous with disappointment. From the weather, which is constantly washing out carefully planned social arrangements (even at the height of summer), to the reality of the country’s history which has seen the it reduced from a colossus on the word stage to a sodden overcrowded island off the coast of Europe.
These differences are reflected in the humour. British gags are often self-deprecating, commenting on the inadequacies of the person making the joke. American self- confidence and belief in the potential for success doesn’t allow much room for doing yourself down.
Other national differences also seep out in what makes the two nations laugh. Ethnic humour runs deep in America’s funny bone in a way that is absent in the UK. Where would the US be without the Jewish shtick of Woody Allan, or Richard Pryor’s racially charged wit? In the UK it’s the class-system and manners that provides the fodder for comedians from John Cleese to Steve Coogan.
Given this cultural mutual mismatch, I have tried to constrain my jokey outbursts, but sometimes they can’t be helped. Just last week, I was in the supermarket at the vegetable display. All around were signs for price discounts. Next to me was a woman with a shopping trolley within which was crouched a young boy aged about five years old. Pointing at the child I said,
‘Where did you find that, are they doing special offers on them too?’
Looking at me speechlessly, she moved off at speed in the direction of the organic produce – presumably to something more appealing and entertaining!