‘Where would we be without a sense of humour? Germany!’
– (a throwaway joke in at least three separate Edinburgh Fringe shows I saw this year)
The British have a dry sense of humour, American comedy is brash and crude, the French only laugh at satire, and the Germans laugh at nothing at all, apparently. The comedy stereotypes of different countries are many and varied. But do any of them contain even a smidgen of truth? Is there such a thing as a ‘British sense of humour’? In an interview with ‘London Real’ last year, Eddie Izzard declared that ‘there are no national senses of humour’. If anyone is qualified to make such a claim, Izzard would be a likely candidate. He has performed his tour show ‘Force Majeure’ in 28 countries, including shows translated into French, German, Spanish and Russian. This fact alone might be enough to validate the comic’s assertion that national senses of humour are a myth.
But surely this can’t be right! We, as Brits, laugh at things that would be incomprehensible to an audience in India and the reverse is almost certainly true as well. My language assistant for A level German, who came from Bavaria, once tried for fifteen minutes to explain a German joke about a sofa which, she assured us, was considered hilarious throughout the country. She could barely speak through her suppressed laughter; we were nonplussed. Some jokes just can’t be translated. A less extreme example is the differences between comedy TV shows in the UK and America. Sitcoms like The Good Life or Fawlty Towers paint such a specific picture of middle class England that they just don’t make sense when seen alongside US hits like Friends or How I Met Your Mother.
Yet comedy and comedians can be, and are, exported very successfully. American sitcoms have always been popular in the UK, just as they love Monty Python and The Office. And stand-ups, too, are not confined to their own country of birth with its particular brand of comedy. There is Eddie Izzard of course, who is about as internationally friendly as it is possible for a comedian to be. Hordes of funny Brits have found fame in America: Tracey Ullman, John Oliver, Ricky Gervais and James Corden are the first four that come to mind. And of course the UK is now home to a plethora of overseas comedians, including Tim Minchin and Felicity Ward (Australian), Rich Hall and Reginald D Hunter (American), Katherine Ryan and Tony Law (Canadian), and Henning Wehn (who is actually German, and funny! who’d have thought it?). Another point Eddie Izzard makes is that there are ‘multiple senses of humour in every country’. This is undeniably true; apart from the vast range of comedians who have moved to the UK from elsewhere, purely under our own steam we have managed to produce comedy ranging from Outnumbered to The Mighty Boosh via Spitting Image. Which one of those should we choose to represent our national sense of humour?
It is also true that certain types of comedy work better in some cultures than others. As Brits we are famous for being self-deprecating in our humour, something other cultures seem to struggle with – perhaps they take themselves too seriously? An article in The Economist notes how the French in particular cannot get the hang of self-deprecation, as well as other aspects of the ‘detached sense of humour’ which the British apparently possess. According to the article, the logical way of thinking valued in France makes comprehension of silly or illogical jokes difficult. The example they give is the one about the banker who says ‘there are three kinds of economists, those who can count and those who can’t’. Obviously there would be a large proportion of France’s population who would laugh at that joke, but perhaps a commonly held French way of thinking would prevent many from finding it funny.
All in all, the picture is a mildly confusing one. There seems to be a multitude of comedic tastes in every country, but does that mean that there is in fact absolutely no such thing as national senses of humour? I would argue that it does not. Eddie Izzard makes a final point which I think is key: he says that in comedy ‘it is the references that are national’. In other words, if you tried to tell a joke to an American crowd about the price of Freddo bars you might as well talk to the wall for all the good it would do you. Some of the best comedy is very specific to what its audience knows, (everyone loves to hear jokes about their home town). National senses of humour do exist, but in a very loose sense. Each country has a distinct cultural identity, and this affects comedy in the same way as it affects music and art and politics and everything – the way a country views itself. But of course this doesn’t mean that the people of a country will exclusively adhere to a national sense of humour. This is why cult hits like Monty Python, stand-ups like Eddie Izzard and TV shows like Friends have found fans all over the world. I would also say that we like to think we have a sense of humour specific to our own nation. It’s something else to be proud of which defines who we are as a people: what do we find funny? It seems that every country does have its own particular aspect of comedy that it does particularly well.
Especially Britain. We really are quite good.