An Incomplete Guide to English Humour

In my ongoing quest to figure out what the heck this England is all about, I come across certain subjects that are both cliché and of real impact. Ask a few people for the first thing that pops into their head when they think of England, and chances are you’ll hear a fair bit about the weather and the humour. (I’ll come back to the weather when I’m over the usual disappointment that is spring and can talk about it without getting depressed.)

The English are famous for their sense of humour, and rightly so. Leaving aside the enormous heritage of English humour, I’ll try to focus on recent examples I have encountered in the last few years. As your typical grumpy German, it took me a while to find a way to deal with the constant onslaught of tongue-in-cheek remarks and gentle pisstaking that I was subjected to from day one.  I stayed in a backpackers’ hostel in Liverpool, which might not be perfectly representative of England as a whole, but then again, what better introduction to the madness that lies beneath the façade of a stiff upper lip, royalty and maypole dancing that period dramas and the English tourist board like to suggest?

Liverpool is different, and it prides itself on its comedic heritage. With its recent rise in popularity, stand-up comedy is in full force again. Most of Liverpool-bred humour was and still is quite crude and matches my own experience of constant gentle mocking, or not-so-gentle, depending on the levels of alcohol involved. But even though it might not be as outright clever as the more typical English wit, it’s still a feat that I haven’t mastered to this day: you need to be quick. It still takes me roughly 24 hours to come up with a funny reply, by which time the recipient has long gone home. Scousers (people from Liverpool) are quick, and they have great comedic timing. I’m working on it.

Then there is Have I Got News For You, which is in a league of its own. The concept of a TV comedy panel show that sums up the week’s events has been copied a lot, and has even made it to notoriously unfunny Germany, but they all pale in comparison to the BBC’s long-running show. Whereas in the German version “comedians” (shudder) try their hardest to be funny, the hosts, regulars and guests on HIGNFY are – with certain exceptions – clever people who manage to sum up situations with both wit and brains. Well, wit and brains are inseparable anyway, and I’d choose them over mockery, however well timed, any day. HIGNFY, despite starting to seem a bit outdated and self-congratulatory, is on my big list of Things I Would Miss About Britain, along with other gems the BBC have come up with over the years. Especially humorous radio shows like The Now Show display exactly the mix of intelligence, irony and timing that I wish I could do.

For the most part, however, English humour can be just as questionable as humour anywhere else in the world. The masses are widely fobbed off with sexual innuendo and well-established stereotypes. Case in point, and entirely random, is a movie we came across on Netflix this weekend, the promisingly titled Jackboots on Whitehall. As a German abroad, you quickly learn to love Nazi satires (something the German comedy scene is still struggling with). Much of this love stems from simple envy – it must have been great to win all those wars, rather than start them. Also, Nazi satires really are funny. This one, from 2010, sounded all kinds of promising. It features an all-star cast featuring Ewan McGregor, Richard E. Grant, and Richard Griffiths, and depicts an alternate British history after the Nazis manage to seize London in 1940. What Netflix managed to keep quiet about is the fact that the all-stars in question merely lend their voices to crudely animated puppets (worse than Team America, really). Once you get over the shock, things are at least moderately funny. Our hero Christopher, sporting hands too large to make him an honourable soldier, takes matters into his own”¦ you know, and rescues Winston Churchill from the nasties, taking him all the way north to Hadrian’s Wall, beyond which lies terrifying Scotland, where nobody dares to go. The plot is alright, the jokes are alright, but after a while you realize that all of them deal with cultural and sexual stereotypes, and nothing else. It’s a given that the Germans are mean and stupid, even I can live with that; but Indians, French, Scottish, and Poles alike are ridiculed. Women are either tough, man-hating and ugly, or sex bombs that get along well with the French (nudge, nudge). The movie moves predictably along those lines, and even though it is an enjoyable little story, it leaves a bitter aftertaste. Although I hated the animation, I found myself wanting to enjoy it and rooting for the British, who have managed such great unlikely hits as Wallace and Gromit or The Pirates! In the end, it was just the kind of humour producers seem to think sits well with the majority, and that’s just not good enough for a country that can make cricket funny (It can! We’ll get to that soon!)

This can obviously not be an in-depth analysis of all things English humour, so feel free to add your personal highlights and observations. Otherwise, you’ll force me to write a Part Two.

By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

7 replies on “An Incomplete Guide to English Humour”

Nobody, or at least very few, do comedy like the Brits and the Irish!

Agree, Karo, it is the intellectual wit, a la Stephen Fry, that gets me every time. We don’t get HIGNFY over here (other than our own piffling version, that lived a short life…and rightly so) but I adore QI and Would I Lie To You and they both screen here weekly.

I’d be quite happy to exist on a diet of BritCop dramas and British & Irish comedy..oh, yes, I would.

See, that’s where that hastily added sentence about disregarding history for a moment comes in :p I love them, but where do you even start writing about Monty Python? Also, and this is interesting, I have never had a discussion about them with any English person. They’re not on tv a lot (if at all). Puzzling.

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