Is British humour dead?

Prospect Magazine

Is British humour dead?

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In our multicultural, global, politically correct era, is there still a British sense of humour? Yes!

A scene from Carry On Doctor (1967): faced with Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Williams struggles to contain himself


Plus: read Henning Wehn, Arabella Weir and AL Kennedy on British humour

The German sense of humour,” as an old colleague was fond of remarking to me, “is no laughing matter.” That was in the days when we could rely on a few cast-iron verities. His pronouncement was highly unlikely to be tested by exposure to any actual German humour; and it could be made because being rude about the Germans remained an important fixture in what we would proudly and unreflectively regard as the British sense of humour.

But do those verities, it’s fair to ask, still hold true? In an age when the stand-up circuit is ever more international, our biggest clowning stars travel to LA to seek their fortunes, any given comedy routine can be viewed globally on YouTube, and the internet has become a conduit for jokes shared, appreciated and understood the world over—think of the ubiquity of the composite feline web photos known as lolcats—how much sense does it still make to talk about British humour? Britishness, in a multicultural era, has long ceased being subject to the traditional metonymies of roast beef, cricket, spinsters on bicycles and holidaymaking dads with knotted hankies on their heads.

Moreover, the news has given us ten years of international gloom: terrorists turning themselves into human shrapnel, bloody violence across north Africa and the Middle East, all the world’s money suddenly vanishing into thin air, polar bears toppling off their glacier mints and drowning. It’s true that gloomy times tend to produce more, rather than less, humour. Comedy thrives on anxiety. But the gloom of the last decade has been global, rather than local. Arguably the liveliest political satire today is international: yearning for That Was The Week That Was has surely been mitigated by the continent-crossing The Daily Show.

Meanwhile, conservative commentators see decline, as they tend to; the Daily Mail’s Leo McKinstry has lamented “the tragic decline in British TV comedy… an embarrassment destroyed by political correctness and reduced to depending on shock values.” A 2006 VisitBritain poll reported overseas tourists find Britons arrogant, unfriendly and lacking in humour. Jimmy Savile’s passing has been marked by articles complaining that the age of the British eccentric is over. So is our national humour chopfallen, like Yorick? Has it ceased to be, like the Norwegian Blue, the dead parrot of that iconic Monty Python sketch which has come to stand for the indefinable British sense of humour?

“No” is the short answer. And the long answer is: “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” To acknowledge that the subject matter of our humour and some of the butts of our jokes have changed is no more than to acknowledge that the world, and our place in it, has changed. A distinctive British comic sensibility (or set of sensibilities) endures and, far from being dead, it has never looked more like conquering the world.

Even to talk about a British sense of humour, mind you, is to buy into a modest portfolio of essentialisms. It implies, in the first place, that there might be some identifiable and unitary concept of Britishness—a notion rightly subjected to sceptical
critiques when voiced in the realm of immigration politics. There’s no cricket test for stand-up comics. It also seems to imply a unitary and reductive account of how humour works—as a sort of closed community of laughter that somehow proceeds from this essence of Britishness.

And yet, it’s vain to ignore the way that humour is grounded in culture. It’s vainer still to ignore the evidence on the ground, the evidence of the senses. You can’t measure it. You can’t produce a set of metrics for it. But you can consider the fact that this nation, and no other, spent the entire 1970s watching Morecambe and Wise Christmas Specials. That counts for something.

We can complicate the story, however, from the out. Morecambe and Wise is one part of the story. Derek and Clive—the baroquely obscene flipside of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s partnership—was another. In English comic fiction, Jane Austen’s satire and Laurence Sterne’s surrealism were spawned simultaneously. The point is that in seeking to describe British humour, and how it is changed, we are not hunting a single snark.

***

The writer and comedy critic Stephanie Merritt says: “I think there is a particularly English sensibility, though there are several different strands. I think we do like pathos; we do like the comedy of the loser. We like the comedy of failure—we like characters who are slightly pitiful.” Nica Burns, director of the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards, picks out another strand: “We’ve always laughed at people in power. We’ve always been very good at taking the mick.” Shane Allen, head of comedy at Channel 4, points to the comedy of sexual repression, and “a strong tradition of scabrous satire that other countries don’t really have.” The comedian Shappi Khorsandi says yet another element is not to be underestimated: “The British, you could say, love fart jokes.”

We’re talking, then, about a whole set of parallel, sometimes overlapping, affinities and styles. They’d almost be better represented as a word-cloud. When I sat down to think about this article I took a piece of paper and jotted, free-association style. Prominent on the pad were: Class, Surrealism, Smut, Class, Race, Camp, Music, Slapstick, Social Embarrassment, Vicars, Sauce, Class, and Unconvincing Transvestites. That’s a start—although, perhaps inescapably, it tends to sell short the importance of class.

The idea that national senses of humour can be distinct—at the same time as drawing on the same palette of universals (everyone thinks it’s funny when someone else’s mum falls off a low roof)—is no sort of reactionary fantasy. It is common sense. Humour, in the best sociological and psychological accounts of it we have, is to do with anxiety and with surprise. Both of those things are, one way and another, tribal: they rely on a set of shared assumptions. You don’t get a laugh if the taboo you’re breaking, or the assumption you’re confounding, or the anxiety you’re mocking, is not one your audience shares.

Identity theorists tell us we define ourselves against something other; or “Other,” as those identity theorists will tend to insist on calling it. Cardiff City fans like to sing “We are the Swansea-haters.” So the natural corollary of the joke-that-unites is the joke-that-isolates, the joke that draws a dividing line between what we are and what we’re not.

Over the years, a shift in perception of the Other tracks the way we think about ourselves. We are all more or less familiar with the narrative of a sea-change in comedy taking place during the 1980s. Before, so the outline of the story goes, we had Les Dawson doing mother-in-law jokes, Bernard Manning telling Paki gags in working mens’ clubs and Jim Davidson doing his black character, “Chalky.” Then alternative comedy arrived, and everyone was doing Thatcher jokes and being right-on.

Comedy about ethnicity developed similarly. First came Chalky—a white comic doing a black character. Then—in a transitional moment—there was Lenny Henry as Theophilus P Wildebeeste: a black stereotype, half-appropriated; a black man blacking up. Now black and Asian comics do material with or without ethnicity included. Shazia Mirza [pictured overleaf] used to open her gigs by walking on in a hijab and announcing: “My name is Shazia Mirza. At least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence.”

Gay comics have undergone a similar process of appropriation and ownership. The strand of campness in the British comic tradition comes down from music hall via Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, John Inman and Larry Grayson to Graham Norton and Alan Carr. It is almost certainly the music-hall tradition that also gives us our strong lineage of musical comedy: Noël Coward or Flanders & Swann giving way to the likes of Bill Bailey, Tim Minchin or Isy Suttie. Our distinguished history of unconvincing transvestites, incidentally, surely comes out of panto. But it, too, endures. What David Walliams and Matt Lucas do is no more than what Terry Jones was doing with Monty Python.

A golden thread of surrealism (in its highbrow form) or arrant silliness (in its lowbrow form) runs through British comic history, from the Goons to Python, via Vic and Bob and the Mighty Boosh, to Eddie Izzard or Ross Noble.

Whether the comedy world is now easier for women is debatable. Certainly, they are more visible on the stand-up circuit: Miranda Hart, Josie Long and Sarah Millican are in the top rank. But as some point out, the TV panel games which are now a staple for established stand-ups are regressive preserves of male turkeycocking. Mock the Week has drawn most fire on this subject, but on any of the major shows the representation of women remains between a quarter and a third.

Meanwhile sexist or racist material, or material aimed at the disabled, has returned under the banner of irony: Ricky Gervais joking about “mongs”; Frankie Boyle mocking Katie Price’s disabled son Harvey; rape jokes proliferating. Is that a tidal movement in the culture comparable to the effect of alternative comedy in the 1980s?

Probably not. The comedian Stewart Lee cautions that, so vast has the scene become, it’s ever vainer to try to discern single trends. “There’s so much stand-up in this country now that you can find examples of anything. You could use Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle and Al Murray to say, they’re doing un-PC stuff under the veil of irony: that’s where we’re at. But you could equally well take the existence of Sarah Millican, John Bishop and Michael McIntyre to say we’re in a Tom O’Connor world of nice comedy. Or you could use the likes of Tim Vine and Milton Jones to say people want to listen to an hour of one-liners.

“And let’s not forget that Daniel Kitson, who’s never on radio and never on television and never does interviews, has just sold out his National Theatre run in about 45 minutes—which probably didn’t touch the sides of the national media, but you could view that as evidence that people want to hear long, meaningful, thoughtful, beautifully expressed stories as stand-up.”

Lee argues that the way journalists are accustomed to interpreting things—spotting trends and movements in the culture—is becoming harder and harder to make stick: “Instead of, for instance, having a wave of post-PC irony, and then a reaction against it, which might have happened five or ten years ago, things don’t come in waves: it’s all happening simultaneously.”

***

In their breezy book about jokes, The Naked Jape (2006), Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves argue that “without foreigners and foreignness, there would be far, far fewer jokes.” Ancient Egyptians told Nubian jokes. North Americans tell Mexican jokes. Britons tell Irish jokes. Irishmen tell jokes about Kerrymen. Jews tell Jewish jokes. “Once upon a time,” Carr and Greeves point out, “‘dumb’ jokes tended to be about the next-door town.” The village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, for instance, spent nearly 400 years as a proverbial town of fools—its inhabitants being cast as the yokellish epitome of not-Nottingham (in the 16th century the county was regarded as a pretty sophisticated place). A joke book called The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham—the “mad men” were revised in later editions to the more elegantly sarcastic “wise men”—was published in 1540, and remained in print until the end of the 19th century.

As Greeves and Carr point out, since the nationalisation and—increasingly—globalisation of our media, we tend to identify more with our nation states than with our towns; so the Gothamite of old has become today’s Irishman or Polack. The question, then, arises: what happens to national humour in an age of instant globalisation? What happens when, thanks to the magic of YouTube, we’re all laughing at the same cat jumping in and out of the same box, or all retweeting the same drollery from Will Ferrell? Will we end up with a global, rather than local sense of humour? Will the Gotham of the future be Mars?

I wouldn’t bet on it. Something opposite, at least in the short to medium term, will likely take place. As I’ve argued, humour is intimately bound up with identity. It’s tribal. Just as—at the sharper end of things—political groups like the BNP can be seen as a reaction to multiculturalism, and radical Islamism as a reaction to Anglo-American cultural hegemony, we can expect a more benign version to emerge in the realm of comic discourse. Globalisation makes the gestures of local identity politics more decisive and more loaded. The boundary between self and other is more important when other is everywhere about you. That is, I think, exactly what we’ve already seen happening. British humour has become, if anything, more British—notwithstanding that the idea of what’s “British” is less homogeneous than ever before.

If British humour had subsided into a global comic melting pot, after all, why would there be the need for US television to make their own version of The Office? As it is, a show that leans so heavily on carefully pitched signifiers of British lower-middle-class life had to be remade for the US. What does Gareth Keenan’s pride in membership of the Territorial Army and history as a school milk monitor mean to a Texan? What does the location of Wernham Hogg’s office in Slough, and its rivalry with the Swindon branch, mean to someone in Houston?

It is not just the institutional set-up that makes Armando Iannucci’s political sitcom The Thick of It so unlike its US equivalents, Spin City or (in drama) The West Wing. The jokes, the pace, the style—the whole feel of it—are ineluctably rooted in British culture. And when British comics take off in North America, it seems to be when there is a demand for a particular thing—an idea of Britishness that an American audience seeks. In the likes of Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen they find it: unpredictable, anarchic exponents of British naughtiness. And male. (Although, let it be remembered, Tracey Ullman cracked America before any of those men.) In other language communities, our most successful exports are slapstick: Charlie Chaplin, Norman Wisdom, Benny Hill, Mr Bean. Afghanistan loves Bean—a presidential candidate there campaigned in a car which resembled the bumbling Brit’s Mini.

Stewart Lee adds that the distinctive character of our comedy isn’t necessarily to be ascribed to some innate national difference. “There is a difference [between North American and British comedy], but it’s not for the reasons that journalists think,” he says. “American sitcoms, for instance, are much more character-driven than situation-driven. And that’s because American television is all about building up 100 episodes of something so you can syndicate it. So it’s not to say we wouldn’t do that if we had the opportunity—it’s that the opportunity doesn’t exist, culturally.

“Conversely, British stand-up is much more sophisticated and subtle and complicated than American stand-up—and that’s because we have this whole middle-ground touring circuit here: arts centres and small theatres. There’s room to be more digressive and expansive. None of those things tell you about a national character in terms of humour: they just tell you about the economics of doing it, and the infrastructure that exists.”

That said, an island state with a historical religious divide and four nations yoked in political union was always going to be ripe for a comedy preoccupied with identity. A very strong, perhaps central, strand in British humour has been Britishness itself. Till Death Do Us Part and Fawlty Towers took their power from characters rooted in a particular form of little Englandism. Look how explicit that has now become. Little Britain, the most successful sketch show of the noughties, announces as much in its title. Al Murray’s stand-up persona, the Pub Landlord, is a lineal descendent of Alf Garnett. Shows like The League of Gentlemen hold a grotesque distorting mirror to English village life.

And, of course, there’s class. Did I mention class? Class is still all over our humour. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s still all over our national identity. Private Eye’s 50th birthday cover—headlined “How Satire Makes A Difference”—had a picture of Harold Macmillan marked 1961 and a picture of David Cameron marked 2011. Underneath the former, the words: “Magazine pokes fun at Old Etonian Prime Minister surrounded by cronies making a hash of running the country.” Underneath the latter: “Er…”

If anything, class has become more, rather than less central to British comedy. Take the contrast between the two prominent British sitcoms set in student flatshares. (Odd there have only really been two, given what an obvious set-up it is). In The Young Ones, in the early 1980s, the four students—spivvy Mike, hippy Neil, punkish Vyv and radical-chic Rick—were essentially representative of style factions rather than class. Vyv’s loutishness and violence, Mike’s entrepreneurialism and Rick’s spouting weren’t so much class positions as studenty self-fashionings. There was the University Challenge episode, where our heroes went up against blazer-clad toffs from a snooty Oxbridge college—but if anything this affirmed that the essential comic dynamic between the main characters was uninflected by class. They were all members of something that was then understood to be more or less homogeneous: what you might call the student class.

Compare Channel 4’s much-discussed new sitcom Fresh Meat. It is rife with class signifiers, specifically the antagonism between Jack Whitehall’s obnoxious ex-public schoolboy JP and Joe Thomas’s Kingsley, who grew up in an Essex council flat; and the efforts of another student, Oregon (real name Melissa), who seeks to conceal her horsey home counties background.

What’s also notable is that—race, disability, ginger hair and Welshness having been largely ruled out as objects of mockery—the “chav” has become the comic butt of the moment. In a country with a tradition of comedy pitting working-class characters against authority (Bread, Porridge, Only Fools and Horses to name but three), the white working class—or ‘“working’ class,” as Auberon Waugh liked to punctuate them—are now, ever more abundantly, the victims of comic performance.

Shappi Khorsandi says: “I think Britain is all about class. We’re in such denial about how important it is… The jokes have changed from non-English speakers being the butt of the joke to council estate teenage mums being the butt of the joke.”

Little Britain’s Vicki Pollard—who swapped her baby for a Westlife CD—has made her way to the centre of political discourse. Simon Brodkin’s character Lee Nelson, whose Well Good Show aired recently, is a stereotypical baseball-capped London chav. The Royle Family and Shameless, in different and more complex ways, mocked and celebrated working-class milieus. On the stand-up circuit, Jack Whitehall and recent Foster’s winner Russell Kane mock their own backgrounds.

British humour is also, more subtly, a self-othering humour: the torque in our incessant class jokes is not the certainty that Hyacinth Bucket, or David Brent, or Basil Fawlty, is other: it’s the suspicion that they may be us. It’s a humour of anxiety and, as Merritt argues, of self-deprecation. It’s what gives rise to the agonising comedy of social embarrassment that has its pinnacle in Peep Show, but that can be found through every keeping-up-with-the Joneses sitcom that preceded it.

So, British humour dead? I should bloody doubt it. As Stewart Lee says, the proposition has probably never been less true. We are in an age where British humour is bigger business, and more respected internationally, than ever before. Channel 4’s Shane Allen describes it as “an explosion.” Last year the channel did 25 hours of comedy. This year they’re doing 70. “Comedy is high-risk,” he says, “but no other genre has the potential to go from a tiny start to massive box office so quickly. And if it works, it lasts. BBC2 are still pulling in huge numbers of people for Dad’s Army.”

“Performing comedy used to be seen as a slightly out-there thing to do with your life, and it almost looks like a sensible career option these days,” says Khorsandi. “You see 18-year-olds with career plans. The only person I knew when I was coming up that thought of it in that way was Jimmy Carr. They don’t drink. They don’t fuck up too often. They treat it like a job.”

So as long as we jostle with religious and ethnic difference, as long as we’re riddled with anxieties about class, and as long as every few years we find ourselves an Old Etonian to gang up with his mates and make a hash of running the country… there’s less chance of British humour dying—and more chance of it ceasing to be, in its plural but definite ways, British—than there is of a certain Norwegian Blue parrot coming back to life.

Plus: read Henning Wehn, Arabella Weir and AL Kennedy on British humour

  1. November 21, 2011

    Oliver O'hanlon

    The article could be boiled down to the size of a Tweet. “Is UK comedy dead? No, and nobody thinks it is”. It took several thousand words to get to that conclusion. I, along with many people I think never believed this was the case anyway. I think debate (if there is one to be had) is more around how ‘comedy’ and the tv ‘sitcom’ has changed over the past two or three decades, and whether that change has reflected or been influenced by changes in British society. I agree with what Stewart Lee says, that basically comedy has diversified into different pockets or strands of comedy. Oh and you forgot to mention ‘Two pints of larger and a packet of crisps’ as a student flatshare comedy, perhaps on purpose as I never found it to be in the slightest bit humerous.

  2. February 6, 2012

    Derek Thompson

    Brief thoughts:

    1. There are only two kinds of joke – funny ones and unfunny ones.

    2. If someone is offended then a joke is offensive – to someone.

  3. March 2, 2012

    Tom Prideaux

    If I were Jane Austen, which I’m not, I doubt I’d consider myself simultaneous with someone who had died eight years before I was born, such as Laurence Sterne.

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Sam Leith

Sam Leith
Sam Leith is author of "Are You Talkin' To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama" (Profile) 


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