In our multicultural, global, politically correct era, is there still a British sense of humour? Yes!by Sam Leith / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
A scene from Carry On Doctor (1967): faced with Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Williams struggles to contain himself
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.