Thursday, May 22, 2008

The English : Humour

Thanks to TimoOK for the photo.

I've been meaning to do this for a while, a series of posts about the Brits, the English, those bloody Colonial Powermongers, whatever.

They're such an interesting group, they seem to possess the best and worst of so many things I hold dear. Maybe it's because they allow the latter that the former blooms, I don't know. Maybe it's because they've been around for so damn long. And really, British and Humour is such an inconceivably massive topic that it makes me faint just to consider it. But consider I must.

For one thing, engineers and science geeks (especially computer science) absolutely LOVE British humour. From Black Adder to Fawlty Towers to Red Dwarf to the venerable Pythons. A single quip from one of the more obscure episodes will leave the average geek howling the aisles for days. Days. It's the universal tie that binds all nerds. Certainly a theoretical astrophysicist, a perl hacker and a HAM radio operator have little in common (if they aren't, indeed, the same person), but throw them in a room and yell "NI!" and they'll be trading custom Texas Instrument Calculator programs before you can find all the anagrams in 'desultory'.

This might mean that British humour, or the best of it, is really for the bright. Or, alternatively, British humour is so odd and untoward that only people who do math for fun and use the phrase 'but recent literature suggests' would get it. Maybe both.

If one looks at it from a Art versus Popular debate, British humour is often considered on the side of 'Art', while everything else is vile and derivative; particularly American fare. While from the other side, British humour makes little sense and is best left to history like Churchill's dismal early military career.

A perfect illustration of this is when SNL hosted a small performance of the Dead Parrot sketch with John Cleese and Michael Palin. It's as venerated by comedy connoisseurs as "Who's on First". When SNL hosted it however, the American live audience just did not get it. Or it wasn't funny. But obviously it's respected well enough that a multi-million dollar show is willing to have the aging actors come over and do it. Obviously it Has Merit enough for people who MAKE that stuff for a living are willing to have the Pythons on.

And let's not forget that most of the Kings of humour writing (IMHO) are British. The ones I most respect and admire: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Oscar Wilde. British actors are almost legendary for their off-camera wit.

But there is a flip side. The Dark Side.The side that many will point to when they confess, after too many glasses of cheeky Bordeaux, that they just 'don't get it'. They'll point to Eddie Murphy or Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock and say, 'now THAT's funny' (as if humour was a mutually exclusive thing).

I'm talking of course, about the Benny Hills, and the sundry other programs that were never funny, never could be funny, but for some reason have inherent cultural cachet, so stay on the air and put the laugh tracks under duress to even so much as chortle. You've seen them perhaps, on some publically funded channel, right before the piercing expose on military funding and right before the driest newscast in the English speaking world. The colours are washed out. The lighting looks like it was done by an apoplectic chimpanzee with a detached retina; and beat after beat is filled with humour that is so obvious and low brow that you think it's high brow and spend the rest of the evening pretending like you're working on the New York Time crossword but in reality are trying to figure out what "that's a fanny I'd like to folly" really meant, in the subtext.


Monkfish said...

Surely time and place have a bearing on whether humour is found funny. Benny Hill was never found funny in my time, but go back a bit. The odd thing is Americans found Benny Hill funny at a time and place when it wasn't.

Niteowl said...

I don't want to say you're an English fanboy monky, but you just went to the defense of Benny Hill.

Monkfish said...

I did not defend him, I made fun of Americans. No you're the fanboy.