Being Funny In English
Hogarth’s ‘The Weighing House’ shows the stages from seriousness to hilarity, and is, in itself, a very funny print. Humour travels. Wit does not. Broadly speaking, its said that the UK and France tend to prefer wit while America prefers humour, so it’s harder to cross to the US with European writing than go the other way.
Of course, there’s no right or wrong about comedy; whether you like a pie in the face or a barbed epithet, that’s your choice. Humour is highly personal. English humour, in particular, is almost as hard to explain as it is to duplicate. Much of it relies on cruelty, class, illness, death or snobbery. Many TV shows, from ‘Beggar My Neighbour’ to ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ have been predicated entirely on snobbery.
American writing is often built around rituals and rites of passage. To be more specific, it is about the collective memory of those shared rites. So, Little League, first baseball game, prom night, moving out, loss of virginity, first day at college, holidays; Spring Break and Hallowe’en, wedding day, first baby and so on.
English writing doesn’t do that at all, and tends to be far less time-specific, less detail-driven, more thematically explorative. The memory of a kiss is more likely to lead to a study of everyone ever kissed rather than a specific date.
Well, there are cultural differences in every country, but the really big difference is in sentence construction. I grew up steeped in American humour from Mad and the less funny Cracked to National Lampoon (I still own every issue) and New York’s brilliant but short-lived SPY magazine. Whereas I couldn’t stand the British institution Punch (found in doctors’ waiting rooms all over the country), which lasted from 1841 to 2002, when the Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed bought and wrecked it.
There was much I loved in US comic writing, from James Thurber to Bruce Jay Friedman, and little I loved in English humour, until I discovered PG Wodehouse. Here’s the opening line from ‘The Luck of the Bodkins’:
“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.”
Wodehouse caught recognisable moments, and for all his farcical plots there was a lot of truth about the English character, easily embarrassed, over-sensitive (or the opposite), slightly insulting. It is said that the best English insult is one where you come away thinking you’ve been complimented. Noel Coward’s plays are riddled with such insults.
But there’s something else at work which makes the English laugh, a cadence to language that’s very hard to explain. Here’s Kitty, a lady of a certain age created by the lamented Victoria Wood, complaining to someone talking too loudly in a cafe.
‘So I leant over and tapped her on the cleavage with a pastry fork.’
It’s the identification of the right kind of fork the points out Kitty’s mindset, but it’s also rather close to Iambic Pentameter.
In the play ‘The Buccaneer’ a waitress points to her friend when asked how they are and says ‘She’s all nerves and I’m on edge.’ This 7-syllable punchline feels right, and only faintly exaggerated for comic effect. The writer Lissa Evans catches the exact way the English once spoke, particularly in the 1940s. She puts, ‘Whatever do you want?’ instead of ‘What do you want?’ which suggests a working class voice. And here, describing a pawnshop window in ‘Crooked Heart’;
‘The shelf on which he’d seen Mrs Gifford’s pins had been cleared and was now occupied by a row of Toby jugs and a stuffed badger.’
The line is funny because of cadence. ‘A/ row/ of/ To/by/ jugs/ and/ a/ stuffed/ badger.’
The ‘U’ of ‘stuffed’ and the ‘A’ in ‘badger’ are elongated, so that we break from staccato to something more languid. The ‘pins’ (medals) were a sign of quality. Toby jugs are vulgar, and the stuffed badger is creepy. So while the line is funny it also conveys something crestfallen and downward-sinking.
I’ve touched on this before in the post ‘Keeping An Ear open’, but Mike Leigh’s beautiful ‘Topsy Turvey’, which recreates a particularly painful period in the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan as they prepare for their greatest hit, ‘The Mikado’, has the line (I’m paraphrasing) ‘I once had a bad whelk in Broadstairs’. Coupling an illness with a specific place is a very English peculiarity. In ‘Abigail’s Party’ each line speaks volumes. When Beverly tells her neighbour;
‘Aye aye, it’s started, Sue.’
She’s not just pointing out that the neighbour’s daughter has put music on, she’s taking pleasure in the idea that something bad will happen in her neighbour’s house because Sue is educated and Beverly is resentfully bourgeois. Its humour lies pinpoints a nasty trait in Beverley that will emerge as the night drags on.
In Victoria Wood’s play ‘Talent’, Julie asks;
‘Why did your she stop being a nun?’
‘Oh, they were always having tomato soup and she lost her faith.’
The weight of losing one’s faith and coupling it with something trivial is another example of the above. There are equivalents in US humour, but fewer see to rely on this kind of structure. The film ‘Harold and Maude’ sounds positively English in places. Harold’s psychiatrist asks him about his attempted suicides.
‘Do you stage these for your mother’s benefit?’
‘No – I would not say ‘benefit’.’
And although we find many examples in US TV and film, I’ve found fewer in literature. The exception to this is Jewish humour, which is often pithy, self-deprecating, sharp. There has hardly been a moment when US and UK tastes coincide more than in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, when Ralph Fiennes greets the Fascist officers with;
The deadpan, the droll, the distantly amused is all very European. America had rocketed from the ultra-conformist 1950s to the liberated sixties, as did the UK, but as so often in the past, America did it bigger. What was funny in the 50s dated painfully, transforming itself into surreal dark humour almost overnight. Doug Kenney’s ‘Animal House’ (dismissed by those who never saw it) caught the transition period beautifully, and is remarkably well-observed and constructed, with many finely tuned comic lines.
Dean Wormer (wearily summing up students): ‘Every spring the trees are full of underwear. Every fall the toilets explode.’
These traits fully emerge in later US TV, like ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, although I struggle to find the latter funny, in the same way that I never enjoyed ‘The Office’ – it’s comedy of awkwardness, and I’ve never really operated within highly developed social conventions. The humour is now about exposure of emotions, rather than their disguising.
‘Black Books’ used a Fawlty Towers device, putting an emotionally ill-equipped man into a public job, but its plots were constructed upon traditional sitcom lines with set-ups and pay-offs. And then it was stuffed with non-sequiturs. The best humour is both expected, and then unexpected.
I have a stack of favourite US comic novels, but most stop dead in the 1980s. Which are the funniest recent US books?
Suggested UK reading: David Nobbs, Peter Tinniswood, Keith Waterhouse, Lissa Evans, Victoria Wood.