The Horror of English Humour

Media, Reading & Writing, The Arts


English newspapers have a habit of producing rather good TV critics. Clive James, Victor Lewis-Smith and Charlie Brooker have all managed to produce regular columns that balance the odd insight with cruel hilarity, so I was pleased to read Heidi Stephens’ Guardian blog on the bottom-feeding entrants to the Big Brother house, the thing that went away a year ago to the relief of everyone with something at the top of their brain-stem, but which is now back on a channel no-one has ever seen called Five.

Her breezy jaunt through the arse-end of celebrity had me in stitches, and I love her comment when confronted by the CV of one entrant; ‘Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?’ You can read the whole thing here.

But it made me think – how much local humour is translatable? In ‘Walk The Lines’, Mark Mason’s walking tour of London, it’s taken for granted that you know a lot of strange English stuff, although he does point out some peculiarities I hadn’t thought about, like the fact that there are certain tube stations that exist in two different locations at once, seemingly just to confuse tourists, or that every local calls the lower part of Regent St ‘Lower Regent St’ even though it hasn’t been called that for a century.

There are other required-knowledge linguistics, like knowing why you have to put the word ‘unfeasibly’ in front of ‘large’ and having to use French pronunciation for the words ‘wafer thin’.

I used to love US humour, and only stopped liking American comedy films when the evil triumvirate of Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller robbed it of irony by being over-ironic. For me, ‘Zoolander’ and ‘Anchorman’ remain the least comprehensible comedies ever made. How can you find Zoolander funny when Jedward are the real thing and don’t even know it?

I clearly need to catch up with ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and other darker strains of comedy from the US. When American humour is irreverent, it’s wonderful. I still own every issue of National Lampoon, right up until it went bad in the 80s.

Oddly, I didn’t find its cover of an Arab being punched in the mouth offensive at the time because it reflected what Americans were thinking about oil prices, but later issues, which laughed at the disenfranchised, reflected the Bush era too well. New York’s Spy magazine took over and produced a number of classic issues.

There are moments of English comedy I find unbearably painful to watch. Albert Steptoe beating his own son at billiards in the pouring rain because he cannot let him win, the whole of ‘Nighty Night’, David Thewliss getting smacked in the face in ‘Naked’ because he’s being so annoying – and here’s the thing;

I like English humour for its unpredictability and sheer bad manners. Black comedy feels like a fantastical sidestep from the politeness of everyday life, more closely allied to horror by its preoccupation with the power of fate and the ultimate selfishness of humanity. I watched ‘The Man In The White Suit’ on television with the sound turned off and noticed that it suddenly looked like a horror film, not a comedy at all.

So perhaps that’s it – English humour is when even you can’t be sure whether it’s funny or simply tragic.

3 comments on “The Horror of English Humour”

  1. Alan says:

    “English humour is when even you can’t be sure whether it’s funny or simply tragic.”

    Rather like the English, really.

    (runs, hides)

  2. Gretta says:

    One of my fave pieces of ‘wrong’ comedy? Of all places, it came from Last of the Summer Wine. The lads walk into some wee church hall or somesuch, Compo sees a picture of St Sebastian, tilts his head, then exclaims ‘Ooooooone hundred and eighty!’ This will mean nothing if you don’t know anything about darts, but it made me laugh like a drain.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Right. But there are usually a lot more arrows in that poor saint than you would see darts on a dart board. Drains being heard here as well.

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