What one person thinks is hilarious can leave another person cold. And a country’s humour doesn’t always travel well.
British friends tell the tale of watching Four Weddings and a Funeral at a cinema in New York – and laughing at different times from the rest of the audience. An American friend pointed out last year that the reason I haven’t heard of most of the films Bill Murray has stared in is that they’re comedies and they haven’t been released in the UK; a British audience would stare at the screen, bemused and silent. (I still don’t completely get Groundhog Day, in spite of its near-cult following.)
There are notable exceptions – Monty Python springs to mind and The Big Bang Theory has a wide international following, almost certainly because of the strength of its characters and the universal appeal of its stories. But the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 fell back on the humour of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, probably because he doesn’t say anything, leaving the audience to project their own – potentially local – take on the situations he falls into.
I’ve been trying to work out what I see as the distinguishing features of British humour and I think not taking yourself too seriously is a good starting point. The British like the occasional Woody Allen one-liner, but we’ve always been a bit suspicious of the introspection; he might be serious, when we’d prefer him to be tongue-in-cheek. In the UK, humour is used as a leveller, to upgrade the mundane, make the profound accessible and hold the disgraceful to account. Key components are understatement (often to the point of saying the opposite of what you really think), irony and a bone-dry wit.
All of those featured on The News Quiz at the weekend. For anyone who doesn’t know it, two teams compete to answer cryptic questions about the week’s news. I haven’t completely grasped how points are won. Like most people, I listen to it for the whip-sharp skein of satire the teams weave around the week’s events.
The edition I heard on Saturday included riffs on the current creepy-clown craze and a local councillor’s intimidating combat trousers, as well as recent events involving Donald Trump. I’m not going to make the mistake of trying to repeat or summarise what was said; that really would be lost in translation. But, as usual, The News Quiz told me more about the UK than any newspaper or website has in the last week.