The Humour Divide
Posted on November 28, 2010
I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about humour. More specifically, as I’ve been flipping about in Germany, trying to (rather clumsily at times) enmesh myself in its ways of life, the social and cultural significance of humour.
Humour is one of those things you can either fall foul or reap the benefits of time and time again when crossing cultures. Jokes that fall flat in one country (or start a bar fight) will be a roaring success in another. Considering I only speak one language, I can only speak for the cultures that speak that language and the most marked difference I can comment on is the American sense of humour versus the British sense of humour. Where the Americans are obvious, the Brits are subtle. Americans don’t do irony. The Brits do it in spades. Their satirical styles are different. Americans will pull back from delivering the final blow; the Brits won’t, but they’ll deliver it so deftly, you wont feel it for a while. Both can be funny. My preference happens to be for the latter, but that’s not to say I don’t find a lot of Americans and American products hilarious.
When it comes to slotting in other English speaking countries into each humour camp, I’m of the belief the Australian sense of humour falls more into the British camp. And at the core of this similarity is the British love and pride in their ability to sledge (particularly those who hail from Scotland, Ireland and Australia) – an ability, which at it‘s most sophisticated level, translates into razor sharp satire and social commentary. This has been particularly evident, recently, in a little crew I have been hanging out with which has members hailing from Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, the USA and England. The instant affection myself, the Pom, the Scot, the Kiwi and the Irish woman developed for one another was predicated on an innate talent for paying the shit out of each other and each other‘s homelands, which largely share the same values and numerous cultural similarities. The Kiwi and I, for example, within an hour of meeting each other, engaged in a Beached Az quote off after which, red faced from laughing, the Kiwi sighed and said wistfully, ‘it’s so mean.’ Which is true. An entire show made by Australians based on making fun of the Kiwi accent is technically mean. But so funny. And the Kiwis, being possessed of the ability to laugh at themselves, something Australians and English people are similarly adept at, think so too.
Americans are slightly too earnest to sledge – both themselves and others – particularly early on in the piece. Whereas a Pom will call an Australian a convict within minutes of greeting them – which, you know, never grows old – and an Australian has a veritable book of sledges when confronted with a Kiwi, an American will likely keep it straightforward and polite. There’s no subtext. It’s all there for the taking. You never have to look for the joke.
Humour is a deceptive little thing, in the many roles it plays. It can be a social lubricant or ton of lead. It divides cultures that, to the naked eye, appear similar, bonds those that appear to differ and reinforces similarities between countries that may forget they have any. And it also acts as a great comfort when you’re bobbing about in unfamiliar seas and start a (British) David Brent quote only to have someone turn around and finish it off for you, a glint of understanding in their eye.