My kids, when they visit, are a little bemused at my sense of humour. “Weird!” they exclaim, raising their eyebrows and shaking their heads in something approaching disgust. They find my sense of humour decidedly unfunny. They believe it’s a taste I’ve acquired during my sojourn on the Isles. I disagree. I have always laughed at English jokes and English humour in general. Clearly down South they’ve been overfed on American sitcoms. In fact, exposure to all things American has resulted in a wannabe American outlook.
Christine remembers. I fondly recall Sunday nights: the two of us had a regular appointment to watch “Absolutely Fabulous”. I remember too loving Ms Lumley as Purdey in the off-beat and ever-so-cool “New Avengers”: the plots were often off the wall, sometimes subtly tongue in cheek. And we laughed!
Oh, I have laughed at Americans too, but they couldn’t have been all that memorable as I cannot recall many of them. Carol Burnett certainly was a favourite. And I also loved Raymond. I liked The Golden Girls and The Bob Newhart Show. WKRP in Cincinnati was funny and the Nanny wasn’t too bad. The Cosby Show was really good, as was Archie and Edith Bunker in All in the Family and, later, Archie Bunker’s Place. I should add that I watched Charlie Sheen only when I was really desperate and Big Bang Theory only because I enjoyed Wessel’s belly laughs. I’ve had it with Sheldon.
So, what was it about these American comics that tickled my fancy, while most of the others listed in the top 100 (See: nowthatsnifty ) just didn’t cut it?
On the other hand, does every British comedy have me in stitches? Well, topping my list right now is Mrs Brown’s Boys (who doesn’t love Agnes?). What really boggles the kids’ minds is my adoration for Miranda. It’s slapstick!, they say with disgust as though urging me to grow up. Benidorm is weirdly funny too, and British stand-up comedians are deserving of star status. I like Jack. The quiz-show and mockumentary comedy formats are hilarious. Mock the Week and Have I got News for You are seriously funny, but The Last Leg gets my vote for the genre. Come Fly With Me and Little Britain are positively addictive – I crave more. But, to answer the question, no, not all British comedies are that funny either. My Family is funny, but for all the wrong reasons, and is probably borderline for me. I would suggest it’s the British sitcom that comes closest to what I might call American?
So, perhaps I can at least discern from this list the outer parameters of my sense of humour. And from there, I dare ask what it is that makes me laugh, and what doesn’t. Comedy acts that are somehow self-aware do it for me. The stand-ups over here have learnt that poking fun at themselves covers all manner of ills, from tax evasion to sexual indiscretions. And why not? Move on, I say. British comedy does self-deprecation rather better than most. But so did Carol Burnett, Raymond and Bob. Miranda oscillates between painful self-loathing and subliminal innocense several times an episode. I like that. I like comedy where the characters are on edge, as if expecting at any moment their world to collapse in on them, which of course invariably happens. Ben Harper is always either plotting his own destruction, or only just hanging on, or clawing his way back. The Ab-Fab girls seem to live in perpetual suspence that their end is nigh, and deal with it by choosing momentarily to panic, then to turn a blind eye, having a spliff and going shopping. They invariably avoid the crunch, and shrug it off blissfully. The worst could never happen to them, anyhow, even though it has perhaps already done so. Such confidence in the face of impossible odds can of course also be worth a laugh. Archie Bunker is a lone bigot in a world of political correctness gone mad: he is at once right and very, very mistaken, and is loveable for just that reason. For Archie there is no enlightenment: he remains convinced that his take on the world makes perfect sense.
The point is, I like comedy that allows me to laugh with someone, not at them. I find cringeing singularly unfunny, so put-downs, one-up-manship and insults just don’t get me going. Neither for that matter do hypocrisy or self-righteousness.
I can tolerate rude language. I can chuckle at innuendo. I can even marvel at the comic take on tragedy. I draw the line at blasphemy. I’m not over-sensitive; it’s just a bridge too far.
Comedy is all about survival. It’s all about having someone around when you’re down and out. It’s about helping one another out: share a laugh, mate! That, I think is the relationship between comic actor and audience: suggesting and finding hilarity in impossible and boringly everyday situations. Comedy is about recovery; it’s the courage to make one’s way out of the rubble of your imploded world. It starts with a smile, evolves into a chuckle and triumphs in a hearty eye-watering bout of laughter. Very present stage of evolutionary achievement, I’d suggest. Very contemporary human. Very civilised, what?
I still think the English do comedy rather well. (And that’s just television!)
Civilisation too, all things considered…