British humour mainly works on visualizing situations as sketches and rarely comes across in form of simple jokes, rather as dry remarks.
British humour tends to be integrated in a social context that makes you imagine the scene and establishes the setting for the numerous components of British humour, such as the typical deadpan seriousness of British humour and elements like irony and sarcasm, the tendency of playing with double meanings of words (puns) or sudden twists towards black or absurd humour.
I will be giving you an example:
Imagine two men in a lift on a rainy day, soaked to the skin, their umbrellas dripping. One says to the other:
-«Lovely day, isn´t it?»
-«Yes, indeed. It couldn’t be better.»
This example exemplifies British humour pretty well. However, let us have a closer look at the peculiarities of British humour that make it so original and highly appreciated all over the world.
WHAT IS BRITISH HUMOUR?
Within the term British humour you will find a number of distinct features that I am going to explain and exemplify in this blog.
Irony is a way of reflecting reality by using the completely opposite words of what reality around us gives us to understand. The initial example of the two men in a lift is a typical illustration of irony. The stark contrast between perception and reality, which is normally exposed in a deadly serious manner, is exactly what makes irony so funny.
But bear in mind! Irony and sarcasm (2) display such a sophisticated way of processing reality that children are not capable of understanding them. They have not developed this capacity yet. For this reason, you should by all means avoid this kind of humour when you speak with children.
Sarcasm works the same way like irony. The difference between both is basically that irony is a moderate form of expression, inoffensive and bland, whereas sarcasm goes near the bone. It may hurt personal feelings and can even be despective.
Anglosaxon culture generally tends to have rather positive associations with sarcasm. The adjective «sarcastic» commonly defines something as witty, ingenious or original and on point at the same time. It is, for instance, present in everyday life on all kinds of TV shows and comedies on British or American television.
The following example is a clear illustration of sarcasm: Two people are invited to a conference. The stage is in complete mayhem. The microphones do not work, the cables are a complete disaster and the cameras are broken. One says to the other: «Thank goodness that everything’s under control here.»
You may realise that even though the comment is not really harmful yet, its degree of intensity goes much beyond the irony in the case before. We can clearly interpret this comment as if it was: «What a bunch of useless blokes!»
A woman waking up her neighbours at six o’ clock in the morning shouting:
«It’s time to get up» can be defined as sarcasm.
3. DRY HUMOUR/ DEADPAN HUMOUR
Deadpan humour is an extremely typical character trait of British humour. It is mainly featured by an almost complete lack of change in posture, facial expressions or gestures. We can take for granted that the above mentioned example dialogues for situational humour (in a lift and at a conference) would materialize within an absolutely casual setting of common almost monotonous speech without the slightest change in facial expression. Lacking expressiveness is very likely to be the most typical character feature of British humour.
A typical illustration of dry humour.
A bunch of thorned, dry flowers shortly before being handed in as a present.
4. PUN/ HUMOUR BASED ON DOUBLE MEANING
The so called pun is humour based on the double meaning of words or the similarities between words that may cause confusion. It is a rather sophisticated kind of witty humour edging the obscene at times. This kind of humour is also quite common for Spanish TV shows.
The following is an example of a pun.
«Thank you for explaining the meaning of «a lot». It means very much to me.»
You see that this humour combines the surreal with the silly and witty at the same time.
5. BLACK HUMOUR
Black humour is also very common in British humour. You will find it commonly combined with deadpan humour.
«Tell me, so what did your heart surgeon die of, you know the one who implanted your new heart?»
«Of a heart attack, actually.»
An illustration of black humour.
6. SELF-DEPRECATING HUMOUR
Self-deprecating humour works on the basis of downgrading yourself in the presence of others, mainly in order to produce a reaction of affection in the other/s for being considered a «poor guy needing protection». This kind of humour is predominantly male and can be found in a number of English film productions. The British actor Hugh Grant is an expert in this type of humour.
An example for self-deprecating humour:
-«You look great today.»
-«Oh yes, if it wasn’t for the fact of not having washed my hair for weeks to save a bit on water and electricity.»
Understatement is a very typical character trait within farmers and fishermen. You will find it frequently in the mentality of Northern/Central European countries such as the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
The following dialogue serves as an example to illustrate understatement:
-» A long time I haven’t seen you.»
-» Not that long either.
-» Ay, I’d bet Jimmy Carter had already been elected president.»
-» Yeah, not that long.»
8. ABSURD HUMOUR
The mythical «Monty Python» starred in a famous TV series between 1969 and 1974 called «Monty Python And The Flying Circus». Apart from that, they also made a number of films, the most relevant ones «Monty Python And The Holy Grail», 1975, «Monty Python’s Life Of Brian», 1979, «Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life», 1983, and «A Fish Called Wanda», 1988. The television production «Fawlty Towers» in 1975 and 1979 was also among their most famous contributions to British humour.
Monty Python’s humour was very much based on the absurdity. Clear examples are the sketches of the «Ministry Of Silly Walks» or the ones of «the Old Ladies’ Gang of Criminals» among many others.
Another aspect of surrealism and absurdity lies on their dialogues. They often show a stunning level of intelligence.
I will illustrate this based on a scene in the film «Monty Python’s Life Of Brian».
Brian, the elected «Messiah» by the people, wants to get rid of his followers being tired of their constant harassment. He shouts at the congregated people in front of his house: «We are all individuals» and his followers repeat shouting «We are all individuals» not catching the message that Brian just wants them to break free from him. All of a sudden, someone shouts: » I’m not».
This is one of the most hilarious and cleverest scenes of humour that I have seen in my life. Precisely the one who is shouting «I’m not an individual.» is showing that he actually is whereas the others who are shouting that they are individuals are giving proof of the opposite. What a great observation of the world we are living in at times!
Banter is a humourous form of absurd talk ranging from the parody of a political discourse to other kinds of expert’s talk on technical or sophisticated matters that are somehow typical for private clubs and associations. It tends towards surrealism and complete exaggeration in form and characters.
A common element of banter is the surrealistic dialogue, the interchange of ideas among different participants that usually turn the whole plot more and more over the top.
As banter is often improvised, it often leads to the most refreshing word games. It is definetely one of the most original features of British humour.
You can define Rap music as a kind of banter. The different rappers are entering into a kind of dispute that is based on word games and requires a high level of wittiness and originality. Even the surprise jam session in the street or the pub around the corner is a type of musical banter, in which the different musicians are entering into a kind of cheerful competition.
10. THE COMEDY OF INSULT
A lot of British actors and comedians in particular have experimented with this element of humour. The classical form is based on the direct interaction between the actors and the audience in a theatre in which the audience is exposed to the harshest and most original insults you may imagine.
Monty Python have taken up aspects of the comedy of insult, moving these insults away from an audience but towards a dispute among their characters. The offence is turning into a kind of banter in which the participants are trying to beat their respective opponent/s.
I remember a scene in «Monty Python And the Holy Grail» in which a knight defending a besieged castle is having a dispute with the troups that are besieging the site. Their mutual insults are increasing in ingenuity and intensity getting to such a level of confrontation that they defenders of the castle start throwing pigs at their besiegers.
You can see how typical it is that the different elements are British humour are merging into one. In this case: the comedy of insult, banter and absurd humour.
A joung and rebellious English lassie waiting for the right moment to throw a bunch of flowers into the queen’s face.
Satire in British humour is mainly based on the complete lack of respect towards the authorities of the country, no matter whether these are political, social, cultural or religious institutions. Within humour (almost) everything is allowed even mocking about the royal family.
It was John Lennon who once said to the audience in a Beatles concert in 1963 , well aware that the queen had come to see it:
«For the next song I’d like to ask you for help. The people in the cheaper seats clap your hands and the rest of you, if you just rattle your jewellery.»
Even the Royal Majesty had no other choice than smiling to this comment.
The eleven components that I have exemplified in this blog give you a clear idea of the very essence of British humour. In case you are interested in exploring this topic in further detail, I recommend you to search for videos or films on Youtube or Netflix.
They will give you a closer insight on the great masters of British comedy, such as Monty Python (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam (US-American), Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin – each of them references on their own, Rowan Atkinson (most people know him as Mr Bean) but also historical references like Benny Hill, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller or the more recent ones Foil, Arms and Hog (being actually Irish). The list of (mainly British) comedians is long.
You will certainly not find everything amusing that you come across on your way but , anyway, these comedians just make you an offer for you to choose from. I do understand that British humour can be perceived as highly offensive. More than one Spaniard will be feeling deeply offended by the cliché character of the Spanish waiter and cook Manuel in «Fawlty Towers». But if you have a closer look at the other characters and mainly Mr. Fawlty, the hotel owner himself (interpreted by John Cleese), then you will soon come to the conclusion that he is not shown in the best possible way either as «the typical Englishman».