Strange kind of blues-coloured moon
- Jul 22, 2012
- Reaction score
Brit and American humour are entirely different for a start.
The basis of American comedy is optimistic. The basis of British comedy is pessimistic.
When my (American) wife first encountered 'Steptoe and Son' (on which 'Sanford and Son' was based), she remarked that it was about the saddest sitcom she had ever seen. She's right - those two guys are trapped in a fractious, adversarial relationship that will never be resolved. Most of the funniest British comedy is based on that idea - that people are imprisoned in situations that frustrate and limit them. 'The Likely Lads', 'Til Death Do Us Part', 'The Office', 'Only Fools and Horses', 'Father Ted', 'Blackadder', most obviously 'Porridge'. None of these characters will ever escape - and if the writers do go there, it stops being funny immediately. Look at what happened to 'Only Fools and Horses' when they finally made some serious money.
Generally (not absolutely always), American sitcom humour tends to affirm the importance of family (in the broadest sense) not as a trap but as a survival mechanism - relationships are what keep you going, not what stop you growing. The end of each episode stresses that. In 'Friends', 'Frasier', 'Modern Family', 'Cheers', 'Taxi', 'MASH', the reinforced worldview is that, despite their differences, everyone has everyone else's back. The family is the one constant, and the thing that in the end matters.
The optimism carries through to the viewers' expectations of what'll happen. Nobody, surely, ever doubted that Ross and Rachel would end up together. We knew that Niles would eventually get it together with that carer with the appalling Manchester accent. The emnity between Hawkeye and Hotlips Houlihan developed into affectionate respect (and they dropped the soubriquet 'Hotlips'.) In American sitcoms, resolution is, in the end, guaranteed.
Incidentally, this is in part down to the way in which sitcoms are created in each country. Sitcoms in the UK are written by one person, or by a partnership of two. In the US they are written by teams of eight or ten people. This means, for a start, that there more gags in US sitcoms - every line, practically, is funny. Brit sitcoms have fewer gags, and we expect that - the space between the laughs is like the spaces in music. They heighten dramatic tension. It also means that in the UK there's just one or two writers in control of the 'tone' of the thing, and they tend to stick with their intial concept. In the US, you have many people contributing ideas, and the direction the characters take is decided by committee - which'll give you a lot more laughs, but also a dissipation of the original vision.
The evidence of this, I'd say, is demonstrated by the exceptions. 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is written by two guys (I think). It's essentially pessimistic and it deals with the inescapability of circumstances. It's no surprise, really, that David and Gervais have such obvious admiration of each other's work.
To be clear, I'm not saying that one way of working is better than the other. 'Modern Family' and 'Frasier' are as dear to me as 'Porridge' and 'The Office'. And it can't be that American and British senses of humour are entirely different, otherwise we wouldn't laugh at each other's sitcoms.
That essential underlying distinction - the dark and deprecating worldview as opposed to the affirmative and optimistic one - isn't about our different sense of humour, but about our different national characteristics.