Ugh, the headline is needlessly snarky, I know. What I meant to type was, “Ricky Gervais explains the differences between American and British humor, and then goes on to explain why he’s funny.”
Gervais penned the column for Time, and it’s well worth reading (boy howdy, I’ve started saying that a lot about Ricky Gervais, sorry).
You can probably guess a lot of the differences in humor styles without ever reading the column—Americans are a little unsubtle, a little hamhanded, and much less into “embarrassment comedy” than our friends across the pond are—but Gervais goes on to describe the cultural differences in manners.
In my three extremely short jaunts to England (I know I’ve typed about this once before here at Evil Beet, but for the life of me I can’t remember its context), I noted that my chronic over-warmth was met with a certain amount of suspicion. And then I finally figured it out: what we in the U.S. call “politeness” can ring “inauthentic” elsewhere. In turn, I think it’s too easy for us folksy-folks to equate the British idea of “gracious” with “brittle.”
It took me a long time to acknowledge the benefits of not being overfamiliar with strangers: small-town, down-home hospitality can seem disingenuous and totally out of place, especially in a big city where it’s better to be aloof and skeptical of friendliness than to be scammed, robbed, and beaten in an alley by your new BFF. Sorry if that sounds cynical! But there’s a lot to be said for respecting personal space and boundaries, OK.
Gervais expounds on this cultural difference very nicely:
Americans say “have a nice day” whether they mean it or not. Brits are terrified to say this. We tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to sound insincere but I think it might be for the opposite reason. We don’t want to celebrate anything too soon. Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner. This is due to our upbringing. Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States. Brits are told, “it won’t happen for you.”
How bleak! Maybe it has something to do with all that gray—err, “grey”—weather you guys have over there.
Gervais goes on,
Americans don’t use [irony] as much socially as Brits. …We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary.
Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but I agree about the social “walls.”
In Britain we stop watching things like Big Brother when the villain is evicted. We don’t want to watch a bunch of idiots having a good time. We want them to be as miserable as us. America rewards up-front, on-your-sleeve niceness. A perceived wicked streak is somewhat frowned upon.
I think I might be at odds with Gervais on this count. I don’t think he’s entirely off-the-mark—we do frown on “wicked streaks,” absolutely—but I do think we here in the U.S. take a certain amount of delight in others’ villainousness. That way, we can imperiously judge them.
AND! Since we’re talking about sincerity:
I never actively try to offend. That’s churlish, pointless and frankly too easy. But I believe you should say what you mean. Be honest. No one should ever be offended by truth. That way you’ll never have to apologize. I hate it when a comedian says, “Sorry for what I said.” You shouldn’t say it if you didn’t mean it and you should never regret anything you meant to do.
Certainly I’m offended a good 60% of the time by Ricky Gervais’s comedy—what can I say? Our “truths” are different—but I can honestly say it isn’t Ricky’s fault. Like, my mother offends me constantly too; I’ve come to terms, thanks.
The reality is, if fewer comedians were obsessed with not offending their audiences, we wouldn’t be able to dedicate as much space to Tracy Morgan’s endless apologies for being unfunny. We mustn’t have that! So it isn’t that being offensive is a crime in the U.S.; it’s just that we love maligning villainousness. We are a righteous, pious people, and I have to have something to blog about, here. Ahem.
All right. I know we have a lot of readers in both the United States and Europe, and no I am not trying to start a sparring match: I just thought you guys would be fascinated by Mr. Gervais’s analysis of cultural differences in “politeness” and “humor.”
Certainly the comments could devolve into a feud over whose television sucks harder or whether Ricky Gervais is hugely obnoxious, but I know you guys would never. WINK, WINK.
(Image via Pop Goes the Week.)
12 CommentsLeave a comment
Personally, I love Ricky Gervais. However, there have been times that I have been a little uncomfortable with things he has said. When he starts calling out celebrities for their bad acting or something like that, I don’t really like it. He’s so funny and interesting, I don’t think he should have to bring up others short-comings. I also don’t like it when he bashes on religion (questioning I’m fine with or pointing out some inconsistencies, but don’t be mean). I’m not religious, but there’s no need to get nasty.
Ricky is what? WHAT???
Otherwise, we are on the same page. :>
Ohhhh, I inadvertantly did a little existential thing there, didn’t I?
No seriously, Ricky Gervais is really funny and I like the fact that his humor is not from some sort of frat house comedy (I’m looking at you Dane Cook), but it’s based on looking at people and life and making observations. I’ve heard him on other programs that have absolutely nothing to do with him being funny, and he was a fascinating guest.
Do you get the Ricky Gervais Show in the US? I just find him so smug and when they pick on Karl he just reminds me of the playground bully and Stephen Merchant the sycophantic lackey. Sometimes I find him funny but mostly not. His ego ruins everything for me.
Plus he seems to have forgotten that the UK is actually four countries, and not just England since those sensibilities are mostly English.
Isn’t it only a podcast? I’m familiar with his and Merchant’s picking on Karl, yes. I am OK with it if only because this is the dynamic the trio has settled on. Like, these are their characters. That seems OK. I actually enjoy him more in that setting.
On the second point, I roundly agree! Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are a lot “warmer,” and the road to friendship cuts a much shorter distance, bypassing a whole lot of social ritual and rigamarole. (I mean, in my experience.) It did occur to me, as I was copy-pasting Gervais quotes, that he had made a cultural error there; I just assumed Gervais was accounting for Americans’ persistent geographical bafflement. So I shrugged off any oversimplifying/sidestepping. Good call, though.
Ireland isn’t a part of the UK, Northern Ireland is. Just sayin
meh: OH MY GOD A) I KNOW, BUT B) THAT IS EXACTLY WHY HE JUST CALLED *EVERYONE* BRITISH OK
They’ve animated it and aired it as a tv show in the UK. I never heard the pod cast but I’m willing to bet Karl’s adorably animated, round head makes it funnier. It’s not that I don’t find him funny, I do albeit begrudgingly because of the level of smug self satisfaction that he radiates. That said you should try and catch the cartoon version somehow because it’s super funny :)
And I further agree with us Celts being generally warmer. We’re always a little sore on being generally thought of by the wider world as an extension of England and automatically similar in every respect.
Oh fuck that show. My boyfriend loves it and it makes my skin crawl. They laugh at that poor man Karl Pinkington (sp?). I love Gervais but that show, and An Idiot Abroad, NO, just, NO.
I find Ricky hilarious. Having been brought up in the US with an EXTREMELY British (English,if you’re picky) mother, I completely understand his breakdown of how the two sides see humor. I do, however, agree with Jenn on the whole delight Americans get in judging villainy.
Gah–and the British bleakness. It’s a wonder I made it to college with some of the encouragement my mother’s come up with…I had to convince her that my hs graduation would be worth going to. -_-
I prefer British humour to American humour. It’s dryer, and more in-your-face. You need a thicker skin, definitely. Also: yes, American cheerfulness looks suspicious, not only in England, but in the whole of Europe. It’s like, WHAT ARE YOU SO EXCITED FOR. WHY. WHAT. WHAT HAPPENED. Every time I meet an American I’m blinded by their teeth (toooooo white) and their cheerfulness (tooooo perky).
Wait…how can teeth be too white?