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.”
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.)