Self-effacement is an essential part of the British national character. As an American living in the UK, even if you are a low-key person by US standards, you will immediately stand out here for your “loudness” and your ability and willingness to talk confidently about yourself, compared to the locals.
But as with most national characteristics, there are some interesting contradictions. A recent Guardian article casually made the self-promotional assertion: “No other country is as funny as we are,” and no eyebrows were raised. That’s because another essential part of of the British national character is an absolute belief in the following statement: “British comedy is the best in the world.” In fact, if you’re one of my UK readers, you’re probably already feeling a sense of outrage at the presumptuousness of an American having the audacity to even broach this as a subject.
“American comedy is rubbish”
This is a key corollary to the belief in the supremacy of British comedy. But believe it or not, this humble Yankee blogger is not here to contradict any of these gospel truths. I’d just like to take some of the bombast out of this equation – to make these statements a little more self-effacing- a little more British.
Ironic, isn’t it?
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. It is physically, mentally and sociologically impossible for British people to self-evaluate without comparing themselves to Americans. You’re doing it right now. You’re making lists in your head of all the bad American film comedies that you’ve seen, and all the bad TV shows you’ve been subjected to, and all the lowbrow American comedians you can think of.
- TV shows such as Fawlty Towers
- Comedians and commentators such as Eddie Izzard
- Films such as Shaun of the Dead
- Books such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I agree- these are all great- I love everything mentioned above, just like you do. But there’s one obvious problem with these lists. They’re not exactly representative of the vast majority of comedy that British people create or consume.
And that’s why we need to talk about Benny.
You know who Benny Hill is. I know who Benny Hill is. Everyone knows who Benny Hill is. His TV show, featuring broad humour and bawdy antics ran for more than 35 years, producing hundreds of episodes. The Benny Hill show has been exported to virtually every country on the planet. At one point it was regularly watched by 20 million Brits each week: that’s one out of every three people in the country. He might be Britain’s most famous comedic presence, even a decade after his death.
And he is rubbish.
Absolute embarrassing tosh. But he doesn’t count, does he? Fawlty Towers counts in the credit column, but Benny Hill and Carry On films don’t count in the er, discredit column. Nor does “Mrs. Brown’s Boys,” the idiotic programme that is currently the most-watched TV comedy in the UK. “British comedy is the best in the world” is a statement that relies heavily on selection bias. If a film or TV show is great, it counts, and it counts for all time- even years after it’s been produced. If it it’s terrible, it doesn’t count at all.
- Fawlty Towers produced only 12 episodes- a great show, but a small comedic drop in the puddle.
- Eddie Izzard is nowhere near being Britain’s most popular comedian. That honour would have to be given to one of a distinctly less-funny crew that includes Lee Evans, Peter Kay, Harry Hill and Harry Enfield.
- In 2004 Shaun of the Dead was only a modest box office success in the UK- far surpassed by the distinctly mediocre comedy sequel: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
- Douglas Adams is great, but Britain’s best-selling comedy book of all time is “The World According to Clarkson” by entitled Top Gear blowhard Jeremy Clarkson.
My point is a rather simple one- you can’t cherry pick your way to global comedic supremacy. Most people in the world like coarse, broad and obvious humour. That’s how it works in America and Finland and Eritrea. And yes, even in Britain.
If you accept this very simple fact, we can tone down the braggadocio of the statement “British comedy is the best in the world.” How about instead: “The best of British comedy is as good or better than any other nation’s comedic output.”
See how easy that was?