Comedic differences

Two links on international comedy that made sense to me. First, here’s Stewart Lee on Germans’ supposed lack of humour:

At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else. For example, it is possible to imagine any number of British stand-ups concluding a bit with something structurally similar to the following, “I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox … and then I got off the bus.” We laugh, hopefully, because the behaviour described would be inappropriate on a bus, but we had assumed it was taking place either in private or perhaps at some kind of sex club, because the word “bus” was withheld from us. Other suitable punchlines for this set-up would be, “And that was just the teachers”, “I was 28-years-old” and “That’s the last time I attempt to find work as a research chemist in Paraguay.”

There is even a technical term used by those who direct comedy on camera to describe this one-size-fits-all mechanism. Eddie Large is gasping for air as a hot dog falls into the end of his snorkel. The shot widens to reveal Sid Little, whose sausages are flying into the air out of his hot-dog buns because he is using too much ketchup. Pull back and reveal. But German will not always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve this failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language’s far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of “pull back and reveals” that constitute much English language humour, the idea of our comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.

and Simon Pegg on the (lack of) differences between UK and US comedy:

I hated Friends when it first aired. The very title was anathema to me. It immediately evoked the embarrassing, droopy-eyed longings of the sickeningly hug-happy new American youth. The thought of all that togetherness, untempered by ironic undermining, made my skin crawl. Yet it drew me in. Due to a fine ensemble cast and some genuinely funny scriptwriting (“You’re over me? When were you under me?”), Friends was readily accessible, even to us closed-off Brits. In fact, it arguably even opened us up a little. I certainly went from sneery to teary at Ross and Rachel’s passionate, reconciliatory smooch. This moment might actually hold the key to a middle ground between British and American humour, specifically when it comes to heartfelt, emotional expression. The British aren’t against it; we just believe it comes at a price. The success of the emotional climax in that particular scene is due entirely to the comedy preceding it. Ross’s perm, Monica’s fat suit, Rachel’s nose all go toward setting the tone for the payoff, which the audience wholeheartedly accept. The sentiment is a reward, rather than a device to engender a sympathy laugh or, worse, a big, soppy, “Awww”.

This device works in the best situation comedy on both sides of the Atlantic. The difference is perhaps simply that the average American is prepared to accept it sooner. Still, who could deny Del Boy a tearful pat of Grandad’s chair, after his Keaton-worthy tumble through the wine bar? Or scoff at the field of poppies that fills the screen at the close of Blackadder Goes Forth? Similarly, Hawkeye’s breakdown in the final M*A*S*H or Sam’s switching off the lights of the Cheers bar for the last time both suggest we are prepared to take our comedy with a side of emotional drama. So perhaps we’re not so dissimilar, after all.

I’m not so keen on the generalisations of how British / American people react, but it’s certainly true for some people. Maybe it works if you average it out. Maybe. He’s also good on Americans’ supposed lack of irony, which is always a red flag of this-person-is-worth-ignoring.

Both links via Mind Hacks.