Guide to British Humour

Britain is known for being a nation of obsessive tea-drinkers, overly-polite, indirect people and complaining about the weather. But what really makes us stand out is our humour, which I’ll admit, might baffle those unfamiliar with it. Darker, drier and often deeply cynical, it generally has a less optimistic outlook and draws comedy from the absurdity of certain situations. Read on to get au fait with the sarcasm ingrained into British culture.

British humour tends to be a mixture of self-deprecation, sarcasm and insulting other cultures (only with the best intentions, of course. We love the Welsh, really). In the following, I’ll try and break it down without too crudely over-generalising.

Self-deprecation

I’m not very good at self-deprecation comedy. HA! See what I did there? In Britain, you have to know how to laugh at yourself. The more awkward a story or the more badly it reflects on yourself, the more it will be appreciated by a British audience. It tends to be our default setting, so as to make us appear more approachable and relatable. Taking yourself too seriously is, well, just boring. Now you don’t have to constantly go around telling people how hideously ugly you are, or how your left kneecap is grotesquely malformed. But a little self-deprecating quip always works to break the ice and reassure your listener that you’re alright, you know?

Comedians: David Mitchell (national treasure), Richard Ayoade, Sarah Millican

TV shows: Would I Lie to You?

Sarcasm

Possibly the hardest thing to pick out from a foreign language and culture. Sarcasm is heavily used on a day-to-day basis – let’s try a scenario. I walk to the local newsagents to get a paper, and get absolutely drenched.  As I purchase said newspaper, I might say something along the lines of ‘lovely weather today, eh?’ – and there we have it, the classic British killing two birds with one stone. Got a sarcastic comment in AND managed to remark upon the weather, simultaneously easing the situation and putting myself and the shop-owner on friendly terms with a universal truth – the weather is awful. That was easy, right?

Irony and sarcasm are very much reliant on delivery (the more deadpan the better) and timing, which isn’t always easy. You’ll soon get used to it, don’t worry.

Comedians: Jack Dee (the king of deadpan), Stewart Lee (a genius)

TV Shows: The Office, The IT Crowd, The Thick of It (warning - a bit of strong language in this one)

Insulting our peers

We tend to be a pretty dry and incisive bunch, and often can’t resist a little ribbing about some country specific stereotypes.

A witty insult or backhanded comment can be a great way to start a conversation

Yet as much as we love to mock other nationalities, we do so with affectionate undertones. If we insult you, that means we like you. Seriously. A witty insult or backhanded comment can be a great way to start a conversation or pick up one when it’s wilting a bit. Say it with a smiling face and don’t immediately apologise – see how well it goes down. If the recipient of said insult is furious, maybe think about an apology – but stay strong and hopefully your insult will cause a return insult, which is what we can then call ‘banter’ – and we all know it’s all about the ‘bants’ (See what I’ve done there again? A heavy use of irony. God I’m clever. Oh, nice, an exaggerated claim about my own intellectualness. Hyperbole is great, right?)

Comedians: Ricky Gervais

TV Shows: The Inbetweeners, Peep Show (little bit rude, this one!)

So that was my rather simplistic breakdown of British humour – how did you like it? I’m not saying British humour is necessarily ‘better’ or more sophisticated than in other countries. But it’s undeniably subtle and understated. Often, it doesn’t beg for a laugh, instead relying on the viewer or listener to make ironic connections from their own background or cultural knowledge.

At the same time, there is a huge gulf between different styles of comedy over here, so it’s hard to lump everything into the same ‘British humour’ category. Yes, the BBC and Channel 4 have produced some world-famous comedic offerings. Yet as good as many series are, there’s also a huge amount of rubbish produced as well. But someone not from the UK tends to end up seeing good niche stuff that garners a cult following or things like Sherlock that have a broad mainstream appeal. Foreign markets act as a very good filter!


British humour

This sort of absurd situation sits well with a British audience

Naturally, there’s not a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ style of humour or comedy – whether it’s slapstick, cynicism or plain offensive, they are all valid forms of the craft and deserve their place on the spectrum. But it certainly is interesting to see adaptations of British TV shows in the US which really do not translate well (Skins and The Inbetweeners would be the most notable). Yet there are, of course, exceptions (The Office springs to mind). Styles of humour vary so dramatically from country to country (this video is a very interesting interpetation of UK/US differences) – you just have to persevere, have a thick skin, and most importantly, don’t take things too seriously!

Oh, and before I leave you – I’ve compiled a little list of some of my favourite comedic offerings – just so you can do a little ‘research’, you know?

Shows: Alan Partridge - The Office - Peep Show - Fawlty Towers - Brass Eye - The IT Crowd - The Thick of It - The Inbetweeners - Monty Python - Blackadder

Comedians/Writers/Hopeless cynics: Charlie Brooker - Chris Morris - Armando Ianucci - Stewart Lee

About the author

Will

Will is a British intern at bab.la, hailing from the exotic south-eastern county of Essex, England. Having already lived in Biarritz, Paris, Berlin and now Hamburg during his studies, he hopes to be able to continue this trend and sample the finest delicacies from across the rest of Europe (and the world) before he runs out of money and stamina. He is obsessed with football and cooking, and enjoys the Great British Bake Off a little too much.