The secret of British humour


There is a debate going on over in the Humor (sic) Club on Goodreads – who are funnier, British or American literary humourists?

And this fragmented into a sub-question. Where did the British sense of humour come from? How did this tiny island produce Monty Python, PG Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe, the Goons, the fork handle sketch (google it), Fawlty Towers … heck, even the bits in Shakespeare with characters called Bottom?

The answer, I think, is that we Brits don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Remember the story of the Emperor’s new clothes? Once upon a time, a pair of cunning weavers visited the court of a vain Emperor. They told the Emperor that they had a magical suit of clothes that would be invisible to anyone stupid. Naturally, everyone claimed that they could see the clothes. And equally naturally the clothes didn’t exist. It took a young child to cry out that the Emperor was naked.

Britain is like that Emperor just at the point where the child cries out. That’s when we realise that we are as naked as the day we are born, although admittedly a bit plumper and more wrinkly. We are not as grand as we like to think we are.

We used to have an Empire on which the sun never set. If we are being honest, we are not quite sure how we got it. Something to do with being better at sailing than anyone else, especially the French.

To tell the truth, we are a little bit embarrassed about the Empire and rather shame-facedly we’re giving it all back, bit by bit.

We invented many of the world’s best sports – football, cricket, rugby, skiing. Then we taught the rest of the world how to play them. And now they’re much better at those sports than we are.

We were the cradle of the industrial revolution. Roads, trains, steam engines, bridges, computers. Then we taught the rest of the world how to make them. And now they’re much better at making things than we are.

The mother of all Parliaments, which has led us to Nigel Farrage.

We gave the world Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Orwell, Joyce, Tolkien … and then Jeffrey Archer. Oh, and we have watched as our language has been Americanised under a barrage of “like”s and Japannified with endless emoticons. 😉

We won two world wars but we always lose to Germany on penalties. And they build better cars than we do.

We invented the internet, but the Americans made money out of it, the Russians filled it with porn and the North Koreans are using it as a weapon.

Hell, we couldn’t even arrange a decent civil war or a revolution. We had one, but we can’t remember who won. Or why. We signed the Magna Carta, but then never got round to a written declaration of human rights. Or a constitution. So we’re a bit of a democracy and a bit of a monarchy. We invented the labour movement, but our national anthem is still “God save the Queen”.

We don’t like the French, which is odd because most of us are descended from the Norman invaders of 1066 and all that. We don’t trust the Germans (especially in penalty shootouts), except when we conveniently forget that our kings and queens are basically German. We can be extremely racist, despite also being one of the most tolerant and multi-cultural nations in the world.

We are a United Kingdom, apart from the Scots, Welsh and Irish who all don’t like the English. And the North which doesn’t like the South. And Devon and Cornwall who mutter darkly about “the mainland”. And Kent which thinks it ought to be a country on its own.

The Eskimos might have a hundred words for snow, but we have a hundred words for rain. We don’t have the glorious colds or hots of other parts of the world, but we do manage some dramatic drizzle. But that’s okay because it gives us something to talk about.

All in all, we are a nation of heroic failures. Of towering achievements followed by utter decline. We did so many things first, but then so many other people did them better.

So yes we are the Emperor with no clothes. And that, I think, explains why we are so good at comedy. We know full well that we are more than a little absurd.

Other countries seem to have a stronger sense of national pride. They salute the flag. They get upset when someone insults their nation. We just shrug and tut (a national specialism) when others criticise us. We are so good at making fun of ourselves that we don’t mind if someone else wants to play.

You don’t have to have a sense of humour to live here, but by Gad it helps.


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