Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Lowest Form of Wit

Humor doesn't travel.

Well, maybe that's being a little unfair, humour does travel, but it's usually one way. I recently got a load of great british comedy and showcased it to my inlaws. Everything from Peter Kay to Father Ted. I sat on my couch laughing away while my in-laws just looked puzzled. I find American Humour funny: Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy etc, why doesn't it go both ways?

Crossing a continental divide can make the funniest person seem about as funny as open heart surgery. I'm not going to fall into stereotypes here, for example, to many Americans british humour starts and ends with men dressing up as ladies. To most Brits, American humour is a talking horse. Many of us have the idea that British Humour is more highbrow and subtle, while american comedy is as subtle as a 12 gauge.

This is not true. (However, if you think men dressing up as ladies can't be funny, I suggest you catch 'Little Britain' on BBC America.)

At first I thought it was the subtleties, the cultural differences and the differences in way of life. Watching Peter Kay, not many people over here know who Jim Bowen is or have seen 'Bullseye', a biscuit in Britain is completely different that an American one.

In England 'smoking a fag' means having a cigarette...in the USA 'Smoking a fag' involves firearms, a male of the homosexual persuasion and some severe prison time.

It took me a while but I finally found the answer:

Americans do not understand sarcasm. To Americans 'irony' means 'A bit like iron.'

My first personal experience of this was showing my wife the "Bon Voyage" card I got from my workmates when I left the UK. There where lots of comments like "It's been fun working with you, sorry to see you go, however at least now I won't have to put up with your BO" or "Have fun in Sunny America, you bastard."

My wife didn't get it "Why are your friends being so mean to you?" She said. I said "They don't actually mean it, it's a joke."

It took me ages to get across that while my friends where writing what could be considered mean things, it's just British humour. Think of it, out of everyone you know, who actually makes fun of you the most? If you're a British guy, it's your best friend. I'm dreading introducing my wife to my extended family. Where they see fun and having a joke, it's likely my wife will just see a lot of rude people. There is a particular Uncle I have, that every single one of my cousins and I apologise for in advance before someone new ever meets him.

You see, sarcasm "The lowest form of wit." can be the highest form of wit when used correctly. It's not just raising your eyebrows and saying "NOOoooOOoo! That dress doesn't make you look fat at Aaaalll" Sarcasm can be self depriciating, entertaining and above all, funny as hell.

The best way I can desribe sarcasm and irony to Americans is imagine if Jessica Simpson was actually a genius level IQ and the way she acts was just that...an act. That would be ironic humour at its finest. Instead it's just a case of "Laugh at the pretty but dumb girl."

Here's a story I heard a while ago, I wasn't sure if I beleived it at the time, but since arriving in America, I find it a whole lot more plausable. I seem to remember the story was about the British actor Tim Curry, if it wasn't, it's my memory failing, so Mr Curry, don't sue me.

Tim Curry was discussing humour at a barbecue in California. He told the Joke "How many Californians does it take to change a lightbulb? A hundred. One to actually change the bulb and the other 99 to 'share in the experience.'"

What he got in return was a blank stare. Eventually an attending Californian said "I don't get it, what kind of experience could you get from seeing a lightbulb changed?"

Unfortunatley, the Californian wasn't being Ironic, which would have been funny. He was being serious, which is kind of sad. That's another thing I've noticed Americans don't understand...the same statement said in one way can be funny, said another way...about as funny as watching a box of kittens being run over by a monster truck. For example, my brother often calls me and starts the conversation with "How are you, f**ker?", which is funny and acceptable. If my cousin's new boyfriend greeted me in that way at our first meeting, he'd be picking his nose up off the floor.

Sarcasm is the backbone of british comedy. Basil Faulty on one of his tirades, or that great british comedy and sarcasm masterclass "Black Adder".

Sarcasm and irony makes living in America difficult for the British person. I managed to offend a few people in my first few weeks here who took everything I said as gospel truth. Seeing my mother in laws beautiful Christmas tree and saying "Where's the cat that threw that up?" did not go down well. We brits often call something it's exact opposite to emphasise the fact. For example, walking into a 50 roomed mansion and saying "God, this place is small!" To a Brit, it's understood and automatic, instinctual even.

As I've often said to my wife, if I'm being sarcastic and making fun, you're fine, it's when I'm being nice you have to worry.

It works the other way around to. I once met a guy over here who questioned everything I said because he'd been 'warned' the british have a dry sense of humour.

"Nice to meet you, I like your car."
"Oh, so now my car's a piece of shit, is it?"

As always, here's my story that illustrates my point.

Shortly after arriving in the US during my first visit to this country, my now-wife, then-friend and I went out to eat. The meal didn't start out too well as our waitress showed herself to how shall we say...not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Not recognising my accent, she asked where I was from. "Britain." I replied.
"Oh wow!" She said. "Your English is very good."

At this point, being British, I thought this was a prime example of ironic humour.

I laughed at the joke. I was surprised to see I got a puzzled look in return. At this point my wife buried her head in her hands. Realising our waitress was being serious (and that took some beleiveing, beleive me) I answered:

"Ummm." I said. "I'm actually from England in Great Britain." "You know? England? Eng-land? we speak Eng-lish?"

At this point she started laughing. "Yeah right!" She said. "Everyone knows you guys speak British."

It took a few minutes for me to reply, as I was choking on my iced tea by this point.

"Yes we do. You've got me." I finally said.

Smiling and satisfied, she walked back the kitchen.

She headed off to the kitchen. My wife's face was bright read with nationalistic shame. I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair. Either that girl was one of the greatest undiscovered comic talents...or she was as dumb as a box of rocks...rocks that failed their rock exams, and had to take 'remdial rocks 101" at school. Of course, Americans do have a lot of misconceptions about Brits...but that's for another day.

I laughed about that waitress almost as hard as the time I heard one of my Aunts tell a story where she went off at a guy because she heard him call a Japanese gentleman a 'Nippon'. She'd heard the word 'Nip' as a derogatory remark and assumed racism was in action. To this day she doesn't beleive me that the word 'Nippon' Is the Japanese word for 'Japanese'.

What does this prove? Irony doesn't exist in America.

Stupidity, however, has no borders.

2 comments:

serendipity said...

Love it!! Everything you have said there is spot on, though the guy i'm seeing might not agree, he may be one of the few Americans who not only understands sarcasm, but does a damn fine job of imitating it. I do find him to be the exception though - maybe it's because he's lived in England for a while....

Paulius said...

Glad you liked it!

Thanks for the link, by the way