This Side of the Pond
Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman
April 7, 2022
I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks and we’re still talking about less than a minute’s worth of footage during an award show that most of us forgot to watch. In case you somehow managed to miss out on the drama: Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars for making a joke about his wife’s shaved head, which Rock may or may not have known was due to alopecia.
Tens of millions of people watched the footage in the aftermath – far more than saw it live. The “slapping incident” now has its own Wikipedia page.
But after a few days, the conversation began to change. We were no longer discussing whether or not the Fresh Prince was right to be angry about an insult based on Jada’s medical condition, or whether being angry justified a physical response (or, for that matter, whether his mom would get scared and send him to Bel Air).
Instead, we were listening to comedians predict the demise of their profession. You can’t say anything anymore, they lamented, because people are too easily offended.
For the record, I don’t think that’s true: I think they’ve forgotten that freedom of speech is still very much a thing, but it doesn’t mean being free from the consequences. Sometimes that means people will take to Twitter to complain you’ve offended them and sometimes it means someone will deliver a theatrical blow to your cheek in the middle of the year’s most prestigious movie award show.
That doesn’t mean they can’t say it. It comes down to deciding what’s worth saying.
I find it hard to believe a comedian is capable of figuring out whether something’s funny without also knowing why and who it would entertain. If they’re incapable of asking themselves whether making a joke is worth the potential backlash, maybe they’re in the wrong job.
I also don’t believe we’re witnessing the end of comedy because I’m British, and in Britain our brand of humor has always been about mocking, teasing and “speaking truth to power”, all of it wrapped up with a neat bow of irony, sarcasm and pessimism, because we all like to think of ourselves as the underdog.
In Britain, our comedians are basically rock stars. Stand-up is such a huge industry that our comedians can sell out stadium shows in minutes.
Twice I’ve found myself waiting by the computer for tickets to go on sale and securing mine in just the nick of time, once for Eddie Izzard at London’s O2, the biggest ticket-selling arena in the world with 20,000 seats, and once for Russell Howard at the 12,500-seater Wembley Arena.
We’ve translated stand-up to the tv through a uniquely British style of program: the panel show. Masquerading as quizzes, these are basically just comedians giving funny answers on various topics.
There’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks for music, Mock the Week for current events, QI for general knowledge, Have I Got News for You for, well, news, 8 Out of 10 Cats for statistics and several more. They all announce winners at the end, but nobody cares, because the format is just an excuse for comics to be hilarious – and they’re often being hilarious by mocking politicians, the rich or anyone else who they feel has been hypocritical, daft or just plain wrong.
You’ll go a long way in Britain if you can make us laugh. Fortunately, there’s no need to find that notion intimidating, because it isn’t difficult to do.
While the brand of comedy we create for ourselves does differ in some ways from the style that’s popular Stateside, that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate both. We’re not so much comedy connoisseurs as greedy; more laughing, we feel, is better than less laughing.
We thus very much enjoy America’s comedy contributions alongside our own. I grew up on Friends, Cheers, Seinfeld and Mark Twain novels, among many other quality laugh-inducers.
Comedy is our lifeblood; we consider wit to be one of the more important characteristics a human being can possess. As John Cleese once said, “An Englishman would rather be told he’s a bad lover than he has no sense of humor.”
British humor doesn’t always translate because it can be perceived as mean-spirited. Take The Office, which was re-imagined for American audiences because the main character was simply too off-putting.
But it’s not mean-spirited when you bear in mind the underdog mindset – we take the mickey out of friends and foes alike. If we’re mocking you, it might mean we love you (but it might not, which I acknowledge makes things tricky).
To the uninitiated, Ricky Gervais once wrote, our teasing, “can sometimes be perceived as nasty if the recipients aren’t used to it. It isn’t. It’s play fighting. It’s almost a sign of affection if we like you, and ego bursting if we don’t. You just have to know which one it is.”
We make our comedy to be a little darker, a little dryer and a little more subtle, the latter because we’re a people who aren’t known for saying what we’re thinking. Our humor is self-deprecation, witticisms and observations of our own foibles, as well as those of others around us.
We believe comedy defuses the tension around difficult topics – you can make important points hit home more cleanly if your audience is laughing at your words. A good stand-up comedian can make a joke that sounds sexist, for example, but is actually mocking sexism itself.
I’m generalizing, of course, because there’s plenty of overlap between American and British comedy – and, of course, not all comedy needs to be serious – but you get the idea. Comedians have probably influenced opinion in the UK more than any of us will ever know, and I don’t see them stopping now.
I think the issue here is really that the joke which got Chris Rock in hot water wasn’t one of his finest, nor did it didn’t have anything insightful to say. Maybe comedians simply need to ask themselves before they quip whether the point they want to make is worth the reaction they’re likely to get.
Or maybe we just need to accept that some people will read insults into almost anything. If even Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks was once perceived as a political statement, I’d say that somebody, somewhere not finding you funny probably just comes with the territory.