Two nations divided by a common sense of humour

6 June 2000

You can judge a nation by its sense of humour, I always say. The sort of comedy it produces is a form of electrocardiograph, measuring the vital signs of the national psyche. A country is not on its best behaviour in a sit-com, and no-one is seen to their best advantage. No-one stops to think what kind of impression they are giving, whether they are damaging or enhancing the national reputation, if they are reinforcing or undermining the work of the governmental spin doctors. They just wade straight in and press all the buttons that make their viewers roll on the floor laughing – or try to, which amounts to much the same thing, but is rather less pleasant to sit through.

You can learn much more about practical politics from Yes Minister in the UK and Spin City in the US than you ever could from a thousand State of the Union Addresses and Prime Minister’s Question Times. You’ll never get a more succinct expression of what Americans think of Canadians than the South Park movie, nor of what the Brits think of the rest of the world than the long dead (and not greatly mourned) Mind Your Language, in which a collection of comic Johnny Foreigner stereotypes made an English language teacher’s life a misery.

So, if my theory holds true you should be able to watch an enormous amount of comedy, wannabe comedy, and failed comedy and at the end of it – if your brain hasn’t dissolved and trickled out of your ears – you should be in a position to make a crude, simplistic, but uncannily accurate assessment of the nation that produced it. If that’s the case, I have concluded after a lifetime of putting this theory into practice, then Americans are surreal and the English bumble.

You don’t normally associate the good ole U. S. of A with surrealism – it’s too complicated a concept for the nation that gave us JR Ewing, Gordon Gecko, and the Dukes of Hazzard. But it’s true – the comedies tell the tale. What’s the oldest US comedy still to be screened regularly in the UK at a time when people will actually see it? It’s not Sgt Bilko, or Happy Days, or M*A*S*H – it’s Bewitched, and they don’t come much more surreal than the gentle but twisted tales of the suburban witch and her family. Anyone remember the episode when Ben Franklin went joyriding in a fire engine?

And look at the cream (in quality, if not in ratings) of what the US has produced over the years. Moonlighting – always capable of swerving off into a left field world of whimsy. Northern Exposure – where the impossible was just part of the scenery. Maximum Bob (and whatever happened to that, it just disappeared from our screens after one season over here). Buffy the Vampire Slayer – totally colour me weird. South Park – a law unto itself.

Yes, there’s a strange streak to the American psyche that it doesn’t like to admit to. It isn’t straight and narrow Moral Majority virtue or uncomplicated greed-is-good capitalism, and it bubbles up in comedy whenever Cartman has an anal probe, or Samantha wrinkles her nose and casts a spell, or the Sunnydale High swim team transforms into fish demons.

But if that’s America, what about England? Well, the American networks think they know the answer to that one. Let’s pop back to Sunnydale for a moment and take a closer look at Buffy, where the eponymous vampire slayer’s guide and mentor is forever being told how English he is, and not generally as a compliment. He labours under the name of Mr Rupert Giles, works as a librarian, drinks great quantities of tea, dresses in tweed, and stammers and blushes when he talks. England, the message seems to be, is full of people like him. The odd thing is, Giles is not a failure and a joke, he’s one of the most capable characters in the show. In other words his bumblingness is not a flaw as it might be in another character. Buffy, for example, is as dumb as a sack of hammers and her dubious exam prospects are a recurring plotline, but Giles’s bumbling is just a given, a fixed and unalterable thing, part of him by definition. Angel is a vampire, therefore he drinks blood. Oz is a werewolf, therefore he transforms into a hideous beast at the full moon. Giles is English, therefore he bumbles. He can save the world and – when he sheds the tweed – be sexy while still bumbling. He can even bumble decisively. But he still bumbles. England’s gift to the world.

But we bring it on ourselves, and I blame Hugh Grant for that. Before Four Weddings and a Funeral, we English were at least allowed to be villains. Look at Alan Rickman in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves and Tim Curry in The Three Musketeers and a dozen other actors in a dozen other films. Wicked, and stylish with it. But Hugh Grant standing in front of the Royal Festival Hall bumbling out his love for Andy McDowell doomed us. And the scriptwriters were English, too. What’s worse is that they followed it up with Notting Hill. Not only did Grant play essentially the same character, but almost all of his co-stars bumbled too. They actually sat around a table in one scene, competing to condemn themselves by describing how inept they were. All in order to win a brownie – an American snack that no real Englishman would be seen dead eating, let alone debasing himself for.

And the best of British TV comedy? Exactly the same. Full of fruitful bumblingness. Ask a dozen Brits what our finest comedy hour was and they will all, eventually, after much arguing, agree that it was Dad’s Army. This is a classic, a genuine classic, about a Home Guard unit during the Second World War. These veterans of the Great War and the Boer War, mostly aged in their sixties and seventies, were ready to repel Hitler with pitchforks and stubbornness and not a lot else. As a programme it captures a mood, and a moment, and a spirit that makes yer proud to be British, dammit. But still, it cannot be denied, the comedy comes from the ineptitude of the men as they march the wrong way, fall into rivers, and allow U-boat commanders to plant bombs in their trousers.

In fact, there’s a cruel, self loathing streak to the best British comedy that you don’t see in the States. Michael Crawford, now the darling of Las Vegas in Phantom of the Opera and Barnum, made his name as the inept Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em, spreading chaos wherever he went. Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean was nothing more than an updated, malign, version. In the same actor’s Blackadder series, the central character pours scorn on the failings of his enemies and followers, until the moment when his own bring him crashing down. And the frighteningly popular One Foot in the Grave is yet another comedy based around one person’s life falling apart around them while their best efforts to deal with the situation just make it worse.

Mind you, bumbling had its advantages for Hugh Grant. When he had his unfortunate encounter with the Hollywood hooker Divine Brown he bumbled his way onto the chat show circuit, playing his Four Weddings character yet again, and essentially sat there saying “Aren’t I crap?” Instead of crucifying him, people felt sorry for him, as if he’d thought the poor girl looked cold and offered her a lift home, only to suddenly find her face in his lap and police everywhere. It’s a neat trick if you can get away with it – and one that someone should have suggested to Bill Clinton.

And there, in those two spectacular public cock-ups (so to speak), we see the whole question distilled down to twin cases of life imitating art. The actor who was, for a while, Britain’s most famous export reduced to a public joke. And the surreal sight of the President of the United States swearing on primetime TV that he did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky (who else did he imagine we thought he meant? No, don’t answer that). If you tried to put that little incident into a comedy you’d be in front of the House un-American Activities Committee so fast your feet wouldn’t hit the ground.

Really, you’ve got to laugh.