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American vs. British Comedy

In the interest of making Kagemusha as zippy as I can, I've been scouring the shelves for popular comedic novels. As I mentioned in my post bemoaning the modern predilection for Writing Novels Like Screenplays, nobody likes to write comedy. And after a few days of browsing grocery stores and online booksellers and libraries, I've come to the depressing conclusion that the few people who do are bloody British.

Plenty of American comedians write memoirs and essays. Oh, do they love their essays. David Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart will top any list of the Best Humorous Books of 20XX. Some write comedic books for children and teens—Lemony Snicket, Dave Barry, Meg Cabot...but nobody writes them for adults. It's like writers and publishers think that as soon as people turn 18, their funny bones dissolve and the only things that will interest them for the rest of their lives are romance and violence.

There are only a few left willing to fight the good fight.

  • Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy)
  • Sophie Kinsella (the Shopaholic series)
  • Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
  • Terry Pratchett (Discworld)
  • Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones' Diary)

And they're ALL bloody British.

There's nothing wrong with being British. They can't help it, the poor things. But reading London-based humor doesn't help me much here in Indiana, for several reasons.

Americans Like Different Characters

In stereotypes, Americans are crass and the Europeans refined. But when it comes to TV shows, books, and movies, it's often the other way around. An American hero is the Underdog, the Every Guy, the Girl Next Door. British and Australian characters are unapologetically ludicrous.

From the British fiction I've read lately, they like main characters that are immature and idiotic and who, over the course of the book, more or less stay that way (maybe with a few obligatory epiphanies). But on this side of the pond, we have a compulsion to redeem everyone.

You can see it clearly when BBC shows are remade in Hollywood. In The Office, for example, the original protagonist David Brent is pompous, bumbling, self-deluded and oblivious. When the show was ported over to the US, the producers erased his nastier traits and made Michael Scott a sympathetic buffoon. Michael is also self-deluded and oblivious, but he really cares about his company and his customers. His jokes are immature, but rarely mean. He gets his heart broken a few times. Jim spends a day in his shoes and finds out that, actually, being the boss is harder than it looks, and Michael's tactless behavior is just his misguided attempt to connect with his staff. English David is basically an arrogant prick; American Michael is a great salesman who was promoted to management before he was ready.

I've never met an American who likes Bridget Jones. They love the movie because they love to drool over Hugh Grant and Colin Firth—with their handsome faces and exotic accents—but they don't identify with the heroine. She's vain, vapid, obsessive, and sub-par all around. So are the main characters of Absolutely Fabulous, which ranks #17 in the British Film Institute's greatest TV programmes of all time. I read an epistolary novel series as a teenager about some sex-obsessed kid in London and it was pretty much the same. Couldn't stand him, didn't laugh once.

In short, British people seem to find deeply flawed characters side-splittingly funny. Americans laugh at flaws in short MADtv or SNL skits; but in print, we will tolerate them in tiny doses if and only if the character's visible core is solid gold.

Americans Have a Different Vocabulary

The thrust behind a lot of the comedy in British novels is not in situation or action, but in word choice. Frankly, most of the time not a whole lot goes on, and what little does isn't objectively funny. The humor comes from the way the authors express themselves. Take the opening to Kinsella's Twenties Girl:

The thing about lying to your parents is, you have to do it to protect them. It's for their own good. I mean, take my own parents. If they knew the unvarnished truth about my finances/love life/plumbing/council tax, they'd have instant heart attacks and the doctor would say, "Did anyone give them a terrible shock?" and it would all be my fault. Therefore, they have been in my flat for approximately ten minutes and already I have told them...seven lies. Not including all the ones about Mum's outfit.

I can't do that. We don't have flats or a council taxes or Mums, and no American doctor would ever ask about "a terrible shock." I don't even know what the unvarnished truth about a council tax could be. Are they very high? Is she not paying them?

A favorite trick of British comedians is to express vulgar ideas through antiquated, rambling, or affected language.

"Duz yer mum know yer out, Fats?" asked Nikki.

"Yeah, she brought me," said Fats calmly, into the greedy silence. "She's waiting outside in the car; she says I can have a quick shag before we go home for tea."

Or there's the reverse: using vulgar language when politeness is expected, like in this conversation between Lexi, the main character of Remember Me?, and Jon, the architect of some ritzy lofts for the very rich.

"So," I say politely. "How do you think of all these ideas? All these 'statements' or whatever they are."

Jon frowns thoughtfully and my heart sinks. I hope he's not going to come up with a load of pretentious stuff about his artistic genius. I'm really not in the mood.

"I just ask myself, what would a wanker like?" he says at last. "And I put it in."

The second trick I may be able to pull off, but we don't have real equivalents to "wankers," "tossers," or "cows." Our insults are much less pleasant sounding.

But the first trick is next to impossible. American English doesn't have a formal or hyper-polite version to make fun of. We just have "standard" language and the other flavors go downhill from there. If we want to sound high-brow and affected, we'll mimic a British accent. Badly.

Americans Have a Different Writing Style

In the above excerpts, you'll notice a lot of adverbs and dialogue tags. A lot of "wrylies," as parentheticals are called in screenplays. Fats jokes calmly, Lexi speaks politely, Jon frowns thoughtfully...the British sure love their adverbs.

But Americans are allergic to them. In particular, American editors are allergic to them, and writers who listen to those editors will skewer you gleefully for putting the letters "l" and "y" in succession more than once per book. In fact, I bet if J. K. Rowling had tried to submit the first Harry Potter manuscript to American publishers, none of them would have read beyond the first page. The Bridget Jones series would never have made it off of Helen Fielding's computer.

Friday 27 January

Had dream date in an intime little Genoan restaurant near Daniel's flat.

"Um...right. I'll get a taxi," I blurted awkwardly as we stood in the street afterwards. Then he lightly brushed a hair from my forehead, took my cheek in his hand and kissed me, urgently, desperately. After a while he held me hard against him and whispered throatily, "I don't think you'll be needing that taxi, Jones."

Egads. Five wrylies in one three-sentence paragraph I picked at random. A lot of sex, too.

Americans Are Puritans

From the popular novels I've seen, the funniest subject in the world to a Briton is sex. We have a lot of sex-related jokes, too, especially in gross-out comedies aimed at teens and college students, but the British are relentless. They love graphic descriptions of embarrassing sexual encounters. Rambling complaints about the mundane components of sexual encounters. Books for preteen girls called Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging that launch into bras and breasts on page one, sentence six.

Good for them for being open and comfortable with their bodies, but Americans aren't. Americans really, really aren't. We take a peek at sex and quickly avert our eyes. We dance around it. We poke at it shyly and giggle.

You might get the impression that we're comfortable with sex because there's lots of it on TV. But there isn't, actually. There's lots of hinting at sex on TV. There's lots of attractive people making out. Lots of men and women wearing underwear or bedsheets, and one presumes that they have recently engaged in hanky panky. But it's all vague, off-screen, and oh so mysterious and glamorous. The innocence-shattering ménage à trois scandal on Gossip Girl consisted of three hands-off kisses and a shot of everyone sleeping, fully covered.

Watching anything obviously erotic or talking about sex directly, without the glitz and hand-waving, is shameful and dirty. You don't write about it openly, unless you're cool with your work being labeled trash, smut, and/or a bad influence on the children. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is banned in libraries across the country because there's talk of bras! And menstruation! And, dear Lord no, Spin the Bottle!

Americans Can't Make Fun of Other Countries

If there's anything the British might find funnier than sex, it's Americans. They love to rag on Americans—how dumb we are, how obnoxious we are, how much we enjoy going out to shoot Muslims on weekends. I think they can be prosecuted for high treason if they write about Americans without insulting us as a whole.

Here's a snippet from High Fidelity, after the main character spends the night with a singer from Texas.

"I don't care if you've got the blues," Marie says. "It's OK. And I wasn't fooled by you acting all cool about...what's her name?"

"Laura."

"Laura, right. But people are allowed to feel horny and fucked-up at the same time. You shouldn't feel embarrassed about it..."

I'm beginning to feel more embarrassed about the conversation than about anything we've just done. Horny? They really use that word? Jesus. All my life I've wanted to go to bed with an American, and now I have, and I'm beginning to see why people don't do it more often. Apart from Americans, that is, who probably go to bed with Americans all the time.

Hardy har har. But you know what it's called when Americans make fun of other cultures? Hate speech. Racism. Proof of just how self-centered and arrogant we are.

We can toe the line with Canada, Ireland, and maybe France, but anyone over the age of 25 who tries it looks pathetic (and, frankly, kids under 25 who try it look pathetic too). The only fair game for us is fellow Americans...and then only the white ones.

In short, if we want to write comedy, we have a lot fewer tools to use. We have to do it clean and straightforward, with likeable people and inoffensive material and sparse description. Or at least you do if you want to sell mainstream.

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