I Don’t Get It! (Three Rules of British Humor)

The death of comedian Tim Conway yesterday got me thinking about humor. What makes something funny? Are some forms of humor universal, or does comedy vary with one’s culture or life experiences? With all due respect to Mr. Conway—he was brilliant—the one comedy routine I never laughed at was the “Old Man.” Tim would shuffle into the scene, eyes vacant, head bent, mouth gaping, and the audience would collapse in gales of laughter. Maybe it was because of my beloved, elderly grandparents, but to me it was sad—and disrespectful. I’ve always had a soft spot for elderly gentlemen, a fact my husband appreciates more with each passing year.

Now before you label me a humorless prude, I do love to laugh. And what I laugh at most is that quintessentially British style of humor that depends upon irony, overturning expectations, and self-mockery. Kate Fox explains the English sense of humor in her wonderful book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior—a must, in my opinion, for any foreigner attempting to set a novel in the UK. If comedy is “tragedy plus time,” a famous quote attributed to either Mark Twain or Steve Allen (depending on whom you ask), the time required to turn tragedy into comedy in the British Isles, says Ms. Fox, is “about a nanosecond.” The British never take themselves too seriously. 

The opening ceremonies for the London Olympics in 2012 is a perfect illustration. Although grand and impressive, each part of the ceremony included at least one humorous reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. When the London Symphony Orchestra played the evocative Chariots of Fire theme song, the effect was “subverted by the antics of comedian Rowan Atkinson, acting the part of a bored and distracted musician.” Even the arrival of Queen Elizabeth to open the Games was presented as a James Bond spoof with the Queen playing herself.

British humor, says Ms. Fox, depends upon certain rules. Here are three of my favorites.

1. The “Oh, Come Off It!” Rule

This rule is often observed in Parliament, she says, when a politician shows the tiniest sign of taking himself too seriously. This will be immediately spotted and knocked down by scornful remarks such as “Oh, come off it!” Someone once said, “The English have satire instead of revolution.” Think of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

2. The Understatement Rule

George Mikes, the Hungarian-born journalist, humorist, and writer, said that understatement “is not just a specialty of the English sense of humor; it is a way of life.” The typically British prohibition on all forms of gushing, boasting, and emoting require it. This subtle form of humor isn’t always understood by foreigners. A debilitating illness is described as “a bit of a nuisance.” An outrageous breach of judgment or etiquette is termed “not very clever.” English humor is witty, natural, and always well-timed but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Which is the point of understatement.

3. The Self-Deprecation Rule

This rule involves modesty—not true modesty but the appearance of it, which to those who get the humor, manages to convey the exact opposite of what is actually said. Ms. Fox’s husband is a brain surgeon. When they first met and she asked him what led to that profession, he said, “Well, um, I read PPE [Philosophy, Politics, and Economics] at Oxford, but I found it all rather beyond me, so, er, I thought I’d better do something a bit less difficult.” He was playing by the rules, dealing with the English embarrassment concerning prestige and success with self-denigration. No wonder Americans are often viewed as loud and boastful. We don’t follow the rules. We don’t even understand them.

What makes you laugh? Do you have a favorite comic? A favorite funny movie?

If you’re a writer, do you use humor? Can you think of any “rules” of humor in the U.S.?

For readers, what kind of humor do you appreciate in the books you read? Can you give an example?

One comment

  1. Enjoyed this very much. As one of my series is set in England, I have several readers in the UK who never hesitate to point out if I’ve gotten something wrong! One favorite was when I’d written a young child had a temper tantrum. “We’d say he was fractious!”

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