Sunday, February 18, 2007

Our ironic cousins

Simon Pegg of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead shares some thoughts on American and British styles of humor:

It's not so much about having a different sense of humour as a different approach to life. More demonstrative than we are, Americans are not embarrassed by their emotions. They clap louder, cheer harder and empathise more unconditionally. It's an openness that always leaves me feeling slightly guilty and apologetic when American personalities appear on British chat shows and find their jokes and stories met with titters, not guffaws, or their achievements met with silent appreciation, rather than claps and yelps. We don't like them any less, we just aren't inclined to give that much of ourselves away. Meanwhile, as a Brit on an American chat show, it's difficult to endure prolonged whooping without intense, red-faced smirking.

Of course, it's the mainstream output of our respective entertainment industries that tends to shape our general opinion of each other. Ask the average American what they perceive British comedy to be and you will most likely be quoted shows such as Benny Hill and Are You Being Served? (although, thanks to BBC America, this is beginning to change). The fan demographic for both shows is markedly more diverse than in their country of origin. This is probably due to their parochial peculiarity, rather than the quality of the comedy (although both shows had their moments) and perhaps explains why the American audience took to Shaun Of The Dead with such affection. A refusal to occupy that transatlantic middle ground that sometimes scuppers British films intent on appealing in America means that the film plays as resolutely British. That approach does risk certain social and cultural references being lost in translation. But not many. The only joke in Shaun Of The Dead that never got a laugh in the States was Ed's request for a Cornetto ice cream at 8am on a Sunday morning. Overall, the cast's understated reserve in the face of flesh-eating zombies just added another layer of amusement for American viewers.

When it comes to their mainstream, America's emotional openness has often given way to a sentimentality that jars with our more guarded and cynical outlook. This is why the initially enjoyable Happy Days became blighted by saccharine lessons in family values, as Henry Winkler's originally subversive Fonzie was mercilessly appropriated by the middle-class American family, castrated by Marion Ross's Mrs Cunningham and forced to sit on it (although it's interesting to note that in outtakes from the series, Winkler and Ross would often play out an irresistible sexual tension between them with stolen gropes and kisses, solely for the enjoyment of the live studio audience, hinting at darker, more interesting themes than the show itself ever tackled). Generally speaking, sentimentality isn't easy for us. It makes us nervous and uncomfortable. We become edgy and dismissive of these brazen displays of emotion.

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