Exploring Englishness, Part 2: The English Sense of Humour
(This is the second in a series of articles in which we attempt to pin down and dissect various aspects of the English character.)
Of all the characteristics, good and bad, for which the English are known in the outside world, our sense of humour is one of the best-known and most positively regarded. The theory apparently goes that not only do we have more humour overall than other nations, it is consistently funnier too. This article will attempt to examine some of the major characteristics of English humour, and suggest some reasons for its development into such a powerful influence on our society and culture.
It certainly seems to be true that we do, on the whole, have a lot of humour. This is evidenced by the incredible number of English humorous films, publications (including such magazines as Punch and Private Eye and scores of comic novels, from Wodehouse to Helen Fielding), and radio comedy shows. Humour is widespread in our society, as well as in our culture. The use of humour in social interactions is a very important convention in England, as the American travel-writer Bill Bryson observed: “Watch any two Britons [by which, as the sections on Scotland and Wales seem to make clear, he means English people] and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. It won’t be more than a few seconds.” (Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson, Black Swan,1996). And because we have such an appetite for the comic and amusing, we have developed and expanded various distinctive types of humour, much of it employing linguistic creativity and centred around social norms.
Since so much English humour is characterised by inventiveness rather than the formal joke, word-play is of paramount importance. This can be shown if we examine the script of nearly any vintage BBC radio comedy programme, such as Round the Horne or The Goon Show. The latter, in fact, takes word-play to ridiculous extremes; language itself is deconstructed into meaningless noises that are still somehow funny, so that the properties of words themselves are used for comic effect. Listen, for example, to the verbal artistry of the old lady Min, who trills, mutters and quavers her way through life, reaching new heights of expressiveness particularly when alarmed, accompanied by her only slightly less creative spouse, Henry. And nobody could forget the sublime silliness of the Goon songs, in particular the brilliant Ying Tong Song; here the English need for verbal nonsense is satisfied beautifully. Round the Horne, which had almost as anarchic an attitude to language, also indulges our taste for linguistic humour, especially in the Julian and Sandy sketches, which, with their Polari slang, were all but incomprehensible to the general public (“How bona to vada your dolly old eek again!”) and in the Rambling Syd Rumpo folk-song sketches, which are pure nonsense made up of naughty-sounding but actually vapid “rural-type” words, such as moulies, clenchers, nadgers and bogles. The humour lies in the construction that the listener’s overactive imagination can put on these innocuous phrases.
Other types of nonsense are also prominent in English humour, especially nonsense based on a subversion of the rules of logic. This strand stretches from Edward Lear to the comedy of Monty Python. The most satisfying examples of it occur when the nonsense operates according to the rules of an anarchic universe, and obeys logic within this context. Thus, to use another example from the Goons, we get a lot of this kind of thing: Henry: “The cat wants to go out.” Min: “How can you tell?” Henry: “He’s put his hat on.” The fact that cats do not wear hats renders what is otherwise quite logical (if somebody wants to go out, he or she puts a hat on) hilarious. The universe that Min and Henry inhabit is devoid of any sense --people parachute upwards, lights are kept on at night-- but they insist on behaving in what seems to them a rational manner anyhow. This insistence on logic within a mad environment supplies much of the really effective humour of the Monty Python troupe. Thus the saga of the blancmange from outer space which turns everybody in England into Scotsmen (in what seems to me regrettably stereotyped fashion) so that it can play a Scotsman at Wimbledon and win the tournament (because no Scotsman has ever won Wimbledon before) relies on similar use of logic in a storyline that is completely off the wall. If a blancmange from outer space did have magical powers and an ambition to win Wimbledon, such a course of action would make sense within this context. Similar Python sketches create a world in which structured and (viewed from a certain perspective) sensible lunacy prevails. Monty Python is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, in which the author creates a parallel universe governed by rules which appear ridiculous to the reader, but are entirely logical within their own dimension. The Red Queen’s response to Alice when asked why they have to run so fast and yet don’t get anywhere is a case in point: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Nonsense seems to be especially appealing to the English when, as in the works of Edward Lear, it is allied to a gentle melancholy (“Calico Ban,/ The little Mice ran,/To be ready in time for tea,/Flippity Flup,/They drank it all up,/And danced in the cup.--/But they never came back to me!”). There is something infinitely poignant about the Pobble who has no Toes, and the Yonghy Bonghy Bo. This perhaps has to do with our emotional makeup: we like to be touched by humour as well as amused by it. The combination of humour with a slight pathos is almost a convention in the field of English literature, such as in the works of Dickens (an obvious example would be the character of Mr Micawber, whose poverty and relationship with Mrs Micawber are poignant, but whose extremely complex use of language and fervent belief that “something will turn up” are irresistibly comic). Thus, returning to Through the Looking-Glass, we find the White Knight, a supremely funny, mock-heroic character. His continual refrain “It’s my own invention” becomes ever more pathetic and comical as failed contraption after failed contraption is revealed and described. (I think we may safely assume that Carroll here is sending up a peculiarly English passion, inventing things, which was especially prominent during the Victorian age.) The White Knight’s sweetness of temper combined with his despondency make him easily the most memorable character in the entire book. There is something ineffably English about him in his eccentricity, melancholy and gentleness. He has, I believe, a direct descendant in modern literature, King Pellinore in T. H. White’s marvellous reworking of the Arthurian saga, The Once and Future King, whose good-heartedness and dedication in his hopeless search for the Questing Beast are simultaneously poignant and humorous. The key point here is that although we find these Quixotic characters funny we are fundamentally in sympathy with them, even to the point of identifying with their troubles and their strange goals. We love an eccentric dreamer. This at one time was one of the dominant conventions of English humour (the humorous character who at the same time appeals to our better instincts, making us feel empathy with him or her), so that it could be said that one of the main differences between English and Continental humour was precisely this gentleness and convention of identifying with a humorous character, in contrast to what was supposed to be a Continental tradition of vicious satire and scorn towards figures of fun. I think that the gap may have narrowed somewhat in recent times, first because of some of the more edgy satire of sixties and seventies comedy and secondly because of the increasingly savage nature of the tabloid political press; however, if the astounding success of the Adrian Mole (aged 13 and 3/4s) and Bridget Jones books in the past two decades has taught us anything at all, it is that the convention of identification with and sympathy for a humorous character is still alive and well in the English. Perhaps the inherent good nature of most English humour is the reason why it travels so well: it ensures that other nations with varying standards as to what is and is not appropriate in humour feel less threatened by it than they do by many other types of humour.
The surreal (the strange or bizarre), of which nonsense is basically a milder version, turns up in strong and undiluted form in much English humour. The fact that surrealism appears most frequently in English humour is instructive: on the Continent it tends to be used (as in the work of Kafka, for example) in exceedingly grim works that probe the futility of human existence, but in England we have fun with it. From Round the Horne to Monty Python, the English have found ways of making surrealism funny, usually through the comedy of the incongruous and unexpected. This perhaps reflects a general attitude to life that differs from the Continental viewpoint; we find the strangeness of life more amusing than disturbing or paralysing, so that surrealism, which reflects life's strange and puzzling aspects, becomes comical in England. Whatever the psychological motivation behind it, though, we enjoy coming up with surreal characters and situations that have comic overtones. In this we are helped by English society itself, which certainly has its own surrealism. The class system alone has produced things that are truly bizarre, not to mention a gallery of eccentrics who lend themselves to being satirised through surreal comedy. The important point here, though, is that English surreal comedy rarely becomes threatening, staying just within the margins of what we find acceptable and appropriate. Again, this is in marked contrast to the more serious European use of surrealism, which tends to be all about the threatening and the disorienting. (The only “mainstream” counterpart to this in English culture that I can think of at the moment are the short stories of Roald Dahl, which are, instructively, somewhat notorious.)
The whimsical is an interesting sideline in English humour, frequently verging on the downright precious. We are the nation, after all, that produces cute little stories about the adventures of talking animals (the best examples of which, for whimsy, melancholy, and gentleness are A.A. Milne’s Pooh books, but we can also look at Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, and the Womble books). Thus our music writer James Turner, while having his flat renovated, remarked that he had three large windows sitting in his living-room, arguing about what music to listen to: “The only thing they can agree on is that they don’t like the Doors.” This is a quintessentially English use of whimsy. We like humour that charms us. Our appreciation of the whimsical probably arises out of two things: a need to feel cosy and secure, and our love affair with childhood. We read children’s novels avidly for a reason, and most of us never quite lose our instinct for play. The whimsical reminds us of all that is good about childhood and is completely non-threatening. I remember as a teenager watching one of those old Sherlock Holmes movies and rewinding constantly to the spot where Watson picks up a musical box that turns out to be a dreadful singing rabbit. This is hilarious (such a ghastly idea for a musical box, and it is incongruous, because rabbits don’t sing) and comforting (the rabbit looks rather like a cuddly stuffed toy). It perfectly fits the whimsical criterion. This sort of humour could be found in older editions of Punch, especially with reference to animals, children and sweet old ladies up from the countryside, visiting London for the first time. It is at bottom a very kindly type of humour, but it does not seem to be as common as it once was, for reasons that are probably similar to those I have noted above with regard to the identification-with-a-humorous-character convention.
Irony is of signal importance in English humour, in everything from radio comedy to literature. In literature the ironic is the hallmark, for example, of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, written from the astute viewpoint of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. The book is both moving and hilarious (how English, by the way, to write a coming-of-age story that is romantic as well as screamingly funny), with perhaps the best opening sentence in all literature: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (The recent film version disappointingly ditched most of the humour and ratcheted up the angst.) A now largely forgotten but wonderful humorous novel of the twenties, E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady, captures the frustrations of a provincial middle-class housewife with secret feminist and literary leanings, through the lens of ironic self-observation. Richmal Crompton’s profoundly sardonic eye noted all the humour of boyhood in the Just William series, and Stella Gibbons’ delightful pastiche of darkly rural novels, Cold Comfort Farm, is also ironical, mainly because of the contrast between the frame of mind of the protagonist, the cool, suave Flora Poste, and that of her uncivilised rural relatives. (Looking at this list and thinking of Jane Austen as well, one begins to wonder whether this ability to write a delicately ironic novel and keep it amusing isn’t more of an English feminine trait than a masculine one, a question that would certainly provide an interesting line of research.) The type of irony on which most of these books are founded depends on an extremely acute awareness of one’s own attitudes and motivations, as well as those of other people, and in particular the ways in which real human nature clashes with behaviour in social situations. The humour appears most frequently when actions and statements are the direct opposite of what is really felt.
Because we try to find the humour in nearly all circumstances that we find ourselves in, no matter how grim, we have gained a reputation for black humour in the rest of the world that is probably not entirely deserved. Such humour among the English tends to manifest itself mainly in times of personal hardship and to be largely self-directed. The refusal to take the prospect of one’s own death seriously has certainly been a fairly common English characteristic, rather baffling to other nations, and it has paid off in war situations. (George Mikes thought that “The English are the only people in the world who enjoy dying”, which I think is pitching it a bit strong.) The wholesale use of black humour for no good reason is a very recent phenomenon and typified by the more savage Monty Python sketches. However, by and large humorists have not imitated this, and there is reason to believe that the use of black humour mainly as a coping mechanism is still its most common manifestation; self-observation tells us this, as does the observation of friends and relatives who are dealing with stressful circumstances (“At the end of exams, I’ll be a highly-qualified corpse”).
Finally, parody is also a very important genre of English humour. Sometimes it seems as if we are willing to send up anything, from the monarchy to religion to Shakespeare. The master parodist, the librettist W. S. Gilbert, parodied not only English society in his comic operas, satirising the class system, but culture as well, poking fun at conventional drama and the aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century (Patience), while his composer Arthur Sullivan wrote music that is essentially one long parody of Rossini, Wagner, English folk music, Japanese music, and so on. As a relative of mine once said, “You can’t do anything in England without someone making fun of it”, and this is not as great an exaggeration as it looks. Pastiche also fits into the parody category –again, Gilbert showed himself to be brilliant at all forms of pastiche, even coming up with the best non-Shakespearian Shakespeare line ever: “For my part, I would as lief be thrust through a quick-set hedge as cry pooh to a callow throstle.” The Molesworth books, written by Geoffrey Willans from the point of view of the teenage Nigel Molesworth, are a consistently hilarious parody of all those chirpy, unrealistic school stories that children used to read: “St custard’s hav a very interesting history if you are interested in hist which few boys are. It was built by a madman in 1836.” (Down With Skool!, Geoffrey Willans, 1953).
What social functions does humour serve for the English? Some I have already suggested or hinted at. Social interactions nearly always require that a joke or two be exchanged, as Bill Bryson noticed. The idea here is not so much to formally flag humour in a conversation as to work it into the exchange, attempting to show the funny side of whatever is being discussed. Formalised joke-telling is frequently scorned as unimaginative and lazy; the person who asks “Have you heard the one about…?” tends to be viewed as a type of a particular social horror, the Bore. Humour characterised by inventiveness, spontaneity and improvisation is received with delight and stored up to be reported to other people (“I was downtown yesterday and I ran into Bill, and do you know what he said about the new road-building scheme?”) Thus the whimsical remark of a Viceroy of India, a railway-man who, uncomfortably aware of the aristocratic backgrounds of former Viceroys, said “I hear my predecessors were all ‘toffs’ who knew a good deal about huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’. Well, I’m a railway-man myself, and I know a bit about shuntin’, hootin’, and switchin’”, survived for quite a long time, while many formal jokes vanished into the ether. Laughing with others serves to relieve tension, which is perhaps why the English do so much of it; we have little tolerance for hostility in relationships, and humour can help to ease these feelings and produce the kind of comfortable state of things in which we thrive emotionally. A similar sense of humour is one of the most important things that we can have in common with someone else, so making a humorous remark is also a way of gauging one’s compatibility with another person. Laughing at a shared problem gives a sense of companionship in difficulty that is very reassuring (this helps to explain the industrial quantities of humorous material produced during World War II, ranging from funny magazines to George Formby and Will Hay films and, most famously, the BBC series It’s That Man Again with Tommy Handley.) Humour is frequently used to draw the sting or fear out of any situation. It is also a way of deflecting embarrassment or ridicule in social situations: our famed ability to laugh at ourselves, both individually and as a group, pays dividends in disarming the scorn of others, by showing that we are not egotistical enough to care that we have just made a fool of ourselves. Because many English people are essentially fairly sensitive and vulnerable, this use of humour acts as a powerful buffer against criticism and loss of self-esteem. At the same time, however, we are given to “taking the mickey” –particularly out of others’ regional accents and idiosyncrasies— and an ability to accept this is seen as a sign of one’s overall likeability and lack of pomposity (pomposity being, of course, another great social sin). This sort of teasing helps to build closeness between friends and family members, partly because it dampens down destructive egotism and partly because, as already noted, we identify strongly with those we find amusing.
Humour also has some powerfully beneficial psychological effects. We identify with humorous characters whose lives seem to consist of one farce after another because we ourselves refuse to take life too seriously. Many of us suspect that there is no overarching meaning to life, and, instead of being frightened by this, we often turn it to our advantage by finding it funny (in direct contrast to continental Europeans, who seem to find it angst-producing.) This may help to explain why existentialism as a school of thought has never had quite the same cultural impact in England that it has had in France, for example; the essential seriousness and paralysing gloom of the existentialist viewpoint is off-putting to us. It is worth noticing that the most famous English literature with ties to existentialism, such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or the plays of Harold Pinter, which balance an air of menace with farce, are usually profoundly funny. Furthermore, as always, we are made to identify with the main characters in their predicament and find their situation amusing. The theatre of the absurd seems to have had more influence overall in England than existentialist drama precisely because we like to keep our sense of life’s strangeness and mystery tempered with humour. What is more, humour helps to cushion the mental effects of misfortune. It is a powerful antidote to despair in bad times and an enhancer of pleasure in good times. So far as I know, the English were the only nation during World War II to tune in obsessively to a weekly comedy programme, which was, of course, It’s That Man Again with Tommy Handley. Handley himself, while satirising war-time conditions and even government ministries, became one of the best-loved personalities in England, receiving and replying to a thousand letters per week. This is instructive, and brings us to another social aspect of humour: we have always loved people who can make us laugh. This partly explains how the “Our” phenomenon gets started (“Our” Gracie; “Our” George), which implies that the comedian in question is regarded as one of our own tribe, like “our kid” or “our mum” in a working-class family. The “our” also implies that the performer is held in general, rather than personal, affection. We have a high regard for those who, by making us laugh at our own hardships and circumstances, lighten our load a little.
All of this begs the question, however, since we are much more addicted to humour than other groups on the European continent, how did we get this way? Why are we so sensitive to humorous possibilities? I think the answer lies partly in English history and partly in the English character and English society (assuming, of course, that these can be isolated from each other in this way.) When you compare English history with Continental history you are struck immediately by some major overall differences. To begin with, there has been no civil war in England for centuries, not since the era of Roundheads and Cavaliers, so that the idea that hordes of English people might kill each other in the streets is unthinkable and taboo to most of us (which may explain why the more violent anarchist groups have never had much success in England.) The “Massacre of Peterloo” in a field in Manchester in 1819 is still remembered with horror, although only 11-15 people were killed –a tiny number indeed compared with the thousands who died during the “June Days” of the French Revolution of 1848, to use just one example. Thus the English have not experienced horror and bloodshed in their own country on the scale that other European peoples have suffered, an experience which naturally breeds a sense of cynicism that can be plainly seen in Continental culture, in novels such as Camus’ The Outsider or the work of Thomas Mann. This kind of pessimism about human nature is not usually conducive to alertness to humorous possibilities. A lack of a violent domestic history is probably essential, therefore, to the development of an expansive and good-natured national sense of humour.
Another thing that is striking about English history is England’s incremental progress towards a liberal democracy, with fairly steady gains for individual rights. This is in marked contrast to other nations in Europe, in which, historically, gains have been made only to be reversed by a change in administration. The consciousness of progress and, most importantly, the sense that our individual rights are protected is a safeguard against political extremism, fear, and sullenness, all of which are diametrically opposed to English humour which, as we have seen, tends to be comfortable, cheerful and forgiving. What is more, this realisation of historical progress gives us the sense that there is meaning to our country’s history, which, so-called “post-imperial gloom” notwithstanding, provides us with the confidence necessary to be humorous. (Viewed from one perspective, only a supremely confident nation can make a habit of laughing at itself without fear of being undermined.) We know that our rights are secure, which reduces worry and allows us to see the humour in life.
The English character also contributes. As a group we are fairly imaginative and aware, and this, combined with the fact that we are socialised to enjoy humour, means that we are able to see and seek out the funny aspects of things that are not always obvious. This helps to explain why there have been so many English situation comedies showcasing the comic side of running hotels, managing department stores, and other not obviously funny occupations. English society, with its class system and regional differences, also provides rich opportunities for character-based comedy. The many recognisable types and accents produced by this society offer rich material for caricature, and it is noticeable that a substantial amount of English humour is still class-based. Much of it is dependent on the contrasts, real or imagined, between people of different classes or different regions, but most especially on the contrasts between different classes, a type of humour which draws on the incongruous for its effect.
Whatever the reasons for our obsession with humour, however, no-one can deny that this inbuilt irreverence in the face of life’s difficulties is a source of strength. Along with tea and gardening, it is one of our great comforters, acting as grease to the wheel of social interaction and insulating us from many disturbers of our equilibrium. Though life itself may not mean much, viewed from our perspective a good deal of it is funny, which on its own is a sort of meaning. Humour is like a drug to many of us; we can’t get enough of it, and we are endlessly inventive in creating more of it. Our sense of humour has been one of our most enduring characteristics, precisely because we have found it so adaptive and helpful in hard times. Long may it prosper. --Isabel Taylor