As we approach the birth of our nation, let us take time to discuss something that is not quite American, British humor. For the country that was once ruled over the United States, it is interesting that often Americans do not understand or appreciate the finer points of what makes the English man laugh. Perhaps it was our need to distance ourselves from the homeland that encouraged us to develop a very different sense of humor. Or, it might be the influence of the rugged west that struck our funny bone. But so many times, I have watched people sit down in front of BBC to watch a British television show, only to stare blankly at the screen as the laugh track rolls by.
I recently finished the first season of the British comedy, The Black Adder, a comedy about Edmund, the younger son of Richard IV and his adventures in 15th century England. I found the show to be amusing but not laugh out loud funny. However, there was one scene towards the end of the season that I believe embodies the three main components of British humor: Men dressing in women’s clothing, or very feminine clothing, overtly sexual women and incredibly awkward situations. This scene provides excellent examples of all three components. To briefly set the scene, The Black Adder, Edmund, has been betrothed to the princess of Spain in order to secure an alliance between the two kings against the French. While the older brother, Henry, has a rather long list of beautiful to-be-brides, Edmund’s Spanish bride is not a fair princess. In fact, she is very ugly. Edmund devises a plan to disgust the princess an hopefully end the engagement by dressing up in bright colors and gaudy makeup as to appear so feminine that the princess will believe Edmund to be gay and want to call off the marriage. Unfortunately, his plan fails and the princess can not keep her hands off him. Meanwhile, the princess’s translator, reciting her continued devotion to Edmund as though the feelings were his own, and the laugh track rolls on. Thus follows the scene to study.
A) Men dressing in women’s clothing – We might find the origins of this feature to originate from Elizabethan theater where men took the rolls of women on stage and dressed as such. Once women were allowed to participate in productions, the practice of men dressed up as women was no longer a necessity, but became humorous. Perhaps it is a reaction to how now it seems ridiculous to prohibit women from being on stage and having men perform all their parts.
B) Sex-crazed women – This may be a reaction to the Victorian era where women were dressed from head to toe in order to prevent even the slightest hint of sexuality. Now that these restrictions have been deemed socially unacceptable by modern society, this may be a way to, as with the previous point, help alleviate any uncomfortable feelings from women’s sexual repression.
C) Unbelievably awkward situations – This is just an attempt to distract from their impossibly bad dental hygiene.
Watching The Black Adder provided great examples of British humor. There are other programs that have made it across the Atlantic to our TV’s that have become a little popular with American audiences, The Office (the British one), Extras, maybe other ones. But until we learn to appreciate the absolute hilarity of a man in pantyhose and a dress, we will never see eye to eye or laugh to laugh.