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Ten things we are going to miss when we leave Britain – Part 7. Humour

November 8, 2010


What does an email inbox in the early millennium have in common with Britain during World War II (or, as my brother’s classmate calls it, the Second World War II)?  There are plenty of spam in both.
In wartime Britain, spam was one of the very few meat products that were not rationed.  As a result, it entered British people’s staple diet.  The reason the brand of a processed meat product was borrowed to mean junk mail lies in a British comedy group, who fantasised about how absurd it must have been for spam to appear on every item on a menu, taking the place of every kind of meat that were not available during war.  The writer and performer of the “Spam Sketch“, sometimes labelled the Beatles of Comedy, is Monty Python.
If you’ve been reading my previously post about British things I am going to miss ( / am already missing / used to miss but have now completely forgotten about because I left the UK so long ago), you are probably expecting me to start singing and waving about how weird and wonderful Pythonesque humour is.  (By the way, I didn’t make the word up.)  The truth is, I don’t get Python.  I know it sounds ridiculous, but I feel somewhat sorry about it.  The more I read about how quirky and surreal their humour is, the more I want to love their work, but I don’t.  I have enjoyed their Four Yorkshiremen sketch, their Silly Job Interview sketch, their Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Each Other sketch and many of their other minced strangeness in a jar – but they have never really made me laugh.  They have, however, made me notice how high in regard the British hold humour.  The Pythons did not only make their mark in our email inboxes and the Oxford English Dictionary, there have also a programming language, a snake and six asteroids named after them.  The sextet are regarded as geniuses by the British public (and five of the six had their Oxbridge degree to prove it – the sixth was born and studied in America).  Whether it is the fact that the Brits noticed smart people makes great comedians that led so many welleducated people into comedy or the other way round is a matter of chicken and egg, but while silly intellectuals or intellectual silliness might be an oxymoron for some, it certainly isn’t for the people in the UK.  (Except, by my argument, the word oxymoron which literally means sharp-witted fool [“oxus” for sharp and “moros” for fool or blunt-wit in Greek] would stop meaning anything and therefore my last sentence would burst in flame in a logic short-circuit.)
A joke is two stories told in parallel, one expressed and the other implied, where the two stories branch off is the punchline.  Sometimes prerequisite knowledge in a particular subject is necessary to facilitate the inference, as such, the joke contains a reference.  Perhaps due to the expected sophistication of jokers and jokees alike, British humourists never seem to shy away from cultural, historical or literal references.  (Which gives the culturally, historically and literally uneducated people like me [well, I am not literally uneducated, I am just not educated… literally… well, no… you know what I mean], a hard time trying to figure out what everybody else is laughing at.)  When Douglas Adams wrote about a time when “all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man has split before” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (… here I go again), he was making references simultaneously to the opening sequence of Star Trek (“to boldly go where no man has gone before“) and the grammatical taboo of split infinitive (where one is supposedly not meant to insert any adverb between “to” and a verb).  Honestly though, who in the Galactic Sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, apart from the British, would make jokes about grammar?
Let us not have the wrong idea put into our pretty little heads and think that British humour is all clever and Wildean.  It is hard to find anything more absurd than a game of Props on Whose Line Is It Anyway or a game of One Song to the Tune of Another on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue (or any other game on either of the programmes, for that matter).  Between the witty and the silly, there is everything in the middle, from physical to musical, from mocking to down-right shocking (link omitted).  Everyone will have something he/she loves and something he/she hates.  That is the lovely thing about a place where no weird sense of humour is despised, even the non-mainstream can strive for an honourable place to joke with those who share their cup of funny tea.
In my first year at Malvern, my housemaster wrote on my report card, “Jeremiah has a crackling sense of humour”.  Thanks to British people’s attitude to humour, I grew to feel that having the ability to make people laugh is a gift one ought to treasure.  I wouldn’t be so snobbish (or imperialist) to think that my sense of humour has developed during my years in the UK, but the UK has certainly shaped my sense of humour.  I was exposed to the different types of humour (if they exist at all), began to try to habitually structure stories to form a clear punchline (anyone against split infinitives?) and perhaps most markedly, embraced the surreal humorist in me.  (Siuto used to joke that perhaps I could be popular as a surreal humorist in the UK.)  Maybe humour is the thing out of this series that I should miss the least, for not only there will be books, DVDs and internet videos to keep myself surrounded by the British wit, but a part of it has actually grown into me.  You will just have to bear with me next time when I say something unfunny and try to claim it is British.
Talking of which, when you next hear someone make a well-meant but unfunny joke, don’t throw food, appreciate that he / she was only trying to entertain you, it is just not your type of humour.
One Comment leave one →
  1. Miah permalink*
    November 13, 2010 8:51 pm

    Somebody just sent me this a few days ago. I wish I could talk about humour as entertainingly as Rowan Atkinson:

    (Let’s not forget the actor behind Mr Bean himself got his MSc from Oxford…)

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