447. What is this, British Humour? (with Amber Minogue)

What is British Humour? Is it funny? Does it even exist? How does it relate to our communication style and culture? In this episode I go through the main points of my British Council Teacher Talk about British Humour. Amber and I discuss the definition of British humour, the way it works, how it’s different or similar to other humour in other places, and some examples of typical humour in the UK.

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Introduction

Last week I did a Teacher Talk at the British Council in Paris. Teacher Talks are when the BC invites guests to an event involving a talk on a specific topic and then drinks afterwards. All teachers are invited to talk at these events and this time I thought I’d have a go. The topic was completely up to me, so I chose to talk about British humour because it’s always something I’m thinking about and I thought it might also be a way to promote English language comedy in Paris.

The talk was sold out and went well. I was hoping to upload the recording of the talk here but it’s not good enough. It just sounds very echoey and muffled. Next time I will mic myself up properly. So I’m not going to play the recording, which is a big pity because there were some moments of interaction with the audience and some funny things. But it’s just not clear enough on the recording so I’m not publishing it. The room at the BC where we do these talks is a big high ceiling place with mirrors on the back wall and high windows and walls so the sound bounces around a lot.

Anyway, I’ve still got all the ideas in my head so I’m going to put them into this episode, recorded in the normal way. So, I went to Amber’s place and decided I’d discuss all the points in my talk with her, since I think she’s probably got some interesting things to say on the subject. We both have experiences of living in other countries and we both do stand up so we think about humour quite a lot.

So you’re going to hear us attempting to answer questions like: what is British humour, what’s it like?, is it funny? Does it even exist? How does it relate to our communication style? What does it say about us as a culture?

The main aim is just to describe and demystify humour in Britain. You’ll see that I don’t subscribe to the idea that British humour is somehow better than other forms of humour. In fact, in many ways it is very similar to humour in plenty of other places.

But as I describe it here, just think about whether this kind of behaviour is likely to be found in the culture or cultures that you know, and consider the role that humour plays in people’s daily lives where you are from. You might notice differences or similarities.

Let’s now go to Amber’s place and get to the bottom of this.


Main points covered:

British Humour doesn’t exist

OK, it does exist, but we don’t really use any different types of humour than anyone else. We don’t have a monopoly on humour or anything, but we do value it highly.

British Humour isn’t funny

It’s not always designed to make everyone laugh. Instead, humour is used in our interactions to avoid being too serious, keep things light and make you seem like a normal person.

Self-deprecation

This means making fun of yourself. It’s a bit of a crime to take yourself too seriously in the UK, so people make fun of themselves to show that they’re not above everyone else.

Understatement

This is where you make a strong statement sound less strong. E.g. “It’s raining outside is it?” “Yeah, just a bit”

Deadpan delivery

This is where humourous statements are delivered with a straight face, making it hard for some people to notice that a joke has happened.

Sarcasm/Irony

This is where you say one thing but you mean the opposite. It’s used for insults, for disappointments or to make fun of everything in general.

Innuendo

This is when one innocent statement can also mean something quite rude. Innuendo often happens by accident and other people say something to reveal the dirty second meaning.

E.g. “I like the taste of a cox” (apple)   … “I bet you do!”


Other things I didn’t cover

Puns

These are just word jokes. They work when one word means two things at the same time, connecting two previously unrelated ideas together in one statement. The brain explodes because one thing means two things at the same time.

They’re best when they are instant responses to something, rather than pre-planned jokes.

Here are some examples of pre-planned ones

How does Bob Marley like his donuts?
Wi’ jam in.

For more, check out my episodes about telling jokes in English.

Vocabulary
We have a wide variety of synonyms, homonyms which make it easy to say one thing that sounds like another, creating endless opportunities for word jokes (puns) and euphemisms.

Pisstaking
This means making fun of each other. We do this all the time.
Perhaps it’s because we’re incapable of expressing genuine emotions and we tend to avoid sincerity because it makes us feel uncomfortable, so we interact with our loved ones by teasing them, poking fun at them, mocking them and so on.

We’re emotionally crippled, basically.

E.g. I’ll always poke fun at my brother when I see him.
Like, oh my god what have you done to your hair?
Nice of you to have made an effort today.

Pisstaking has two functions:
To express affection
To knock someone down to size if they’re getting too big for their boots

You need to be able to take a joke in the UK. You’ve got to be able to both take a joke and dish it out when necessary.

If you can, you’re alright.

Surreal humour
Essentially surreal humour involves making fun of absolutely everything around you. It makes fun of existence itself. It means making absurd statements to highlight the absurdity in life. It’s about subverting boring reality. Maybe this is something to do with our weather (it’s dull, generally) or it’s a form of indirect anarchy or something.

Inappropriate humour
Although we use humour all the time, it’s worth noting that it can get you into trouble if you do it badly.
If you use self-deprecating humour, you have to be sure that everyone else gets it.
Be careful who/what is the target of your humour. It’s very politically incorrect to make jokes about certain groups in society – particularly groups that are lower status than you. So, these kinds of jokes are generally outlawed: ethnic jokes, sexist jokes. It’s very bad taste and old-fashioned and not cool at all.

Comedy

British comedy shows, the difference with American comedy, some recommended shows…

This is another episode for the future.

Thanks for listening to this episode. I look forward to reading your comments!

  • Sebastian

    Really enjoyed the part about cultures slapping their knees! Was surprised to learn that it doesn’t seem to be common, Germans definitely do all the time! Sorry, Amber, it is a thing, I can asssure you! :P

  • Аслан

    Hi, Luke. by the way, you imitate Schwarzenegger’s voice brilliantly, I love it

  • Cat

    Hi Luke and Amber, thanks for your lovely chat! It was most enjoyable and also educational episode.

    I’ve got two guestions:
    1. You mentioned “NHS” (?) as something what each Brit is proud of. What is it exactly?
    2. During dissecting of the Hugh Grant’s quote you said that he were “public school”. What does it mean?
    Thanks for explanations!

    PS: Dear Amber, we would LOVE to read your commments in the Dungeons of the Royal PodCastle! Your thoughts and ideas are very much appreciated!!! Thank you. We all love you and are looking forward to hearing / reading (!) from you pretty soon! :)

    • hi Cat! NHS stands for “National Health Service”, it’s the public healthcare service in the UK.
      It’s funny, I listened to this episode on Saturday morning and didn’t know what NHS meant, but a couple of hours later I was having lunch and watching the news on tv, and they were talking about this massive virus that collapsed many computer systems on Friday. They were showing footage of important companies all over the world and when mentioning that many hospitals in the UK were affected I saw the initials NHS. Then something clicked in my head and I linked them to the podcast. What a coincidence!

  • Nakajima Shiori

    Hi Luke,
    I always enjoy listening to your podcast!
    Of course this one made me laugh a lot :)

    Btw, please do listener’s competition that you’ve done before…Again!
    I’d love to join it:)

    Shiori

  • Vũ Ngọc Vi

    I did laugh a lot listening to this podcast on the bus to school =))
    I meant to comment on you page so many time but never really get out of the shadow and write sth, but this time, I decided to be bold and write you a comment haha, thanks for your tremendous dedication to this podcast.
    This episode also gave me a clearer and deeper understanding about British humour, which I love a lot!
    Btw, in Vietnam, we do laugh at our own jokes and I find it awkward sometimes haha!
    Thanks again Luke, wish you and your family well.

  • Anto

    This British guy can speak all types of English accents included Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ))))
    youtu.be/riwKuKSbFDs?t=9m57s

  • Cat

    Andy Johnson makes bold statements — all the time! ;)

    • Jack

      could you explain Catherine :)

      • Cat

        Dwayne Johnson does it as well… :)