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Thursday 15 December 2011

The British Sense of Humour

As regular readers will know, I have, through no fault of my own, been in Italy for the last six months.

Italians, when you talk to them, have perfectly intact senses of humour, although they see no comedy value at all in the fact that here, the worst swearing you can do, is to call God a "cat in the snow" or a "frog with glasses". Honestly, this is the truth. You can use all the disgusting sexual and scatalogical weapons in your verbal arsenal and nobody cares, but say "God wolf" and the reactions vary from horror to the kind of gigglish awe that you would dare utter such a thing that you got from your mates at infant school if you said "boobies".

However, while you can have a laugh with the people, their television comedy is completely atrocious (I have been wanting to use the word "atrocious" since yesterday, when I was thinking about Mary Poppins and how she gave those kids such poor financial advice. Feed the birds instead of putting it in the bank? With the economy like it is? Stupid bitch. And as for being "positively perfect in every way", who does she think she is, Jose Mourinho?).

There is a show called "Gli Sgommati" which is basically a very low budget version of Spitting Image that we had in the 80's, and seems to focus solely on making Angela Merkel out to be sweaty, and this awful thing called "Colorado" which is like what Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway would have been like if it was written by the woman who invented the Teletubbies, and which goes on for about five hours because face it, who's in a hurry? It is hellish.

So, you would expect, with their homegrown comedy being as funny as taking your dog to be put down, they would seek their laughs from other countries. And they do. Half the channels here show nothing but imported shows, which are brought in and dubbed or subtitled from the country with the best comedy in the world. Britain.

No, not really. It's America.

This brings me to the main point of today's rant. In Britain, we have always had this belief that we have some strange understanding of what is funny that nobody else "gets". Irony. Banter. Del Boy falling through the bar. And we are wrong.

I am not saying we don't have some brilliant comedians and hilarious shows, we patently do. And we have mastered the comedy panel show genre with shows like Have I Got News For You, QI, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and They Think it's All Over - they just don't have stuff like that anywhere else. Our stand-ups are great. But this is not an argument against the quality of British comedy. This is an argument for the quality of American comedy, by a British person.

So many people have said to me that they don't like American comedy. They find it cheesy. But this is because they have only ever been exposed to the cheesy, melted fondue end of it. They put Friends on around the clock in the UK, and sure, it has its moments, but it is comfort watching material. Nothing all that bad ever happens in Friends, and it's a big deal if anyone gets drunk or smokes. The comedy is kind of wholesome and everybody loves each other and it's nice. The same goes for the newer US shows we get in England now, like Modern Family. We're not going to think it's edgy and modern because there's a gay couple and an old guy married to a young Latina woman, they had that sort of shit on Eastenders when we were 7. So it's just nice, predictable, family comedy. This is the stuff they buy in for us, and so this is the stuff we believe America makes. Feel good, entertaining, gentle jokes, but ultimately unsatisfying. According to Jim. My Wife and Kids. Sentimental dreck where someone learns a lesson in the end. Yeah, I can see why people think it is all overly cheesy based on that.

But what we don't get, for no obvious reason, are the genuinely groundbreaking, clever and funny sitcoms coming out of the US. Or, if we do, they are on at some stupid hour of the morning when nobody watches them. I remember years ago during a bout of insomnia catching shows like Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm, both of which are innovative and dark in a way that is funny but hard to describe, and wondering why they weren't on at prime time.

If you don't think Americans can do non cheesy, ironic, intelligent comedy then just try watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. You will get more laughs out of one episode than out of a whole season of Gavin and Stacey, Black Books or Green Wing, and those are all decent shows. Or try The League, or Community. These shows are the only things I download and watch here because I genuinely think that they offer better comedy for my cheapskate 3G modem's downloading buck than anything I could be watching in the UK.

Additionally, while we may have got the hang of the panel shows, where are our cartoons? We have nothing to compete with The Simpsons, South Park, or Archer, let alone the rapidly diminishing Seth MacFarlane shows (Family Guy, American Dad and the bloody Cleveland Show). I remember one in the 90's called Stressed Eric, but since then, have we produced any good cartoons aimed at a grown up audience? 2DTV was good, but that was years ago.

And as for satire, we make good weekly shows but can we really compete with the Daily Show? We haven't had a decent daily comedy show since the 11 O'Clock Show in 1999.

British sense of humour? Yes, it exists, but we don't own satire or irony or dark comedy. If you have been put off of US comedy because you think it's all moralistic and cheesy, take a look at some of this stuff, then tell me I'm wrong.