Wednesday, January 7, 2009

American humor: Benny Hill, only without the plot

Statutory warning required by the World Blogging Authority: "This post assumes that the reader is at least passingly familiar with American kitsch, camp culture, Depression-era movies,  early television comedians, and the Three Stooges. Be warned that this post also makes an oblique reference to a recent post in BritishSpeak's companion blog "Slap & Tickle", and that posts to that blog are ALWAYS offensive to some group or other. If you are unfamiliar with the former and don't follow the latter, please read this post thoroughly anyway. Although you won't understand as much as the more widely-read patrons of this blog , you will still contribute by increasing the average statistical time spent on this page by all viewers. In fact, the simple act of reading this entire notice, coupled with a long look at Elvira, above, has already countered the hit-and-run effects of over 31 Entrecard droppers. Every little bit helps. Thank you."

We have already covered British Humor somewhat. Witty, clever, cerebral, ironic, sarcastic, yada yada - designed to make you think, make you go "Ah! Yes! So it is! That's very clever! Yes, indeed! Jolly true, that! I say! Brilliant! Ha!" The thinking-man's humor. Lords of the pun and masters of the eyebrow-twitching double-entendre. Funny to Americans? Not so much. Let me list the names of the British standups who regularly appear on American prime-time TV: Ummmm.... there's... ummmm.... Right.

It's not that Americans don't like to think. Well, that too. But mostly they don't think one should HAVE to think about humor. To an American, more often than not, it is either clever and cerebral, or it is funny. Not always, but often.

Having reiterated that from previous posts, let's talk a bit about AMERICAN humor, why it isn't often clever or witty or seldom designed to make you think. And why American humor is, instead, FUNNY. If you don't "get" a British joke, you can have someone explain it to you until you DO get it, and then you can also say, "Ah! Oh! Yes! I see!" It's never to late to do that with British humor. American humor doesn't need to be explained, and, indeed, often evaporates under close scrutiny. You can't explain WHY you drop to your knees all watery-eyed, choking and red-faced, pounding the ground. You just DO.

Why is it funny when Curley Joe squirts the pompous mayor in the face with a seltzer bottle? Why is it funny when Milton Berle, not content with simply dressing up as an ugly woman, begins to walk on the sides of his ankles? Why is it funny when Buddy Hacket struts across the stage like a crazed drum major pretending to be a giraffe, screaming, "The highballs are on me!" Who knows? It just IS funny.

Those three examples are all dead now, just as dead as Benny Hill. Rest in peace. What other British comedians did I like besides Benny Hill? (although, in truth, I mainly just liked the half-naked girls on Benny Hill, and his shirts with matched-fabric neckties mostly turned me off to Benny himself.) Oddly, David Frost. I thought he was hilarious. Until someone once told me that he wasn't really a true comedian on purpose but was acting and talking like that NATURALLY. John Cleese? Sure. But again too clever, and you had to really pay attention and think about what he was saying. But I liked him pretty much anyway.

I am sitting here trying to dredge up examples of American "no-think" humor for you to roll your eyes and shrug your shoulders at. I was watching a rerun of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" the other night on HBO, and it occurs to me there are several examples of American humor in that, although some of the scenes were admittedly too clever to qualify outright. Do you remember Big Dan Teague in that movie? He was the representation of Homer's cyclops (in the movie), played by John Goodman.

Do you remember the part where they are all sitting under that big tree after eating fried chicken from that restaurant, and Big Dan gets up and breaks a dead limb off the tree and starts whacking the other two with it? See... at that point you can just turn down the sound altogether and the scene would still be hilarious. Try it sometime when you have rented that movie. You often don't even NEED sound with American humor.

Perhaps that is the real difference - American humor is very often visual in nature. Seldom can you really turn down the sound with British humor. At least that comes to my mind as I think of the differences.

::Post is interrupted by the sound of a phone ringing. Imagine the ring tone as perhaps the intro to Buddy Holly's "That'll be the Day" or similar::



"This is Elvira."

"Yes, God."

"Max, you've gone on long enough. Tell them the post is over."

"Yes, Elvira. Goodbye."

The origin of Elvira:


  1. The Marx Brothers both prove and disprove this - Groucho is more cerebral (British?) and Chico and Harpo are more 'American'...then there's Zeppo, who was taking notes because he was Groucho's secretary, very boring (though in real life he was apparently the funniest of them all).

  2. @Lidian - Well, I don't know. Are you sure?

    Okay, look... why don't YOU tell me what you think the differences are? Are American and British humor the same? I've told you what I think. What do YOU say?

    Go on, I dare you.

    PS-you are honestly the only one I've ever met who thought Groucho Marx was was cerebral. (Kidding.)

    Harpo, maybe. Or Karl. But not Groucho.

    Btw, did you know that when they were naming themselves, they intended for chico to be pronounced Chick-o? But nobody else called him that so they let it drop. Or that Harpo could piss upside down hanging from a tree limb by his feet? True. Tidbits for you because you seem interested in them.

    Find and read Groucho's old Playboy interview. All you ever wanted to know about the Marx brothers but were reluctant to ask. A good read, I promise.

    And yes, Groucho was a thinker in real life. If ever he had a real life, that is.

    Thank you for coming back.

  3. Slapstick humour is it? I think that's what I would call it. But there is a lot of situation comedy shown in the USA, isn't there? And that seems popular.

  4. Can't all men piss (I mean pee)upside down?
    Anyway, I think you have the differences down, except that I still think Brit humo(u)r is funny. However, I LOVE Kathy Griffin, and my teenagers are into Dane Cook who is actually very funny too. Oh, and the "Who's on First" skit, although very American in style, is both clever and funny.
    (See - I'm not that biased!)

  5. @A. - Not exactly slapstick, by definition. Slapstick is an older form that was popular in both countries. Sort of brutal, pies in the face, pratfalls, etc. Yes, lots of sitcoms here, but hardly cerebral. :)

    Hope you are doing okay today.

  6. @Expat mom - No. Most men would get it in their face. Chico was extra special, they said.

    British humor isn't funny. It is amusing.

    Ok, I give up. British humor is funny. It just doesn't appeal to the large range of unwashed masses who are not used to thinking. So you win.

    Right. :)

  7. I must admit that I don't remember if it was Chico or Harpo who could do that tree thing.

  8. :-)
    (Wearing Anne Coulterish triumphant smile, only not that much Elvira eye pencil, not that skinny, and well, a lot nicer and more intelligent.)

  9. And A.? Thank you for shutting down 50% of your IQ and pretending this post is interesting to you. I'm flattered. :)

  10. The thing is British humour, like all humour, comes from the history. A black humour that came through the difficulties of the past.
    However a great deal of what is there today was strongly influenced by American humour.
    The fast talking Marx Bros influenced many, as did the cartoons, Popeye, Disney etc. One result was the 'Goons.' A radio show that transformed British humour with its zany sound pictures, totally unintelligible to todays generation!
    Following on came the 'Monty Python' and so on. Much of this has American base.
    There were other influences in other directions also.

    In the 60's American tv shows were good, recently they have been poor. Seinfield had a following, but not great, and 'Friends' had a following, among 'women of a certain age.'

    Personally I am for the Marx Bros, Road Movies, type humour. Fast talking repartee. Laurel & Hardy are also still sellers even if now somewhat slow. (One of course English.)

  11. @Adullamite - my favorite fast-talker was Bob Hope. But, come to think of it, he was British, wasn't he? I have been also watching "Honeymooner" reruns. Art Carney was so underrated I think.

  12. Hmm, well I can't tell you the answer, but I will say I love Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Laurel and Hardy. My god however, is Blackadder.

  13. I loved this post, but the commentary is a lot of fun, too. I love British humor. I have the Monty Python Flying Circus box set, plus the movies. And back when I had TV, I regularly watched the Saturday night British comedies on PBS. And Benny Hill was on Sunday nights. I'm pretty sure my mother had no idea we were watching it. Of course, in the 70s, PBS put the black strip over naked body parts, so I guess she thought it was OK.
    But I like some American sitcoms too. I have every Cheers episode on tape, too (though I didn't buy that one, I just taped them.)And Frasier.
    And you're exactly right about Art Carney.



Related Posts with Thumbnails