February 19, 2012

What's funny - and different - about British humor

Famous graphic from "Monty Python's Flying Circus"
Virginia Opera is about to rev the engines into full Savoyard mode with a production of The Mikado.  Why Gilbert and Sullivan?  Well, we just completed a run of performances of a contemporary opera by a living composer; in marketing terms, think of that as "operatic brussels sprouts".  Our loyal audience bravely ate their vegetables, so we make up for our chutzpah with some dessert: an English trifle in Japanese dress.

Since the whole point of Mikado is to make us laugh, I thought we'd begin with an examination of humor.  Everyone likes to laugh, but what makes you laugh?  Think about the movies and TV shows you prefer: your choices will reveal whether your tastes skew towards American or British humor.

Dick van Dyke as Rob Petrie
There's a difference, you know.  Actually, two differences that I've thought of.

To sum it up, I'd put it like this:  Americans laugh with you; the British laugh at you.  Before you Anglophiles begin howling in protest, let me assure you that isn't really as harsh as it may sound.  I don't mean that the British are mean-spirited or anything nasty like that.

It's just that American humor tends to portray people as they really are, more or less; we laugh in recognition of ourselves, our friends, our family members.  British humor tends to exaggerate human nature to the point of absurdity, or to the point that we can no longer recognize ourselves; we laugh at the sheer nonsensical absurdity.

Let's make a list of TV shows that have, by and large, consisted of recognizeable human types with little or no exaggeration.  WARNING:  I'm old and everything, so these go back a few decades.

The Andy Griffith Show.  (Everyone knows a ditzy-but-kindly old Southern biddie like Aunt Bea)
Dick Van Dyke (Rob and Laura Petrie were about as normal as a suburban couple can be.)
Cheers (Sam Malone, clueless athlete, and good ol' Norm = a thin Everyman and a fat Everyman.)
The Cosby Show (getting an African-American family accepted on prime time meant being especially "normal")
M*A*S*H (Okay, Klinger was a little "out there", but more than balanced by good ol' Hawkeye and especially Radar O'Reilly, everyone's little kid brother.)
Home Improvement (This show was so tame in outlook it could have run in the 1950's with little change)
Friends (If you didn't recognize your own friends among them, you wouldn't have liked them so much)

And on and on.  Have any American sit-coms indulged in a bit of absurdist outlook?  Well, sure; a good example is John Lithgow's 3rd Rock From the Sun.  But such programs truly are the exceptions that prove the rule.  And of course, as electronic media began to dominate global culture, a certain cross-pollination of styles was inevitable.  Even so, the differences are characteristic and still valid today.

On the other side of the Pond (i.e. the Atlantic), virtually any British comedy program proves the point by providing the contrast.  I'll name two:
Monty Python's Flying Circus (I'll bet you don't really know any lumberjacks who like to dress in women's clothes.  If you do, that's your business, naturally... mum's the word.)
Blackadder (Before he won American hearts portraying Dr. Gregory House, Hugh Laurie provoked British chuckles purveying classic absurdist tomfoolery with his esteemed fellow clowns.)

The Python troupe, namely Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, would doubless be the first to acknowledge their debt to the humor of W. S. Gilbert (the guy who wrote the words; Sullivan was the musician.  You knew that, right?) and if they didn't, well, that would be obtuse of them.

In The Mikado, it's not hard to spot the absurdity; it's everywhere!  For one thing, we have a cast of all-Japanese characters.  They're dressed in authentic Japanese costumes, with hair and make-up in Japanese style.  Yet they talk like characters out of Dickens; it's all "I say, my dear chap, there's a good fellow" and so forth.  Ridiculous.  Nanki-Poo's initial solo, "A Wandering Minstrel, I", intended to introduce him to us, turns out to be nothing less than a catalogue of typical British song-forms: idyllic ballad, sea shanty, "teddibly British" patriotic anthem, and so forth.  And all delivered dead-pan, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the Japanese Emperor's son to be singing an English sea-shanty.  Priceless!

We Americans have a big, wet, sloppy, touchy-feely streak of sentimentality in our humor.  The British are about as sentimental as an IRS audit.

Proving the point is fairly simple:  just compare our American Broadway musicals with the canon of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  From Rogers and Hammerstein to Lerner and Loewe, from Frank Loesser to Alan Menken, American musicals aren't complete unless there is a moment designed to produce that phenomenon known as THE LUMP IN THE THROAT.  That moment when the scoundrel attempts redemption; that moment when the star-crossed lovers find each other at last; that moment when 'Enry 'Iggins admits he's grown accustomed to his little guttersnipe's face; these moments are crafted and calculated to produce a big unison "AWWWWWW!" from the crowd as hankies rush to sop up sweet, sweet tears.

British humor avoids sentiment; in fact, they bend over backwards to hold up these mawkish moments as additional targets for ridicule.  Because, in this sensibility, everything is a target for satire and ridicule; there are no sacred cows.  Anyone who's seen the Python film The Life of Brian has long since embraced that reality.  If anything in The Mikado makes you weepy or produces throat-lumpiness - well pal, you've got issues!  The old cliche of a "stiff upper lip" really does represent an ideal of facing the world in the United Kingdom.

A perfect example of this is found in the love duet between Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo.  The joke is that, as their love is legally forbidden, there is a running gag throughout the number in which they vow never to kiss each other and then kiss repeatedly to demonstrate what they will never do.  A decidedly unsentimental moment of, uh, sentiment.

Actually, there is a
THIRD BIG DIFFERENCE, but you what?  This essay is long enough.  We'll save the THIRD BIG DIFFERENCE for next week, okay?

Ta!  (See what I did there?  That's a Britishism:  "ta".  I'm really getting into the spirit of this thing!)

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online at www/kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.

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