British and American humor

If there is one difference that I have noticed between American and British sketch comedies, it is that the former depend on more jokes with the set-up and punchline formula, while the latter often have an absurdist element that does not have even any identifiable gag but simply careens from one place to another using just language and non sequiturs to great comedic effect.

Some of the best clips from Monty Python such as the dead parrot sketch (does anyone really need a link to it?) do not have any identifiable jokes anywhere. Here is a clip from A Bit of Fry and Laurie that does something similar.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Actually, I don’t see this sketch as comparable to the Dead Parrot sketch much at all. This one strikes me as a pretty scathing spoof of the tactic of impeaching someone’s character by hinting that they might be a homosexual. It’s absurd because F & L use comic exaggeration, but its object of satire seems pretty obvious to me.
    The Dead Parrot is much more absurdist, although even it has the theme of an unscrupulous shopkeeper trying to foist defective goods onto a customer. Perhaps the most purely absurd Python sketch is the Cheese Shop sketch, where an ostensible cheese shop keeper in fact has no cheese available for purchase.

  2. mnb0 says

    One reason I don’t like American comedies too much is exactly because of the set-up and punchline formula, which I think tiresome. The British don’t have the monopoly on absurdism though. From memory: the movies 1941 and Blues Brothers had quite some absurdist elements.
    It’s very hard to find, especially with subtitles, but Preparez vos Mouchoirs (Get out your Handkerchiefs) might be the most absurd comedy I have ever seen. This is combined with highly unusual morals, which imo results in one of the funniest movies ever.

    A recurring theme:×600/69/kfim.jpg

    I can’t help smiling only by looking at that picture.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Monty Python were trying hard to break out of the punchline format. It was a conscious effort from the start.

    BTW, the dead parrot sketch is based on a real life incidence, which starred Michael Palin and a used car.

  4. Mano Singham says

    One advantage of the set-up and punchline formula is that the joke is transferable in that other people can also tell it, though they may not tell it as well. With Monty Python or Fry and Laurie, the best you can do is describe the humor, not recreate it.

  5. Mobius says

    I found the sketch quite funny, and absolutely loved the twist right at the end.

    And the humor associated with Fry’s personal preferences is not lost on me.

  6. sundoga says

    If you enjoy Monty Python’s style, I’d suggest you look up another British group of roughly the same time, The Goodies. Absurdism was pretty much their raison d’etre.

  7. says

    I grew up on a diet of Wayne and Shuster (Canadian comedians), the Goon Show and Monty Python. I’ve never seen the appeal of American humour, a fair amount of which is low brow stuff, toilet humour, sight gags and “attack humour” (i.e. insulting people, like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay). Absurdity is always funnier because it makes you ask “w…w…WHY??!!?!” in your head as you watch. It makes you watch to find out the reason for the sketch, which of course, there isn’t one.

    Another type of humour which does work everywhere is telling the truth. Thankfully, there is a lot of that sort of humour in the US (e.g. Jon Stewart, George Carlin, etc.). “Truth” comedy is really another form of absurdity. It’s pointing out human stupidity, hypocrisy, ignorance and many other human foibles, something we’re all capable of and can relate to.

  8. bryanfeir says

    Wayne and Shuster were fun, in part because they often did very literate humour and expected their audience to be able to keep up. See The Shakespearean Baseball Game, which played entirely on the subtle absurdism of baseball players speaking entirely in iambic meter and references to Shakespeare soliloquies. Or in ‘Rinse the Blood off my Toga’, basically doing Julius Caesar as a noir detective story, they played with Latin plurals:

    Cicero the Bartender: What’re you drinking?
    Flavius: Gimme a martinus.
    Cicero: You mean a martini.
    Flavius: If I wanted two I’d ask for them.

    Canadian humour tends to be a bit mid-Atlantic, mixing British and American styles. And often with a big dose of self-deprecation. After all, nobody else takes us seriously, so why should we?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *