English Humour vs. American Humor – Is There a Difference?

Humour is a phenomenon which is influenced by culture. It can be difficult to determine what aspects define a certain sense of humour. A nation’s wit is linked to the historical development of the country. How funny somebody finds a certain incident depends on many factors including age, personal experience, level of education and geographical location. Therefore humour is something which is not always transferrable in another country. What somebody from one area may find hilarious may not be amusing at all to somebody from another location. Whether or not someone gets a joke is determined by their interpretation, filtered by the cultural context.

What about when both countries speak the same mother tongue? Does that mean that they will then share the same sense of humour, or can differences still occur? Let’s take the example of Britain and America. Time and time again, people say that Brits and Americans don’t ‘get’ each other’s sense of humour. To what extent is this true, if at all?

It is often argued that one of the most common differences between the British and American sense of humour is that Americans don’t understand irony. Simon Pegg explores this topic in depth in his article What are you laughing at? He concludes that this statement isn’t true and I am inclined to agree with him.

One of the major differences seems to be how often both nations use irony. Brits use irony on a daily basis, whereas it is not the foundation of American humour. I think Americans understand British irony (most of the time anyway!), what they don’t understand is the need to use it so frequently. When Americans use irony they tend to state that they were “only kidding”. They feel the need to make a joke more obvious than Brits do, maybe this stems from a fear of offending people.

The American sense of humour is generally more slapstick than that in Britain. I think this arises from a cultural difference between the two. Their jokes are more obvious and forward, a bit like Americans themselves. British jokes, on the other hand, tend to be more subtle but with a dark or sarcastic undertone. There is usually a hidden meaning. This may stem from the fact that British culture is more reserved than American culture.
Certain American comedies have gained huge success in Britain and vice versa. Therefore, although there are differences between both comic styles, there is still an appreciation and understanding of the other sense of humour. Both the British and America versions of the comedy The Office are hugely successful on both sides of the Atlantic. Both shows have their own cultural differences, yet they portray a lifestyle which both Americans and Brits alike can relate to.

Although both nations have subtle differences in their wit, they can both appreciate the others’ sense of humour. For some great insight into differences between American and British English check out separated by a common language, which served as inspiration for this article.

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16 thoughts on “English Humour vs. American Humor – Is There a Difference?”

  1. Thanks for the hat-tip, but I do have to take issue with this:

    The American sense of humour is generally more slapstick than that in Britain. I think this arises from a cultural difference between the two. Their jokes are more obvious and forward, a bit like Americans themselves. British jokes on the other hand tend to be more subtle but with a dark or sarcastic undertone. There is usually a hidden meaning. This may stem from the fact that British culture is more reserved than American culture.

    This is a popular stereotype especially among the British, the people who gave the world Benny Hill and Carry On comedies and people riding giant piggy banks on Ant & Dec’s show and plenty of gross-out humour on Two Pints. The US gave us Kurt Vonnegut, Larry David and the Simpsons. There’s lots of room for obviousness, sarcasm and darkness in either culture. Sure, there are differences, especially, I think, regarding how one performs jokes in interpersonal situations, but I find the whole ‘we do subtle, Americans don’t’ thing to be a very messy brush to paint over a lot of complex issues.

  2. I just finished watching The Office UK after The Office US.
    IMDB’s forum is filled with comments by Americans and Brits on that matter, it is very interesting to read. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0290978/board
    US commenters frown upon jokes about race, sex life, handicap and religion, basically. They need to condemn explicitly who the “bad guy” is and make much of protecting/avenging the poor oppressed minority.
    The Office UK may be less fun to watch but seems more adult to me, when you can make your own mind without being told by the scenario your opinion of the characters…

  3. Please do me a huge fafour and omit the apostrophes where they do not belong, which is in plurals. I am an English teacher searching for good articles on the differences between American and British humor. If you correct these mistakes, I would like to put this article in my link collection for my students.

    As for The Office, I detest Gervais and prefer the US version of the show.

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  5. Example of British :- Comedian “My name is Richard Head!”
    Audience “Snort choke guffaw howl!”
    American (US) Comedian “My name is Head, Richard Head. My friends call me Dick for short. Dick Head Dick Head, DickHead, dickhead! geddit heeyuk heeyuck heeyuck!”
    Audience ” Dick Head, Dick Head dickhead! heeyuk heeyuck heeyuck, this I gotta tell my friends, did ya hear that, Dick Head dickhead heeyuk heeyuk!”

  6. Dave
    All Americans I know would understand your British example. If an American comedian actually used your example sentence most would think he was a moron.

  7. @Murbella

    I am myself in search of as many articles I can find about the differences between American and British humor. Would you be so kind as to share your(or bits from) collection?

    As for the general discussion, it is easy to make general claims about what is British and what is American humor, though you can’t just generalise everything into two groups, because there is a very large grey area in between.

  8. I’m a Anglophile American, and I do watch a lot of British TV. My father’s side of the family prefers dry British humor. My mom’s side prefers laugh out loud American humor.

    What I find the difference is between the two is in portrayal of the joke. British tend to be more reserved and the audience has a ho hum chuckle. American tends to be a more out going slapstick style and the audience about has a hernia laughing.

    Some British say that Americans don’t understand irony in humor. Is that true? Partially. Irony here tends to be more of a device used in drama. So when irony is used, Americans think the setting is more dramatic. Americans, instead, primarily use sarcasm in humor, which British don’t usually understand or find funny.

    I was talking to a Brit expat from York a few weeks ago and he use a lot of irony in the way he joked. I understood most of it but my mom and my brother didn’t get any of it.

    Later that night, I was talking with another Brit. He lives in Bath and seasonally does a job here in America. When I asked him sarcastically (with a smirk on my face) if he was planning on moving permanently to America, he looked at me really sternly and said, “NO!”.

  9. Americans get irony, but just kinda feel its a card overused. They use it in sparingly situations. Yes.
    American joke:
    What do you call a ghost bee?
    A: A boobee.

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  11. To say the British don’t use or like sarcasm is soo wrong, that with irony are essentials for us.

  12. Come on, how can anyone say Brits don’t use sarcasm? I think that we have a tendancy to use it over an extended period of time. For example a whole conversation could be sarcastic, or a sarcastic comment could either be played along with or have an overly serious answer.

  13. Re U.S. laborious overexplanation as a national stereotype, this has been recognised sufficiently for it to be used as a comedic vehicle in itself, for example in the Mel Brtooks comedy ‘Blazing Saddles’.
    We’ll build a fake Rock Ridge, so when they ride in to destroy the town, the’ll think its the real Rock Ridge, but we’ll know its the fake Rock Ridge, but they’ll think……………..
    I do realise that not everyone is a stereotypical moron, but please U.S. beware of the way you portray characters in the movies and TV shows that you sell to the rest of the English speaking world, for you are likely to be perceived as the jackasses portrayed in such material. Please balance the portrayal of yourselves as people who can be succinct and intelligent as well as hysterical and loud.
    The most human sit-com characters are the Simpsons.
    By the way, my name is Michael Hunt, my friends call me Mike……………
    Have you seen Mike………….?

  14. Not all my humour is smut/gutter stuff.
    “I suffer from dyspepsia………………..
    I can’t smell worms”
    A duck walks into a bar and says to the barman “Have you got any bread?”
    the barman says no, we got beer, liquor, chips and pretzels, but we don’t have bread!
    So the duck says “have you got any bread?
    The barman repeats, and so does the duck, several times, until the barman is thoroughly fed up, and he says “If you ask for bread once more I’m going to nail your bill to the bar!”
    so the duck says “have you got any nails?”
    the barman says actually no I don’t
    so the duck says “have you got any bread then?”

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