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Don't Be So Sensitive: It Was Just A Joke!

Updated: 6 days ago

Is British humour deeply intelligent, or just plain mean?

As the resident Brit in my solidly North American friendship group, I find myself gleefully explaining our usage of kisses in texts, the word ‘naff’, and — most importantly — the British wit. Yet, as I notice my sarcasm slipping in order to accommodate those around me, I find myself wondering: is this a good or a bad sign? The specificity and untranslatability of British humour, I believe, means it deserves an analysis. To put it simply: is British humour deeply intelligent or, frankly, just rude? Granted, I think we’re hilarious, but it’s all I’ve ever known, and so I think it’s worth looking at the bigger picture. After trawling through the internet, plugging in questions like ‘Why is British humour mean?’, I have failed to come back with a sufficiently thorough explanation — so I intend to investigate it myself.

British humour is like one large inside joke passed between bitchy friends on the playground tarmac. Humour is a powerful tool and ours unites us like no other. You either understand it, or you don’t. You’re either in, or you’re out. It seems as if part of the allure of British humour is the way one can’t ‘just get it’. We love the fact that a plethora of our famous TV shows fail overseas. Has anyone else watched the American version of This Country or The Inbetweeners? Of course not. British comedic staples are a car crash across the pond. In our eyes, it was an honour that the US had to generate its own version of The Office in response to the apparent incomprehensibility of ours. But who wants a loud, brash Michael Scott when one could have the surlier, drier David Brent? These few examples lead me to wonder: why are we making understanding British humour the equivalent of gaining entry into Mensa?

Considering the UK has historically run on exclusion, our humour is no exception to it. For a country that dwindles in power by the day, our humour is seemingly one sure way to secure even a mild sense of superiority and hierarchy. Even for those who do ‘get it’, the very basis of our comedy is degradation. Just look at any award show host: Jo Koy will most likely never be hired again after that god-awful Golden Globes speech. Meanwhile, Ricky Gervais held the podium five times. It’s like our accent grants us a free pass to be a dick. Yet the free pass doesn’t only apply to the stage or screen — our inherent rudeness to others is cancelled out by the fact that we are rude to ourselves. I spent the majority of my childhood repeating the mantra of ‘make fun of yourself before someone else does’, relaying my worst moments before someone else had the opportunity to. Granted, I have thicker skin for it, but that seems like a rather meagre trade-off. 

I do believe that considering the state of the world, it’s far easier to be a pessimist than an optimist. Thus, our humour is all the more appealing for reflecting the sentiment of the times. We get away with it because who in their right mind is an optimist in the 21st century? Brits are quick to mock the innate happiness found in their American counterparts, but with studies proving that optimists may live longer than their pessimistic peers, perhaps they may be onto something.

I don’t want to bemoan British humour in its entirety; indeed, there are many aspects we can be proud of. In order to survive the wrath of the British wit, one in turn develops an indescribable quickness and sharpness that is, in many ways, magic. Clearly, there is something special to it — why else would we have so many panel quiz shows consisting entirely of comedians shrewdly and astutely ripping into one another?

The conclusion of my investigation is that our humour is deeply intelligent, but also deeply rude: these are not two mutually exclusive characteristics. We can be proud of it, but let's not deny it for what it is.

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