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British humour

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British humour

British humour was shaped by the relative stability of British society, and carries a strong element of satire aimed at "the absurdity of everyday life". Themes include the class system and sexual taboos; common techniques include puns, innuendo and intellectual jokes.[1]

A strong theme of sarcasm and self-deprecation, often with deadpan delivery, runs throughout British humour.[2] Humour may be used to bury emotions in a way that seems insensitive to other cultures.[3] Jokes are told about everything and almost no subject is taboo, though often a lack of subtlety when discussing controversial issues is considered crass.[4] Many UK comedy TV shows typical of British humour have been internationally popular, and have been an important channel for the export and representation of British culture to the international audience.


  • Debate 1
  • Themes 2
    • Innuendo 2.1
    • Satire 2.2
    • Absurd 2.3
    • Macabre 2.4
    • Surreal and chaotic 2.5
    • Humour inherent in everyday life 2.6
    • Adults and children 2.7
    • British class system 2.8
    • Lovable rogue 2.9
    • Embarrassment of social ineptitude 2.10
    • Race and regional stereotypes 2.11
    • Bullying and harsh sarcasm 2.12
    • Parodies of stereotypes 2.13
    • Tolerance of, and affection for, the eccentric 2.14
    • Pranks and practical jokes 2.15
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


In an interview published in 2015 by The Guardian (A British newspaper), Eddie Izzard, a British comedian, declared that: “There is no ‘British’ humour. It is only the references that are specific … you don’t need to nationalise it.” Eddie further states: "A joke may be “built in British”, but that doesn’t mean the comedy hinges on anything inherently “British.” [5]


Some themes (with examples) that underpinned late 20th century British humour were:[6]


Innuendo in British humour is evident in the literature as far back as Beowulf and Chaucer, and it is a prevalent theme in many British folk songs. Shakespeare often used innuendo in his comedies, but it is also often found in his other plays, as in Hamlet act 4 scene v:

Young men will do't if they come to't / By Cock, they are to blame.

Restoration comedy is notorious both for its innuendo and for its sexual explicitness, a quality encouraged by Charles II (1660–1685) personally and by the rakish aristocratic ethos of his court.

In the Victorian era, Burlesque theatre combined sexuality and humour in its acts. In the late 19th century, magazines such as Punch began to be widely sold, and innuendo featured in its cartoons and articles.

In the early 1930s, cartoon-style saucy postcards became widespread, and at their peak 16 million saucy postcards were sold per year. They were often bawdy, with innuendo and Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne used innuendo extensively. Innuendo also features heavily in many British films and TV series of the late 20th century. The Carry On series was based largely on smut and innuendo, and many of the sketches of The Two Ronnies are in a similar vein. Innuendo with little subtlety was epitomised by Benny Hill, and the Nudge Nudge sketch by Monty Python openly mocks the absurdity of such innuendo.

By the end of the 20th century more subtlety in sexual humour became fashionable, as in Not the Nine O'Clock News and Blackadder, while Bottom and Viz continued the smuttier trend. In contemporary British comedy Julian Clary is an example of a prolific user of innuendo.


Disrespect to members of the establishment and authority, typified by:


The absurd and the surreal, typified by:


Black humour, in which topics and events that are usually treated seriously are treated in a humorous or satirical manner, typified by:

Surreal and chaotic

  • Vic Reeves Big Night Out (1990 and 1991) a parody of the variety shows which dominated the early years of television, but which were, by the early 1990s, falling from grace.
  • Bottom (1991–1995) noted for its chaotic humour and highly violent slapstick.
  • The Young Ones (1982–1984), a British sitcom about four students living together. It combined traditional sitcom style with violent slapstick, non sequitur plot-turns and surrealism.

Humour inherent in everyday life

The humour, not necessarily apparent to the participants, inherent in everyday life, as seen in:

Adults and children

The 'war' between parents/teachers and their children, typified by:

British class system

The British class system, especially class tensions between characters; and pompous or dim-witted members of the upper/middle classes or embarrassingly blatant social climbers, typified by:

Also, some comedy series focus on working-class families or groups, such as:

Lovable rogue

The lovable rogue, often from the impoverished working class, trying to 'beat the system' and better himself, typified by:

Embarrassment of social ineptitude

The embarrassment of social ineptitude, typified by:

Race and regional stereotypes

The An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman joke format is one common to many cultures, and is often used in English, including having the nationalities switched around to take advantage of other stereotypes. These stereotypes are somewhat fond, and these jokes would not be taken as xenophobic. This sort of affectionate stereotype is also exemplified by 'Allo 'Allo!, a programme that, although set in France in the Second World War, and deliberately performed in over the top accents, mocked British stereotypes as well as foreigners. This also applies to a lot of the regional stereotypes in the UK. Regional accent and dialect are used in such programmes as Hancock's Half Hour, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Red Dwarf, as these accents provide quick characterisation and social cues.

Although racism was a part of British humour, it is now frowned upon, and acts such as Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson are pilloried. Most racist themes in popular comedy since the 1970s are targeted against racism rather than in sympathy. Love Thy Neighbour and Till Death Us Do Part were both series that dealt with these issues when the United Kingdom was coming to terms with an influx of immigrants. Fawlty Towers featured the mistreatment of the Spanish waiter, Manuel, but the target was the bigotry of the lead character. More recently, The Fast Show has mocked people of other races, notably the Chanel 9 sketches, and Banzai has mimicked Japanese games shows, which have an exaggerated sense of violence, sex and public absurdity. Goodness Gracious Me turned stereotypes on their heads in sketches such as 'Going for an English' and when bargaining over the price of a newspaper.

Bullying and harsh sarcasm

Harsh sarcasm and bullying, though with the bully usually coming off worse than the victim - typified by:

  • On the Buses, Arthur toward his wife, Olive
  • Blackadder, Edmund Blackadder toward his sidekick, Baldrick
  • The Young Ones, comedy TV series
  • Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty toward his waiter, Manuel
  • The New Statesman, satirising a domineering Conservative Member of Parliament
  • The Thick of It, satirising the spin culture prevalent in Tony Blair's heyday
  • Never Mind the Buzzcocks, satirical music based panel show
  • Mock The Week, satirical news based panel show
  • Black Books, where Bernard Black attacks his assistant, Manny
  • Bottom, in which Richie attacks Eddie with little or no provocation, usually resulting in Eddie violently (often near-fatally) retaliating.
  • The Ricky Gervais Show, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais mocking Karl Pilkington's unique outlook on life.

Parodies of stereotypes

Making fun of British stereotypes, typified by:

Tolerance of, and affection for, the eccentric

Tolerance of, and affection for, the eccentric, especially when allied to inventiveness

Pranks and practical jokes

Usually, for television, the performance of a practical joke on an unsuspecting person whilst being covertly filmed.

See also


  1. ^ Laineste, Liisi (2014). "National and Ethnic Differences". In Attardo, Salvatore. Encyclopedia of Humor Studies.  
  2. ^ British humour 'dictated by genetics' By Andy Bloxham, Daily Telegraph, 10 Mar 2008. Accessed August 2011
  3. ^ What are you laughing at? Simon Pegg The Guardian, 10 February 2007. Accessed August 2011
  4. ^ The Funny Side of the United Kingdom: Analysing British Humour with Special Regard to John Cleese and His Work Page 5 Theo Tebbe, Publisher GRIN Verlag, 2008 ISBN 3-640-17217-5. Accessed August 2011
  5. ^
  6. ^ Black Humour in British Advertisement By Claudia Felsch, Publisher GRIN Verlag, 2007 ISBN 3-638-79675-2. Accessed August 2011
  • Sutton, David. A chorus of raspberries: British film comedy 1929-1939. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, (2000) ISBN 0-85989-603-X
  • Alexander, Richard. Aspects of verbal humour in English Volume 13 of Language in performance, Publisher Gunter Narr Verlag, 1997 ISBN 3-8233-4936-8 Google books Accessed August 2011

External links

  • History of English Humour, Vol. 1, by Alfred Guy Kingan L'Estrange, 1878 at Project Gutenberg
  • History of English Humour, Vol. 2, by Alfred Guy Kingan L'Estrange, 1878 at Project Gutenberg
  • "British Humour" Sketch from "Waldorf And Sauron's Extremely Serious Circus," Boardcast Podcast #2, 2009
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