Comedy and Humour: How are they different between America and Britain?

It is said that American and England are two nations separated by a common language. After living in both nations for a number of years I would tend to agree. One of these differences that you experience in every day life is humour.

One area that struck me right away when arriving in Britain was the sharp sense of ironic humour of many of the people that I met. It was a dry but highly witty humour even from people that appeared outwardly boring. I have since come to really enjoy British humour and comedy and frequently look at some of the old comedy programmes on the internet such as The Black Adder or Fawlty Towers and of course Mr Bean.

British humour is very ironic and a lot of it is directed at educated or informed people but it can also be very rude in an indirectly implied manner. It does require that you are aware of current events as well as a keen understanding of irony as a lot of it tends to be very subtle and you need to fill in the gaps to get the joke. In England you can easily be made fun of and not know it as so much of it depends on double meaning. It is said that Americans don’t get British humour, and in my experience most don’t.

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In contrast American humour tends to be much more “in your face”, in the slapstick tradition, and thus a lot more physical at times such as the Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey or Ben Stiller films. It is pie in the face sort of stuff, which is OK when you are young but lacks wit and interest as you get older. American TV comedy programmes assume that the audience is stupid and does not know when to laugh, the jokes are telegraphed at the audience you are given many clues that you must laugh at a certain time. Also since characters are always broadly caricatured so it is difficult to empathise with them.

A great way to see the difference between the two styles of comedy is in the programme “The Office” which is originally a British comedy which was remade in the USA a few years later. The British version was a world wide success.

The British version is very funny and very intelligently written. It is subtle and at times it take some time to get the joke and at others it is hard to watch as you cringe in expectation of what is going to happen. However, you can relate to some of the people in the programme as they appear to be more real, just like people you would know at work.

The American version was also very successful but it lacks the wit and sharpness of the British original, it is much more “in your face” and telegraphed. Furthermore, the characters in the programme appear unreal, certainly not like any of the people I met in America.

Look up both versions on the internet, watch them and then send us your comments to discuss.

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I also like the British political satire, a good programme to watch is The Thick of It. It is brilliant, but you do need to be up to date with your knowledge of world and British politics and characters.

The same applies to stand up comedy. England is big on stand-up comedy, people really love it. Watch the ones below as these also give you an idea of a range of British accents.

Milton Jones:

Michel McIntyre:

Rhod Gilbert:

Some others programmes to watch:

  • Extras
  • The Green Wing
  • Vicar of Dibley

Look these up on the internet. It is a good way to learn English as well and if you ever go to Britain you will be prepared to deal with their sarcastic but witty sense of humour.

On printed media there are some very smart cartoons such as Dilbert or The Far Side – check them out on the internet.

In summary, there is a lot of great comedy on both sides and the styles reflect the culture of each country. Best of all, it is a fun way to practice your English – enjoy.

See you soon !

Sobre a Autora: Meu nome é Luciana, sou professora de Inglês, leciono em São Paulo e recentemente criei o Inglês Interact. Morei e trabalhei por alguns anos na Inglaterra (Londres e Cambridge).


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Este artigo foi escrito por um Autor Convidado do English Experts. Confira o nome do autor no rodapé do texto acima. Seja um colaborador, clique aqui e saiba como participar.

Mostrar 29 comentários

  • 26/03/10  
    Flávia Magalhães diz: 1


    Talking about British humor, have you ever read “Lucky Jim”? My teacher insisted that it is hilarious, but I couldn’t find it funny. I wonder if I understood the story :D

  • 26/03/10  
    Flávia Magalhães diz: 2

    There’s a “t” missing in the 7th paragraph

    … but it lacks “t”he wit …

  • 26/03/10  
    Flávia Magalhães diz: 3

    Sobre o título do artigo:

    Por que “How are they different” e não “How different they are” ?

  • 26/03/10  
    Luciana diz: 4


    1) No, I have never read Lucky Jim but reading about it now on the web I can see that it is typical British satire.

    One that I found very funny is: A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd – give it a try. High satire of life during the colonial period.

    2) Yes, I noticed the missing “t” just now. I write as I think and never go back to correct as otherwise I keep changing it and would never finish. But, yes, I should review before sending.

    3) “How are they different” e não “How different they are” ? – these two sentences have slightly different meaning. However, in the end it is a matter of writing style. Each one of these sentences has a slightly different emphasis. Do the direct translation to Portuguese and use it on a sentence – you’ll know what I mean.

  • 26/03/10  
    Marco brainiac diz: 5

    Hello Luciana,

    Nice Text, could you add your voice in mp3 to hear you and improve our listen?

    If you can I would thank you.

    Best regards

  • 26/03/10  
    Marco brainiac diz: 6


    ..our listening?

  • 26/03/10  
    chiba diz: 7


  • 26/03/10  
    mili diz: 8


    yes Luciana read it to us….it will be great…Marcos thanks for asking her to put it on mp3….I want to hear it too….

  • 26/03/10  
    vera arcuri diz: 9

    porque a pergunta não foi feita desta forma:

    what are the differences between….

  • 26/03/10  
    Flávia Magalhães diz: 10

    Thank you for your feedback, Luciana!

  • 26/03/10  
    mário diz: 11

    It would be helpful if we could have the subtitles for listening practice.

  • 27/03/10  
    Rafael Inacio diz: 12


    I’ve studied english for one year and a half .. and one day I went into your website “Inglês Interact”. Then, This visit happened to prove that I cannot understand anything when it comes to the British accent. It’s so hard to me. And the worst… the sentence was extremelly easy. ” What time do you get up in the morning?” I usually listen to Australian and Canadian Radio and have no problem to understand. I can recognize a lot of words and sentences, but the British accent just doesn’t add up. I can’t live in The United kingdom. hehehehehehe… To be honest… I can’t figure out the beauty of British accent but over the years everything can change. Either way, I’m going to try watching those videos and enjoy them.

    … sorry my English…

  • 27/03/10  
    Luciana diz: 13


    It is a matter of writing style. They are both correct.

    MP3? – will do some in future posts.

  • 27/03/10  
    Renatho diz: 14

    if she write “how are they different” or “How different they are ” it doesn’t matter.

    What matter is her intention Luciana, Thank you for this article.

  • 27/03/10  
    Renan Kenplers diz: 15


    You’re amazing! Keep up the good work.

  • 28/03/10  
    maria júlia diz: 17

    na verdade preciso aprender inglês o mais rapido possivel!
    não me interessa a ortografia,regras e coisa e tal!
    preciso urgentemente é da forma de comunicação isto é simplismente da fala,do diálogo…
    como eu faço pra aprender o mais rapido possivel!
    é simplismente urgente e não posso gastar muito tempo.
    por favor me ajude!!!!!

    • 28/03/10  
      Alessandro diz:


      Urgente desse jeito que você está precisando é impossível. Isso não existe. Porém, se você tiver um tempo com calma e principalmente muita dedicação talvez você consiga evoluir um pouco. Leia alguns depoimentos no link abaixo:

      Bons estudos!

  • 28/03/10  
    CorredorX diz: 18

    Esse sotaque britânico é muito difícil para mim

  • 29/03/10  
    mili diz: 19


    O aprendizando de uma lingua estrangeira depende muito da facilidade de aprender de cada um. Aprender ingles ou outra lingua eh uma questao de tempo. Se voce dedica 5h do seu dia para aprender ingles consequentemente voce tem mais chance de aprender mais rapido do que aquela pessoa que estuda ingles somente duas horas por semana. A intensidade depende da necessidade. Pelo que vc falou acima, vc precisa muito. Se eh algo que vc precisa muito entao voce tem que colocar esse aprendizado como prioridade.

    E como comecar? comece simplesmente OUVINDO. Voce nao vai entender nada. Mais ai vc cria a sua metodologia. Voce pode por exemplo escutar 30min sem texto e depois repetir esses mesmo 30 min com o texto.

    Eu comprei um curso de ingles, que por sinal nunca usei-o apropriadamente, risos, mais eu penso que provavelmente poderia te ajudar muito no comeco. Nao sei se vc teria como pagar uns 100 dolares para comprar este curso. Voce compra online e comeca a usar imediatamente. Eu comprei, mas das 30 licoes, explorei 14 e nunca escutei uma licao toda. Se uma licao demora cerca de 3h com dialogo, mini-story lesson, questions, dictionary explanation, eu dessas 3h soh explorei cerca de 20min em cada licao. Claro que pretendo ter a paciencia de estudar TUDO. Se eu gostasse de estudar meu ingles estaria num nivel avancado, creio eu. Mais mesmo assim vez ou outra eu escuto. Aqui vai o site. Pegue pelo menos as dicas dele e a primeira licao gratis… Quem sabe se vc nao quiser comprar eu te envio via correio as as licoes deste curso. Primeiro vai la no site e olha se vc gosta desta metodologia.

    Apesar deste curso prometer que vc vai falar ingles em 6 meses sem estudar nenhuma gramatica, eu te aconselharia a estudar um pouco, pois assim te ajudaria a entender melhor o ingles.
    O governo americano desenvolveu um site pra beginners, eu nao gostei, pois acho muito facil (easy)….mais se vc for beginner talvez te ajude!….ps vou te enviar o site depois, pois esqueci o endereco completo. Amanha te envio. Me deixe saber se vc gostou ou nao deste learn real english…..Abracos mili

  • 29/03/10  
    mili diz: 20


    Estou te enviando um site para beginners…. sinceramente eu nao gostei muito, pois eu achei muito facil, mais muitos outros brasileiros gostaram. Quem sabe voce nao ira gostar hein?… gratis….

  • 29/03/10  
    Diego diz: 21

    Good subject to talk about, I know that what im about to say has nothing do to with the subject, but let’s not say American or America when we mean USA or people from there. Im kinda sick of it and I think we got to stop this. Thanx.

  • 29/03/10  
    Luciana diz: 22


    I agree with you as we are all Americans. However, unfortunately this is the world recognised name for people from the USA. You can’t say USAns or USA people is not quite right either, you have to say Americans – in any language.

    I don’t agree but I am certainly not going to be able to change it around the world. So, the correct or recognized terminology to refer to people from the USA is Americans.

    In the end, it does not matter, I like to be Brazilian or Mexican or Peruvian or Venezuelan.

  • 30/03/10  
    Henry Cunha diz: 23

    Just for the record, both Dilbert and The Far Side are American comic strips, not British. There isn`t any doubt that British humour has an identity all its own, and that it can be ascerbic and subtle, but there is a similar trend in American humour as well, going as far back as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken and many others. Anyone who has seen Seinfeld, for instance, will admire modern sophisticated urbane social comedyand sharp commentary on modern American society. For political parody, just look to “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, and the sharp arrows fired at Sarah Palin by impersonator Tina Fey in Saturday Night Live. There’s a lot more to American humour beyond pie in the face slapstick.

  • 30/03/10  
    Luciana diz: 24


    Yes, certainly, I meant to say that on comic strips my favourites are Dilbert and the Far Side which are indeed American and very funny, cunning and sharp. Wanted to stress that there is good stuff that I like at both ends, I probably incorrectly assumed that people would know that these are American comic strips.

    Something like Seinfeld is a good example as I know it was very big in the USA but, although it did show in Britain, it had limited appeal, including me :-). The same can be said for the original The Office which was big in Britain but limited appeal in the USA.

    My point is that the tastes are different in many respects and one of them is comedy – no better or worst, just different. However, I do prefer British comedy as it is a lot more racy and requires a lot more knowledge of the world around you to understand it. American network TV is not really allowed to show racy stuff unless it is on Cable TV.

    I did enjoy Tina Fey’s impersonation – but then again, making fun of Palin is rather easy :-) but, yes, very good indeed.

    I have watched The Daily Show on the internet a few times, but umm….not my cup of tea. I find it too forced, and I enjoy the more subtle but incredibly sharp British political satire.

    American and Britain are worlds apart in politics as well as what would be considered righ-wing conservative politics in Britain, in America it would be considered left-wing liberal. This certainly has an effect on political satire.

    Just a matter of preference.

  • 30/03/10  
    Henry Cunha diz: 25

    Here’s the Guardian’s closing comment in an article on the mystery of why Seinfeld didn’t seem such a success in Britain, compared to The Office, presumably Britain’s most successful comedy:

    “It seems striking that while The Office, our defining sitcom of the 21st century so far, gave us an out-of-character happy ending with Tim and Dawn together and David Brent having at least not embarrassed himself on a blind date, Seinfeld ended with the four main characters, not married, not successful, not even happy, but sitting in prison about to start a one-year jail sentence. When it comes to comedy, perhaps we Brits are less sophisticated than we like to think.”

    It should be remembered that one of Ricky Gervais’ (from The Office) great performances was in an episode of The Simpsons, an American product.

    No, i wouldn’t agree with you that Americans can’t do or appreciate racy stuff in mainstream media. Yes, it’s perhaps mixed in with tons of trivial stuff, but it’s there just the same.

    As to politics, the US has had Reagan and Bush, while Britain had Thatcher and Blair. Thatcher and Bush 1 paired up for one war, while Bush2 and Blair paired up for another. You really think British and American conservatisms are very different? I have my doubts.

  • 31/03/10  
    Luciana diz: 26

    The Guardian – yes, quality writing and my favourite newspaper. Presents stories form all angles for a more balanced view of topics.

    We will just have to agree to disagree – that is fine, it takes all sorts.

    Politics – umm..!! yes, they are worlds apart. British conservatism would be considered left-wing in the USA (the war a different story, but even the approach to it differs). A good example is Obama’s new health care reform that so many oppose in USA, actually all Republicans opposed it. No European conservative party would touch such a limited proposal as this would be seen extremely right-wing in Europe. Same goes for education, welfare, pensions, elderly care, policing, etc, etc…. But that is a whole different discussion.

    Just a matter of preference.

  • 12/04/10  
    charles diz: 27

    just thought i’d say that Rhod Gilbert is Welsh not English which is why his accent is so different.

  • 14/05/10  
    roberto mizael diz: 28

    Hi Luciana,

    Good job! I loved your tips. I’m English teacher too but I’ve never travelled abroad.
    If you don’t mind I’d like to keep in touch with you. Can you add me in msn?

    see ya!