Tuesday, November 15, 2016

American comedy vs. British comedy

A very interesting perspective on the difference between British comedy and American comedy from the always-wonderful Stephen Fry.

What do you think?

Although his take is a vast generalization, I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Especially the last part. American actors, by and large, don’t like really playing seriously flawed, damaged characters. He uses FRIENDS as an example. All of their flaws are cute flaws, quirky flaws, amusing flaws. They’re not major fuck ups. British comics are happy to play hopeless losers.

But here’s the key. Here’s what they understand. It’s all about comic dignity. These British misfits will go to any length to preserve their dignity, to try to fool the world into thinking they’re not colossal fuck-ups, and comic dignity is one of the great tropes of comedy.

No one wants to be embarrassed, no one wants to look like a fool, so people will go to extraordinary lengths to preserve their dignity. To me, that’s what makes Oliver Hardy so consistently hysterical.

My all-time favorite moment in BREAKING BAD (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen it), is when Gus has half his face blown off, staggers into the hall, and of all things, adjusts his tie before dying. THAT was comic BRILLIANCE.

So there is a difference, but it behooves the smart American comedy writers and actors to study the British model and see what they can learn from them. Not that they invented these tropes, but they sure do them to perfection.

43 comments:

Jim S said...

I think that's not always true. Frank Burns was a funny character, but was a screw up. In more recent interations of comedy – Michael Scott in the American Office, Jerry in Parks and Rec, heck Cliff in Cheers – those characters desperately wanted to preserve their dignity.

Even if you look at Animal House, there was the Flounder character. So I would say that American comedy has those characters, but we also include a wider variety of types.

B.A. said...

My internet's been stalling out too much to watch this, but Fry is a treasure, see his book "The Hippo" or any number of TV/movie appearances. It's a shame that US TV hasn't wanted to import any UK series for broadcast, and half of UK programming is Yank. I'm just grateful I can see Alan Partridge on Youtube.

Steve Mc said...

He has some good points - and even in QI, the running gag is that his foil, Alan Davies, always finishes last. But some of it is an overgeneralisation. I would argue that Blackadder, at least once they sorted the character out in the second series, isn't an inadequate or a failure. He's a different comic archetype - the clever man frustrated by a world ruled by idiots. Ironic given that Fry often played one of the idiots. Even Basil Fawlty and Captain Mainwaring are a spin on that - the idiot who thinks he's the clever man in the world ruled by idiots.

Rob Larkin said...

As always Fry is entertaining and interesting, but, instead of Friends, if he had compared Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers to Archie Bunker from All in the Family, both shows contemporary with one another, then the difference would not have been that great. Actually, as I was writing that, I remember now that Archie Bunker and All in the Family was based on a British show, so I guess he is right!Oops!

I recall an article from the local newspaper critic from the seventies made a similar point. Why I still remember it I don't know, but I guess it's one reason why I read your blog. He pointed out that, unlike movies where the hero triumphs in the end to the theme of Rocky, most television in general are about losers (or they were for a long time): Lucy and Ethel, Sgt. Bilko, Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton, Archie Bunker.

Paul Dushkind said...

Jim S, in American Office, Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute, despite their flaws, were effective paper salesmen. Their English counterparts were not.

Ben said...

Friday question: Do you ever do free work for your readers? I'm writing a non-comedy script, but I have need of one joke, and I'm not funny. Can you (or the readers) provide a punchline? Context: a wife belittling her husband, who happens to be a politician. The setup: "You know what they call a man who makes promises he can’t keep?"

Earl Boebert said...

A note for Stephen Fry fans: All of QI is up for streaming on Acorn TV.

VP81955 said...

A punchline for Ben: "Elected?"

Philip said...

I think Chandler had some more major flaws than the others (esp. in early season), but Matthew Perry is Canadian! We don't mind self-abasement; in face our culture seams to be based on it

Michael Hagerty said...

Jim S: You're right about Frank Burns, except for the fact that the star and fan favorite was Hawkeye...who embodies most of the qualities Stephen Fry outlines. The only American comedic actor I know of who was willing to play deeply flawed characters on TV was Dabney Coleman (Buffalo Bill, Slap Maxwell)...and that didn't go especially well for him. It's partly the fault of the audience. They found those characters unlikable...and "lovable loser" is a somewhat alien concept for American audiences.

Anonymous said...

I would say that many British comic characters, especially Basil Fawlty, seem to be comic send ups of prideful behavior. He glaringly held onto his pride despite avalanches of his own absurd, undignified, foolish and jerky behavior. Watching people like him let's the rest of us appreciate when we're acting in similar (though, hopefully, vastly less glaring) ridiculous and prideful ways. Then we can laugh at ourselves, let go of it and have a nice day.

Then again :shrug: maybe I just enjoy sounding like I know things......oh, have a nice day.

Sean

blinky said...

All that is true plus British actors have funny accents. I think they are foreigners!
I miss Wooster & Jeeves.

Steve Bailey said...

American actors don't like playing flawed characters? Did he ever watch "Cheers"? Or "Seinfeld"? Or "Everybody Loves Raymond"? And that's just network TV.

Buggy White said...

Stephen Fry is amazing, and has been for a long time. When I was in grad school twenty years ago I struck up an email correspondence with him for a short time, in the early days of personal websites when he replied to posts that readers sent him. He was funny, self-deprecating, and supportive of this American trying to become a schoolteacher in his forties. He did write about portraying the typical upper-class twit in "Cold Comfort Farm" and how excited he was about the possibility of something different; playing Oscar Wilde in the film "Wilde." Interesting however, is the fact that he seemed to think that we across the pond really knew much about Wilde. He wrote of the idea of naming the film "Wilde Again," and I told him we would probably think it was a romantic comedy about people who couldn't spell. Nice man, and I still have copies of the emails.

Mark said...

I don't buy the piece about "they're not characters at all", but otherwise largely brilliant.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Rob Larkin: might have been even better had Fry compared Archie Bunker to Alf Garnett, since that's the character on whom Bunker was based.

As for Frank Burns, I recall him being foolish and a fuck-up in that way, but I don't recall seeing him bungle a lot of surgery and kill patients.

I think, though, that a point that's missing here is the difference between doing a series of 7 episodes and one of 22. If you're going to welcome characters into your living room *every week* for many months, you need them to be rather more likable than characters you're just going to watch briefly. Even shorter American series have greater latitude to show characters with real flaws, and they seem to find actors. For example, YOU'RE THE WORST has characters who are real fuck-ups - see Lindsay's story arc this season.

wg

Unknown said...

"You know what they call a man who makes promises he can’t keep?"

In January, we will call him president.....

Craig Gustafson said...

Fry is right about British comedy, but he doesn't really see the range of American comedy throughout history. He discusses British characters going back 40 or 50 years, but sticks to recent American comedians. He doesn't mention (as you did), Oliver Hardy.

This is a comedy chart I did several years ago, when I was directing "Waiting for Godot" and used it (along with Sameul Beckett's notebook) as justification for playing Gogo and Didi as Laurel and Hardy.

http://www.bozolisand.com/clownranks.html

brian t said...

The English influence on Laurel and Hardy was no coincidence: Stan Laurel was English, and he was head writer and uncredited director on most Laurel and Hardy films. Hardy was happy to be the brunt of the joke most of the time.

George Adelman said...

A perfect example of the British desperation to put up a front to preserve dignity is the show Keeping Up Appearances. Absolutely brilliant.

Todd Everett said...

Fry had a recurring part on Bones for a while and is now a regular on The Great Indoors.

Andrew said...

For Ben:
"You know what they call a man who makes promises he can’t keep?"

"Divorced and remarried?"

Andrew said...

Enjoying the conversation about Frank Burns. It's interesting that the movie portrayed him as a more inept and dangerous surgeon. The TV Burns was inferior to the other surgeons, but he wasn't the same threat to his patients.

When I was a child and watched Mash with my family, I always felt sorry for Burns. Larry Linville did an amazing job of humanizing a villain. He struck the perfect balance. As an adult, I still find Burns sympathetic.

Anonymous said...

Stephen Fry is absolutely right. I worked on a multi-cam sitcom for years. By season four, the lead (who's name was in the title of the show) told the writers that we could make any food jokes - meaning no fat jokes. By season five, he had to be the perfect father & husband - he could be "dumb", but he always had to be right. By season six, we couldn't make jokes about him being a bad contractor - the character's vocation. Basically, he couldn't separate himself from the character, and once that happens - it kills the conflict & the comedy.

Donald Benson said...

Win or lose, Americans want their clowns -- their TV sitcom clowns, anyway -- to be sympathetic. Archie Bunker, for all his bigotry and other flaws, loved his family and wanted to do right by them. Basil Fawlty and Dave Brent weren't JUST losers. They were deep-down jerks. Here, "The Office" evolved Michael Scott into a sympathetic loser.

Lucy Ricardo was a loser. Yes, she had a surprisingly loyal husband and material security, but her show biz ambitions were always thwarted and her other schemes would only pan out accidentally, if at all. Bob Newhart was always in a position where you'd think he'd have respect and control, but both were constantly undermined. Even Mary Tyler Moore was in a near-constant state of fluster. Their best lines were not so much triumphant wisecracks as desperate responses to a situation. But it was decreed that even -- especially -- at their greatest embarrassment you were rooting for them.

Bugs Bunny laughs at an adversary and we laugh with him. Mary Tyler Moore struggles not to laugh at a funeral and we laugh at her, but we're still with her.

VincentS said...

Great video, Ken. Great ANIMAL HOUSE analogy and I've always admired the way the British value craft above ego. One correction, though - Jim Carry is Canadian!

Liggie said...

I get Fry's statement about the two countries' mindsets affecting their comedic outputs; the average American has an optimistic culture, the average Briton does not. (Just look at how they view their respective national soccer teams; US fans chant "I believe that we will win!" and the English fans say "We'll never win the World Cup.") But what I think the main factor is, is the business model of American comedy TV, if not movies. All the "How to Write for TV" books at Barnes & Noble say your hero has to be at least partly sympathetic, or nobody will watch, and most networks would never have let a David Brent past the pitch stage.

Aside: As I'm in a place with a lot of background noise, I had to turn on the auto captions of the Fry video. Is there a word for transcription typos?

Andy Rose said...

Bugs Bunny is the quintessential example of an American character winning by wisecracking. By the 50s, the creators of those cartoons had all but stopped trying to come up with clever plans for Bugs to concoct to defeat his enemies. He just had to stand there, cock an eyebrow and make a smart-aleck remark, waiting for Elmer to shoot himself in the face or Wile E. Coyote to be crushed by his own invention.

Anonymous said...

Hard to generalize the way Fry does.
Look at Ralph Kramden, the quintessential screw-up. And his 21st Century counterpart, wealthier and smarter but no less a screw-up, Larry David.
Buster Keaton.
Much of Sid Caesar's humor was based on the man who could not win.
Likewise Lucy. Felix and Oscar. Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom.

I might be more accurate to say we embrace the know it all wise guy more as a comic character than the British do, than to generalize that our humor is embodied by him or her.

Bill said...

American comics tend to be good looking too. Apart from Don Knotts. Can't think of anyone who wasn't a model by UK standards. Also Americans aren't,t needlessly cruel. I recall a friends episode where they accidentally hurt a Girl Scout, and spend rest if episode making it up to her, as she sat pretty. In UK we would have spent half an hour dropping her on her head, setting her on fire, smacking her with arbitrary placed planks etc etc. Seinfeld is famous for no redeeming quality in their characters, but they were good looking and nice, compared to Young Ones, Fawlty Towers, Only fools and Horses, even Coupling they are rotten to each other !,

Arthur Mee said...

Steve Bailey, you're partially right ... but while American actors will play "flawed", British actors are happy to play people you would cross the street (or even move out of town) to avoid -- and make them genuinely funny. Yes, all the characters on Cheers were flawed in some way, but you would still be happy to hang out with them. (Maybe Cliff would be the one character who could wear on your nerves pretty quickly in real life.) It'd also probably be cool to hang with the characters on Everybody Loves Raymond for an afternoon. Even the Seinfeld gang might make for an amusing lunch crowd.

You wouldn't want to hang out with David Brent for any appreciable length of time. It would be excruciating. Same with Basil Fawlty. Or Hyacinth Bucket. You could marvel at just how awful they are, but hang out with them as friends? Nope.

The only characters I can think of offhand in American comedy who it would be painful to hang out with are supporting characters like Frank Burns, or Barney Miller's Inspector Luger. As a lead character, Michael Scott from the Office comes close, but he's also based on a British original, just softened a little to be a competent salesman who has been overpromoted. You do end up liking the guy, who (especially in later episodes) tries hard and has a decent streak. Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory also straddles the line a bit, but is clearly *trying* to be a decent person, and certainly has many moments where we end up liking him.

Incidentally, the American show Sgt. Bilko is still very well known in the UK -- something about that I'll-con-anyone-for-a-buck character really resonated with the British public. And there are some great influential Britcoms almost completely unknown to the American public, particularly Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, both the work of writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Both feature funny characters who might be a bit hard to take in real life....

Earl Boebert said...

Thanks to Craig Gustafson for that interesting comedy chart. Maybe Ken could do a post some day on how or whether the characters he invented and helped invent fitted into Craig's categories.

Buttermilk Sky said...

What about Frank Burns's replacement Charles Emerson Winchester, to my mind a much richer character? A brilliant surgeon who didn't give a damn if anyone liked him or not, proud of being unlikeable, obsessed with status and money (two things Americans are supposed to care little about, though of course we do). He was Basil Fawlty with social and professional skills, and when the dignity slipped -- as in the episode when we learn of his drunken weekend in Tokyo -- it was that much funnier. The Emmy-worthy performance of David Ogden Stiers didn't hurt.

Mike said...

Fry is absolutely correct. He's referring to the lead in the sitcom, not the supporting characters. And he's not said that the lead isn't deeply flawed. But the American sitcom is built around the zinger. If MASH had been British (and we did send troops to Korea), Burns would have led, with Hawkeye & Trapper in support.

The pilot for Parks & Recreation featured a well-meaning but incompetent lead, struggling in the face of public stupidity. Her colleagues undermined her and mocked her failures. But quickly, the lead became competent and each colleague was shown in a positive light, a nice guy after all. So new villains were introduced (to cut the department's budget) who also transformed to nice. What was originally interesting became mundane. Yet Americans regard this change as a vast improvement.

@Craig Gustafson: Previously, I've suggested that sitcoms used three types of functional character: parents (impose order, instigate action), children (cause trouble), and a pet (injects random behaviour). And gave an example (I forget what) in which the children were older than the parents. Applied to your clowns, one parent is Auguste, the other parent is Ringleader, the children are Whiteface, the pet is Tramp. It often seems a character combines Whiteface & Auguste becoming the victim of their own instigation (Kramden?, Hardy?).

Wayne said...

Fry is right. Look how Brit John Cleese soared playing a complete jerk but Yank Dabney Coleman repeatedly failed doing the same.

John Pearley Huffman said...

Upon watching this, it was instantly apparent to me that America's greatest comic icon is Bugs Bunny.

The Brits are more Daffy Duck.

Zach said...

How would you classify someone like George Costanza? He's an acknowledged loser who is bad at everything except lying and weaseling out of stuff. At some level he still sees himself above others, but in a cynical way nihilistic sense than in a wisecracking sense.

Larry David (un-coincidentally) is another one that doesn't quite fit either model. He's a wisecracker, but his main impetus is the questioning and enforcing his set of social norms on the world. Any success he has on the show is pretty much accidental or completely unexpected. He would rather end his marriage (that he spent an entire season scheming to save) than be wrongfully thought of as having not used a coaster.

Arthur Mee said...

Buttermilk Sky, the point is that Winchester is still a character who isn't a jerk. He can be annoying at times, but he's actually a very, *very* competent surgeon; he's shown to be generous to his friends; and while he has tastes and enthusiasms that are out of step with his colleagues in the M*A*S*H unit, you can see that there are social circles where he would be regarded as a fascinating conversationalist and a good friend. A little difficult maybe, but still a friend. And one who clearly tries (as the series progresses) to adjust to the environment around him.

British comedians are comfortable playing *complete* jerks; incompetent, irredeemable people that anyone would skip out on in any situation if they could, even to go enjoy a root canal. American comic actors are much less likely to portray this kind of character.

Craig Gustafson said...

Mike:
"It often seems a character combines Whiteface & Auguste becoming the victim of their own instigation (Kramden?, Hardy?)."

Augustes can plan all over the place; but their plans blow up in their faces.
Whitefaces win.
Ralph Kramden is an urban Oliver Hardy. Both are Augustes who *think* they're Whitefaces.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Great discussion.
Ralph Kramden, is a great example of the American that tries his best to succeed and is always a failure at it. Ralph (not in the classic 39) never improves his status or his wealth.

George Costanza is another failure who is much funnier when he fails than when he succeeds.

Johnny Walker said...

There are definitely exceptions, but they're just that; exceptions. With American TV, the "lovable loser" (if that's the term we're using) is almost always a secondary character -- they're very rarely the primary character. With British TV it's the exact opposite. I actually can't think of any successful British comedy that had a lead that wasn't significantly flawed in some way...!

Some great American exceptions include: The Honeymooners, The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office (from the UK show), All in the Family (from the UK show). Even George from Seinfeld was secondary to the flawless Jerry character (although he was close to primary at times, I guess).

Usually, being secondary, they're there to laugh at from a safe distance (eg. Cliff from Cheers). With US shows there's an element of wish fulfillment: We picture ourselves as Sam so we can laugh at Cliff's funny ways, when we're probably a lot closer to Cliff than we would like to admit to ourselves. In the UK we have a history of kitchen sink realism.

I actually saw of this difference when on Ken's Sitcom Room weekend: There was a brick wall of resistance from my American co-writers when I suggested the husband behave in a less than perfect way. "He has to be likable!"

For some reason though, I think the difference can be seen most in soap operas. British soaps are dire, dreary things. Very realistic and depressing. Just Google "Eastenders" and "Coronation Street" for a taste. Compare those with the American ones. What a difference! I kind of half believe you can learn a lot from a nation from its soaps.

Johnny Walker said...

Also, Fry's final line is worth repeating, even if it's a bit harsh: "[American sitcom characters...] they're not characters at all. They're just brilliant repositories of fantastic one liners."

Present day sitcomes at their worst fall into this trap. Every single character is fantastic at dropping one liners. Why this has started to dominate, I don't know, because there's nothing to relate to there. At their worst, characters are just wise-cracking machines. It drives me crazy.

Mike said...

Thanks to @Craig Gustafson for the answer.
I think if Craig's chart were extended to include more recent sitcoms & highlighted the lead, the pattern would be clear.

In the early days of television - the fifties - the rules had not yet been written and programme makers were still experimenting.

We're addressing the lead character in network sitcoms. Cable is supposed to be different. And it's not flawed/unflawed - that's another trait of American sitcoms. It's Whiteface/Astante.

@Johnny Walker: Yeah, I watched an episode of Instant Mom out of curiosity - not a Levine production - and that 'set up, punchline, pause for laugh' rhythm was remorseless.