Why so serious?

« Comment reconnaître l’humour anglais de l’humour français ? L’humour anglais souligne avec amertume et désespoir l’absurdité du monde. L’humour français se rit de ma belle-mère. » En disant cela, Pierre Desproges montre le fossé qui existe entre l’humour français et l’humour anglais: d’un côté, un humour vulgaire, aimant le sexe et la nourriture, et de l’autre un humour presque artistique. L’humour anglais est un humour sombre, amer, qui sait cultiver le ridicule, un humour sans tabou, qui permet à l’homme de rire des déboires avec sa femme (“Ma femme est partie avec mon voisin. Il va me manquer”), ou aux Chrétiens de rire de l’islamisme (We Are Four Lions), ce qui serait impensable en France. Pourquoi une telle différence?


The Frenchman has trouble understanding the British man. As long as he is not drunk, the British man remains polite, says “thanks” all the time and doesn’t get mad or angry. He (she) doesn’t pay much importance to meals (except for tea time), drinks tea instead of coffee and is badly dressed… In short, it seems that the Frenchman and the Englishman have nothing in common. Even his(her) humour is incomprehensible. The dark and bitter humour stings, needles and cuts to the quick. It also cultivates derision: the Englishman is indeed not afraid to mock himself and the people he loves or hates.

This derision is particularly transparent in the British cinema: the brilliant Rowan Atkinson – well known by the French as Mr. Bean, who also acted in Johnny English, a James Bond parody, or Hugh Laurie who has now chosen to export his bitterness in the USA, are perfect cases in point.

Other great films like The Boat that rocked (Good morning England for our compatriots), and the Monty Python’s legendary Flying Circus (broadcast from 1969 to 1974) have shown the singularity of British humour. Open-minded people around the world can now enjoy the subtlety and greatness of a humour that can’t possibly be for everyone.

But why do they display such virtuosity in their jokes?

It seems that humour is an instrument that allows Britons to kill several birds with one stone: they use it in all circumstances. Sarcasm is a way of being sincere, paradoxically more sincere than Americans who would say things directly. It’s a way to diffuse a situation, a crisis. Moreover, they need this humour to overcome their life problems and put them into perspective.

What would England be without that humour? A rainy version of France?

In politics, the difference between France and Britain is quite obvious. While Tony Blair could make fun of socialism by using his work experience ([He worked in a bar] “In that bar, there was a pot in which you had to leave all the tips. Two months later, I found out I was the only one to do it. That was my first lesson of applied socialism!”), Sarkozy says to Hollande: “Ce n’est pas le concours de la petite blague ici”. So why are British politicians funnier than French ones?

Because in Britain, humour is a weapon. With a good joke, politicians can show they are still human even if they are in charge of the country. As Lance Price (former spin doctor of Tony Blair’s) says: “Self-ridicule is part of the British culture. Politicians see the whole potential of humour. Knowing how to use it subtly is a tremendous asset. It makes you look more human and softens the image you may have of an old-fashioned and dusty politician in a suit who takes himself (herself) too seriously.” 

Humour can help you win the hearts and minds of the people (just think of Boris Johnson as the best case in point!), which is why politicians even hire humorists to insert little jokes in their speeches! But be careful: you have to have good ones, otherwise the press will judge you uncompromisingly. A dull speech is worse than a bad joke. To this day Winston Churchill has remained the ultimate and uncontested British joke master. He had a quick wit (Lady Astor:  “Mr Churchill you’re drunk!”  Winston Churchill: “Yes, and you, Madam, are ugly. But tomorrow, I shall be sober.” “Sir, if you were my husband, I would poison your drink”. “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it”). Most of all, in Britain, humour is the thermometer of a politician’s strengh. One quote is enough to understand it.

The Battle of Britain had been won and on October 12th 1940, unbeknownst to the British people, Hitler rescheduled Sealion for the spring of 1941. By that spring, the state of Britain’s defences was much improved, with many more trained and equipped men available and field fortifications reaching a high state of readiness. With national confidence rising, Prime Minister Churchill was able to say, “We are waiting for the long promised invasion. So are the fishes…”

Here, a sample of Churchill’s most famous jokes:

– I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.
– I think I can save the British Empire from anything—except the British.
– A joke is a very serious thing.
– The biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter.
– Americans always try to do the right thing –after they’ve tried everything else.
– History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.
– We all are worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm. (Nous sommes tous des vers, mais je pense que je suis un vers luisant)
– When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite
– Churchill: “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?”
Woman: “My goodness, Mr. Churchill Well, I suppose we would have to discuss terms, of course!”
Churchill: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”
Woman: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!” Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”


Discover A bit of Fry and Laurie:


One thought on “Why so serious?

  1. Pingback: Ricky Gervais and Cringe Comedy | Frogs Save The Queen

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