'Is British humour dead?' asks Prospect magazine. You will not be surprised to learn that Sam Leith’s answer is ‘No’ (an article with that title being unlikely to conclude otherwise). A more interesting question (which, to be fair, much of Leith’s article considers) is what counts as British humour? Leith mentions in passing a traditional idea of Britishness, but his reference points are arguably more English than British (tellingly, he includes cricket). Getting a handle on a British comic sensibility is complicated by the need to have some idea of what makes it British. And to do that, one must also negotiate differences of class and region (indeed, one striking feature of British humour is that it crams in so many micro-varieties).
For example, one might seek to define British comedy by reference to undeniably classic instances: so Peter Cook and Billy Connolly might each be taken to epitomise a British comic sensibility (which they surely do, if there is one). But what do their respective brands of humour have in common? More importantly, what do they have in common that, say, Woody Allen or Dave Allen do not also share?
Another route is to focus on characteristic topics: class and sexual repression are the two which usually get a mention at this point. But each of these illustrate, in different ways, the problem with trying to define British humour. It no longer seems mandatory for comics to attack or even acknowledge the class system (though there has been a recent revival, which may or may not be related to the fact that Britain has its first Old Etonian Prime Minister since Alec Douglas-Home). Sexual failure brought about by social awkwardness is a more common topic: at a stand-up open mic night, one will hear of little else. (A female comic I knew used to open that part of her set with the line ‘Like all stand-ups, I don’t have a girlfriend…’.) However, as an Irishman I can testify that this sort of thing is common currency among comics (both on and off the stage) in at least some other countries. The kinds of theme often mentioned as British turn out to be either too limited or too universal.
We shouldn’t be tempted to conclude from even this brief survey that there is no such thing as British humour. Rather, we just need to scale back our expectations as to how clearly it can be defined. The various examples of British humour share very little except a common tradition, a loose set of reference points none of which on its own could define a national comic sensibility. So Peter Cook, Billy Connolly, class and sex are all relevant, but none are decisive. In a sense, this is an ‘opt in’ (or out) understanding; a sketch troupe in Duluth or Durban could be usefully classed as sharing a British comic sensibility if their act was modelled with sufficient precision on Monty Python or Fry & Laurie. But this is just what we should expect. Humour can flit across national boundaries as easily as venture capital, but unlike money it will usually have a passport, an accent and a family.