August 10, 2018

Daniel Reast, a postgraduate researcher from the University of Portsmouth, discusses how the United Kingdom nurtures its past success and influence in comedy, meanwhile, the American market is growing to be a greater competitor for the next generation of comedians.

The history of the interpretation of nations has usually focused on the more public and aggressive forms of nationalist expression. Undoubtedly, in the current international political climate there is certainly arenas for physical displays of nationhood. The American patriotic population are well known for such clear examples of pride and joy in the flag. The British sense of national pride however, is less obvious and more passively expressed. Cultural forms are seldom ignored when describing a nation’s identity, and the British are apologists for such subtlety in national expression. Comedy in the media has become a dynamic form of this subtle take on the country in question, with the British performing as masters of self-deprecation and mocking satire. However, since the development of a truly mass international media, the presence of American comedy has become much more vocal in the United Kingdom. Certainly, technological development can be attributed to this expressive change. Though in history, the United States has always had a place at the comedy table in Britain. Nevertheless, in 2018 the competition has become truly cutthroat.

The climate for terrestrial television in the United Kingdom has seen a surprising decline in recent years. The BBC was the dominant broadcaster and has maintained a sense of superiority over the quality of documentary, drama, and culture films. However, both the entertainment and news broadcasting have certainly lost their place in the market. The advent of cable and digital broadcasting truly signalled a decline for the main channels on television. Recent sports events such as the World Cup, where one broadcast garnered a remarkable 26.5 million viewers on ITV, have been anomalies in the regular programming. The sense of national pride for the English football team was very strongly expressed throughout the event, which is typical for national sporting events. Though it certainly has inspired a great deal of commentary about national identity’s place in broadcasting.

When Polite Fluff Meets a Strong Spine

British comedy is undoubtedly a passive mire for self-deprecating nationalism, particularly of the British themselves. The psychology of British character is a psycho-social link with the past and its histories. Perhaps unlike American comedy, the United Kingdom hosts a humour which is more mocking and Juvenalian in its intentions. The political satire genre for example, has provided audiences with a motivation to cynically doubt the authority of governments and public figures. The master of British anxieties is the work of the Monty Python team, and specifically the Cambridge-educated John Cleese. The Monty Python sense of humour was obvious zaniness, to contrast the stiff upper lip of British society in the 1970s. Social class was often parodied, as well as regional representations. One memorable sketch in which Eric Idle plays a young enthusiastic and well-dressed miner visiting his older parents, switches the expectation on the child being more gentrified, and the father played by the great Graham Chapman in this case complains of writer’s cramp having been a successful writer and cultural figure, dressed in grubby ‘workman’s’ casual. A simple expectation on the changing attitudes to British society is transformed into satire and thus a self-mocking attack on the national identity itself. This self-mocking is featured throughout British “Golden Age” comedies and reveals both anxieties of personality and reflections on past experiences.

“Modern writers more keen to promote diverse and genuine political action through the comedy they produce.”

John Cleese has run into great criticism, through his powerful expression of disagreement with today’s British comedy scene. Modern culture writers and critics are, like the traditional expectation of younger people, more keen to promote diverse and genuine political action through the comedy they produce. Cleese has had an unfortunate backlash to genuine concern for the art of comedy, with many writers criticising for an old-fashioned and backwards views on today’s media. The reception to Cleese’s input was met with cynicism over the influence of past British comedies, which in many cases leaned towards disrespect and flippant anger. It cannot be denied that Cleese’s comments may not reflect the cross-section of British society, though the vital aspect of his comments were on the output rather than the input. Though Cleese is perhaps correct in his concerns, the media is certainly altering the comedy that British viewers are sampling. The American media is responsible for an influx of content to the United Kingdom through new mediums of broadcasting.


Image | Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

Laughing is Easier than Ever Before

The streaming and video-on-demand industry is now presenting a great challenge to the traditional media. The American giants of media are motivated by their own commercial goals, which is understandable in such a competitive era. Though, this has had an effect on the cultural significance of British comedy. The US comedy scene has a great number of differences to British examples. The satire scene, while certainly present in US broadcasting, is more heartfelt and deliberate than British equals. The late-night talk show hosts such as Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah are certainly masterful at infusive political critique, though there certainly is attempts at actual change responding to the satire they produce. British satire is more subtle at interpreting politics. The long running panel show Have I Got News For You has been a staple on BBC comedy programming schedules. The difference is that US satire wants to change things, whereas the British know that nothing ever will change. Particularly, the late night talk show is a wealth of enthusiastic commentary and soundbites, rather than the biting satire of British panel shows. Live stand-up comedy is certainly victim to the American strategy, with critics at this year’s Edinburgh Festival commenting heavily on the principled comedy that many are producing. Perhaps it is simply politics that has become so unstable, for such a situation to develop. The biting realism of British pessimistic satire falls gracefully into the national character, where the American principles of speaking out against injustices, certainly has endured enough to be taking the British comedy scene to new methods.

“US satire wants to change things, whereas the British know that nothing ever will change”

Moreover, it would be simplistic to consider the latest formats for comedy without considering the recent video streaming industry. Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, have all developed an entirely new method of American replacement of British comedy. The popular US sitcom has certainly expanded into a wealthy sector, where the writing is usually very well-produced but lazy in that the sitcom genre makes it so easy for broadcasting. The creativity in the US industry, in my opinion, is experiencing a similar occurrence to the British sitcom genre in the 1970s. Sitcoms such as Brooklyn 99, Community, and Parks and Recreation are all staples on the Millennial list of favourite programmes. The particular success of these programmes is that the effort on the viewer’s part is so minimal in order to enjoy. With past experiences of broadcasting, there has been a stricter insistence on ‘paying attention’ to the programmes. With boxsets and long series of sitcoms, the pressure is less evident which has contributed to the success of the format. Undoubtedly, the ease at which a series of programmes is watched has detached the process from its effect, making for more of a laid back experience to television comedy. Eventually though, as in the British case in the early 1980s, the bubble must begin to pop. The problem for British sitcom writers is the actual situations they write. David Croft, a legend of British comedy, said of his popular programme Are You Being Served that they had run out of potential ideas. After ten series over thirteen years, any writer would sympathise for the lack of material after such a prolific presence.

Comedic integration as a British Entirety

In British broadcasting markets, there is also a sense that the comedy genre has integrated more into a “entertainment” category rather than a specific variant. In the United Kingdom, the Friday and Saturday night primetime slots are inhabited by light entertainment programmes that showcase a range of comedic themes. In actuality, this format is harking back to a nostalgic format especially common in the “Golden Age” of the 1970s and 1980s. Hugely popular variety programmes such as The Generation Game and The Good Old Days fused Victorian music hall with the atmosphere of a Northern working man’s club, as in the experience provided by The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club compered by popular Northern comedian Bernard Manning. Watching programmes such as these suggests that comedy has always perfected a fusion with various genres, though in recent programming the comedy aspect has taken a central figure in the proceedings. For examples, the comedian Michael McIntyre hosting primetime programmes on the BBC, and the niche atmosphere of the talent competition genre. Compared to American broadcasting, there is a sense of a more traditional network of interlinked genres that form part of a “light entertainment” category. While the US network late night talk show is certainly a host of comedic talent, there is less of a comedic focus, replaced with the glitz of celebrity guests.

The reason for this particular difference in Atlantic broadcasters is due to a distinct British sense of nostalgia and wistful melancholy. As suggested by the writer/comedian John Cleese, the United Kingdom has shaped global comedy and made a huge impact on the broadcasting of writing and acting talent for generations of comedians. Sam Friedman, sociologist from LSE, studied into British comedy habits at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival in research for his publication Comedy and Distinction. His research suggested that the success of comedy in the United Kingdom has fertilised a sense of humour which persists and cultivates on British national character. Certainly, modern comedy is at odds with the success of the past untouchable gems of television. Today’s popular comedians have espoused a character and humour that has undoubtedly been influenced by the “Golden Age” comedies. It is my suggestion that the current younger generation will have been increasingly swayed by more American comedy than the successful mirth of British nostalgia.

Due to the simple fact of a globalised Britain, there is no doubt that the American comedy scene is likely to continue to have a presence on British screens. The United States has always had a spot at the table, even in the earlier days of television comedy. But now the methods for creation are much more diverse and widespread, and the Americans have certainly developed a method for introducing their content. While the United Kingdom nurtures its past success and influence, the US market is growing to be a greater competitor for the next generation of comedians. British comedy is not a dying art, that is not a truth acknowledged by many writers. But with such a stronger display by the US scene, there are fears that plucky British comedians will lose their gall, over a more brash and booming American trade. Whether the comedy is actually “funny” is down to those watching, and eventually it is highly likely that comedy nostalgia will develop into history rather than fond memories.

Image | Angelo Pantazis, Unsplash

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About Daniel Reast

Daniel Reast is a postgraduate researcher from the University of Portsmouth, UK. Focusing his study on the development and historical analysis of British television comedy after the Second World War, Daniel has maintained his historical methodology to analyse media formats. His most recent essay was on the representation of European national identities in popular 1980s situation comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo. Following graduating at Portsmouth with an MRes in History, his ambition is to begin doctoral study and further explore the role of British comedy in contemporary society.


History, Media, Film & Journalism, Opinion


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