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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Is Britain losing its sense of humour?
Comedian John Cleese has said that he believes that the British have lost their sense of humour.
In an interview with a Canadian newspaper the star of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda claimed that the British have lost their tolerance for silliness.
"I'm tall, I write satire and I've been well-known in England for 26 years. Put those together with an overactive, unimaginative media and I couldn't do anything over there," he said.
What do you think? Do you feel that British writers and performers have lost the ability to create innovative and entertaining humour?
Is the unique British sense of humour an endangered species or does it still flourish?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
For my money the only show that consistently makes me laugh out loud is the American show, Frasier. It feels like an English show anyway with at least two cast members born in England and the central characters are far more sophisticated than the usual U.S. sitcom characters.
Volker Kohlhaus, Germany
I suggest that the pompous Cleese just now believes his own publicity. I was turned off him years back when he did those completely unfunny broadcasts for the SDP/Lib Alliance...
I love to watch the Britcoms on Sunday night. Keeping Up Appearances is the greatest show ever made. I laugh out loud several times during each showing. More please.
Humour is in a constant state of evolvement and has moved on from silly to other directions. Sure it hits a lull now and then waiting for great comedians to come along BUT British humour is still the epitome of humour when compared to any other country.
English cricket may be a very sad thing these days, but English comedy and drama are alive, kicking and leading the world. In Australia we get bombarded by constant a procession of bland, formula American comedy and drama on our TV and cinema screens. The little relief we get comes from the excellent product we see from the UK. You have the knack. John Cleese used to have it, but unfortunately lost it some time ago.
As anybody who has been to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will testify, British is just as likely to be unfunny as it is brilliant. We can't all be comedians, but if comedy is meant to be safe and scripted, then I fear there would probably be a lot less for everyone to laugh at. I assume that the comedy entry in this debate was that provided by Lori Smith from the wholesome US of A. The clue is in the name. It wasn't called Men Behaving Well for nothing; but come on, x-rated! And to think that there was a serious attempt to have all BBC output shown in the States carry a warning that it had been censored by the British Government, because it wouldn't allow Gerry Adams' voice to be broadcast.
The British sense of humour isn't quite what it used to be. Some of the newer comedies are dire indeed. Shows like "Absolutely Fabulous", what crap, what the heck is going on there? The best of British comedy was "Steptoe and Son", "Only Fools and Horses", "Only When I Laugh", "Last of the Summer Wine" (not quite as good since Compo died), "Fawlty Towers" and "One Foot in the Grave". We have let our standards slip since those great series. In saying this though we are still some way ahead of the Americans, I just don't get their sense of humour at all. Try as I might I just don't find their sitcoms funny. Please don't import anymore.
Any nation that can produce a brilliant show like "Absoultely Fabulous" has not lost its sense of humour.
Looking forward anxiously to the new series!
There's a huge difference between "innovative and entertaining humour" and silliness, and I have to say that I agree with JC's opinion in that we have lost our sense of it. I'm all for well constructed, imaginative comedy, the type of which Britain is famous for, and I'm fiercely proud of it. But we really have forgotten how to be silly, and also how good it feels. Now I'm off to an important meeting and I'm going to do a silly walk all the way there.
No, I have not lost my sense of humour. But I understand why it would seem that people are, as we do not see enough comedy now by comedians like John Cleese, I would like to see more. I also feel that new comedy is not the same as the very funny Monty Python style sketches, and I am only 28.
I didn't really appreciate our sense
of humour until I moved to the US
16 months ago. I miss it so much.
American comedy is incredibly
bland and, quite frankly, unfunny.
I can't think of any programmes
that come close to the likes
of The League of Gentlemen
or The Fast Show and Eddie Izzard
is in a league of his own.
John Cleese obviously doesn't know
what he's talking about or is it sour
I think Ian is right Cleese himself has had to resort to doing crappy westerns which were unfunny. Get back in your box John and leave it to the new kids on the block they're doing okay.
Well I don't think us Brits have "lost" our comedy, but we do tend to forget about it! The recent Channel 4 comedy, "Black Books" was in my opinion was the best sitcoms I've seen in years, effortlessly funny and brilliantly played by Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran - It won the British comedy award last year, unfortunately, no one seems to have watched it but me and a few friends.
Wake up Britain! We're still doing some class comedy!
The British certainly have not lost their sense of humour - I recall evenings with British friends where non-stop hilarity was a constant feature. Sadly, this talent for off-the-cuff humour does not extend to the ranks of the "professional" writers whose work is generally of a very poor standard, particularly in sit-com writing. On the odd occasion you find a British comedy episode capable of producing real laughter, you encounter a dozen more total "duds". The quality, to put it charitably, is very patchy.
Steve UK - you are right in principle, but wrong on one detail. For new, corking British comedy, before you turn to BBC, turn on Radio 4. Today's Radio 4 is tomorrow's TV Comedy. League Of Gentlemen, The Day Today/Alan Partridge, People Like Us, Chambers, Goodness Gracious Me and many more flourished on radio 4 before migrating to TV.
I don't think the British have lost their sense of humour, we are after all renowned around the world for our sarcasm and satire. I do however think that we are probably less silly because we are so busy taking ourselves seriously. Everything revolves around being composed and dignified (perhaps trying to emulate how we see ourselves in business?). We are very image conscious and I think that this reflects itself in our reluctance to let ourselves go.
You will find that we do still have fantastic comedies in this country. The League of Gentlemen, for example, was outstanding new comedy! It is there, you just have to look for it. For some reason it is hidden away on BBC2. Switch off those bloody awful depressing soaps and watch the corking BRITISH comedy that is there!!
Alex Cutelli, UK
Just do not stop comedy on any level. We are bored with N. American so-called comedy.
There is one thing that is diminishing our sense of humour - political correctness. This is being filtered down from the high reaches of our current government and they are not exactly a bundle of laughs, are they?
Humour is an intensely personal, subjective matter, so I think Mat Allen is completely wrong! The only quality comedy programmes on TV at the moment are Frasier. I have seen nothing that is home produced that is worthy of five minutes viewing. Most of the characters are drawn as slobbish or amoral. I almost lived in the comedy clubs of Edinburgh for years and at the Fringe. But I think the basis of humour has changed dramatically, and political correctness, and a massively changed set of values from one generation to the next, are mostly to blame.
How much of Monty Python would be permitted these days? The "100m freestyle for non-swimmers" (where everyone drowned), the "100m sprint for those with no sense of direction", the Dead Parrot sketch etc. When people lose the ability to laugh at themselves everyone suffers.
Tony Martin, San Francisco, USA
No, I find the British sense of humour very appealing. Most of my British friends have a very sarcastic sense of humour, which is very appealing to me and my American cohorts. My British friends are infinitely amusing, maybe John Cleese has just lost his touch. He should go back to making fun of the French.
I suspect Cleese is putting his mouth where the money is. He's astute. Unfunny, but astute.
I don't think the British people are losing their sense of humour- only the TV makers are! Subtle wit is vanishing rapidly on the screen -
but live in a foreign country and you will be gaspingfor a British laugh I assure you!
The comments of people like Lori Smith, USA, prove that in some respect, the USA still lag behind in the humour department. And then, like so much of their output, their comedy can be funny, albeit very manufactured and unnatural. Shows like Gimme Gimme Gimme or the Office for example, are both brilliant, but so different, and that's the strength of British humour. What's on after the perishing Friends these days? Will and Grace, which seems to be filmed in the same studio with different actors and the same gag writers. And a country where George W. can be president definitely hasn't got a sense of humour.
Lost our sense of humour? Are you mad Cleese?! Seriously though, I don't think the Beeb has the necessary funds these days to generate shows of the calibre it has made in the past. Production costs have increased geometrically, whilst the licence fee has increased in a more linear fashion. Even so, The Office [BBC2, Mon, 21.30] is absolutely hilarious!
I think that John Cleese - a well-known believer in the curative effects of psychoanalysis - may be "projecting" when he says the UK is no longer funny. He may not have been funny since the late 70's but plenty of other British people are.
I cannot understand those heralding America as the last bastion of humour. Frasier, Cheers and all the witless dross that followed are fine if your tastes run to safe, gentle, mildly annoying middlebrow entertainment but they are as nothing compared to the inventive and often groundbreaking comedies of Radio 4 and BBC2 and Channel 4. The recent Brass Eye and all of Ali G are shows that could never ever be shown on American TV (even the much feted Showtime or HBO).
If you think the UK is bad, come and sample the po faced, relentlessly right on, "irony-free zone" in the US. Go on if you think you're hard enough.
British humour took a turn for the worse several years ago and has been in a steady decline since. The reason for this is a simple but important one. British humour always carried either a sense of the ridiculous about it or it had an innocence which no other country could convey as well as us. The decline began when swearing became common place in our comedy. Just look back at what made us laugh at Steptoe & son, Porridge, George & Mildred, Rising Damp etc. All these comedies skirted around the silly and rude humour without saying the words that made these programmes more endearing and funny. The innocence has gone and with it, our unique, enviable style of humour.
Just a quick look through the Radio Times shows that the vast majority of the "comedy" is from America (excluding Australian soaps of course which are only hilarious by accident) with all the canned laughter and insane screaming whenever a new character turns up on set.
There is still good comedy out there but as the best involves you switching off the TV, turning on the radio and using your imagination I guess it will be lost on the average Friends fan.
How can Cleese claim a lack of "silliness" from Britian when we have stand-ups like Eddie Izzard and TV shows such Vic & Bob and Trigger Happy TV, as well as many more. It seems that this, once comedy genius, is merely drawing further attention to his demise which was already apparent after films such as Splitting Heirs and Clockwise.
Go watch Brass Eye, then be quiet John!
The British sense of humour is fine and flourishing, it's just that the stuff on the television doesn't actually represent/reflect it any more. Television is increasingly safe, boring and predictable.
Satire is now greeted with howls of righteous indignation. Humour has given way to priggishness. Those who enjoyed mocking the establishment in the sixties now find it hard to be mocked.
Gary Dring, UK
After living in Sweden for over 30 months, I can safely say that in comparison to the Swedes we definitely have a sense of humour.
I don't think that we British have lost our sense of humour; it has just become more diversified. People who like Last of the Summer Wine or Dinner Ladies, probably don't like The Office or Spaced. This means there's no sitcom that the whole family tunes in to watch on a Saturday night, as used to happen with Morecambe and Wise or The Two Ronnies. My solution to this would be an episode of Last of the Summer Wine where Clegg discovers that his long lost son is Ali G and the Slough Massive turn up to bust some rhymes with Nora Batty.
Lori Smith, USA
We have not lost our sense of humour. Our ability to laugh at ourselves and our sense of irony are still a wonder to the rest of the world - let's keep it like that!
What John Cleese doesn't seem to understand is that people's tastes in comedy have changed and developed over the past 30 years, and they want more from their comedy than perhaps he himself can offer. Nostalgia always seems to make us look back at things with misty eyes, and the comedy shows of the past are no exception, but similar to then, there is some great - and not so great - comedy out there at the moment. The brilliant "Spaced" with Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson is one of the best shows I think I have had the pleasure of watching.
Betty Sanders, Dallas, TX, U.S.A.
I think the only reason the British sense of humour is suffering is the baffling trend of comedy writers trying to emulate popular US shows such as Friends and other awful sitcoms. Once the trend is over, and originality restored, things will be back on track.
I find these 'comedies' (Bottom, League of Gentlemen, Men Behaving Badly) unfunny and childish, but that's my personal taste. I find there is a marked lack of anything intelligently funny, which is filled somewhat by American cartoons such as The Simpsons and South Park. Can humans not deliver such topical wit?
Mike M, USA
British comedy is alive and kicking. As a Brit living in Germany it's the thing I miss the most. The League of Gentlemen/The Royle Family are pure genius. Not to mention AbFab, Gimme,Gimme the list goes on. And guess what, a lot of my German friends out here even get it! Or are they now required to laugh by a new EU directive?
J Kerr, Surrey, UK
Please don't say it is true! I have been raised with the classics...Monty Python, Black Adder, The Young Ones...they are all part of the reason I am moving to the UK. Don't tell me now you have lost it, I have brought my tickets and everything!
I don't think there is that much difference between the senses of humour across Europe except that for some reason my German and Swiss friends think John Cleese is hilarious - and I don't
I think there may be something in Cleese's theory, but I must take issue with Tom of Australia when he says that American humour is superior - if the over-hyped laugh-free "Will & Grace" is an example of how much "better" US sitcoms are, there is no hope.
Modern humour seems to consist of shouting loudly, using four-letter words and belittling anything or anyone. Sorry, but I'd rather stick to comedy from a different age. Even the "Carry On" series were better than some of the filth masquerading as humour that is currently on the screens. Give me a dead parrot any day!
Of course the British haven't lost their sense of humour, Spike Milligan is still alive.
British humour is the one thing I really miss while living overseas. I do have friends in the UK that send comedy videos regularly and these are then distributed in HK. Also the lack of available funny/entertaining TV means you tend to go to see more live comedians perform, and from what I've seen recently the Brits still kick butt & take names when it comes to humour. Comedy should have no boundaries.
Well, everyone has a different sense of humour and this changes over time. Most people these days don't find unsophisticated, slapstick or sexist/racist humour as funny as in the 70s for instance. Shows like "Yes Minister", "Frasier" or "The Royle Family" evince a cleverer and more subtle brand of humour, which can still have you in stitches in much the same way as "Fawlty Towers". Like pop music, humour changes with time, and maybe John Cleese is sounding like the comedic equivalent of a rock dinosaur.
For once I have to disagree with John Cleese. The humour is still around although new comedy is undoubtedly put through the PC police before we get to see it as TV producers would rather have a rating winner than a cult sensation. Of course the League of Gentlemen and other series do occasionally get through to amuse us. All we are seeing at the moment is the end result of the early 80's alternative scene, in which traditional humour targets were frowned upon and replaced by "jokes" about politicians and sex.
Hopefully we'll soon be rid of the days when someone generates a laugh by simply shouting the rudest word they can recall from their schooldays at an audience. We can then rediscover the subjects that genuinely make us laugh - PC or not!
People have changed in Britain. We are fast becoming more active in work. More and more people are staying later and later at work. When people do watch television, there is now such as vast choice of sport and films to watch that sitcoms and comedies are not attracting the audience they once did. British people still appreciate comedy and sitcoms, but not how previous generations did. We haven't lost our sense of humour, we still appreciate the same comedy, everyone loves that "Mrs Richards" scene from Fawlty Towers and people love the classic "Only Fools and Horses". Just people in general tend to watch other programmes more. Particularly since, a host of DIY, soaps, Watchdog" type and many game shows have risen in both standard and popularity.
Of course Brit humour is still as sardonic, cutting, self-deprecating and xenophobic as it ever was; Cleese shouldn't worry. Perhaps it's he who's lost the plot with all his US style psycho-drivel. But as for martin, UK, and his comments about not knowing what Canadian humour is like, well Marty, it's nothing like American humour: check out "Kids in the Hall" or "Cod Co" or "This hour has 22 minutes" to see the irony, self-deprecation and cutting parody only a small nation is capable of when confronted by an overfed, greedy neighbour. Think of Scots' humour, but without the Calvinist bitterness.
No I don't think that the British sense of humour has been lost. Most Australians appreciate what makes the Poms laugh. The problem is that we don't get enough of British comedians on our TV stations, which tend to favour American sitcom, which is also appreciated here. I think that the British humour is part and parcel of living in Britain, it will always be there.
Yes Ian - I agree. He doesn't make me laugh anymore - we've seen it all before - he does the same act, pulls the same faces. The second offering of a fish called Wanda - was very second rate and amateur. The Monty Python team was unique and are still wonderfully hilarious - they had their finger on the pulse of society, but now Cleese still has the perplexed fast talking manner, shouting at the world act he had 25yrs ago he is still in the 70s, Eric Idle does sit-coms, Palin is in comfortable documentary land.
Of course we haven't lost our sense of humour its moved on and if he had to do the work of a stand up comic trying to make his mark - he might get in to contact with what is making us laugh now.
Sour grapes it seems
Yes simply because of the fast pace of life and keeping up with the Joneses.
For your information, you will find that the USA often take comedy from Britain and bastardise it for their market.
Till death do us part is Archy Bunker. Steptoe and Son is Stamford and Son, Ab Fab is Sybil, Dear John is Dear John
To name but a few. I still think British humour is the best. One Foot in the Grave is one of my favourites.
And for those 'Friends' lovers, what about 'Cold Feet'?
I think Mr. Cleese was just being silly.
What is John Cleese on about - the prime-time output of BBC1 and ITV is absolutely laughable.
The country has had a rough trot recently with foot-and-mouth, mad cow disease, racial tension and our continuing sporting woes. However it's often out of such adversity that comedy thrives. I rate Eddie Izzard as the greatest of them all and the characters in The Fast Show could only originate from British comedy geniuses such as Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, Simon Day etc.
As an Englishman living in the USA for over 15 years, I was delighted to discover such shows as League of Gentlemen, Alan Partridge, The Royle Family etc on BBC America. I can assure you these shows are welcome relief from the bland, offenseless ( and consequently boring) formula sitcoms churned out on network TV here...no, the English have not lost their sense of humour at all!
Lost our sense of silliness? What's the man on about? Has he not seen So Graham Norton?
Martin Leighton, London
Whole swathes of our humour are being ditched because of political correctness. I suspect the politically correct will stifle humour altogether.
What about Chris Morris, Simon Pegg,
Chris Moyles? There are hundreds of
very funny new young comedians
making "me" laugh. I'd go so far as to
say that some of the current
generation are comedy geniuses!
Yes, I think so. In real life the Brits are as caught up with succeeding in the corporate world
and sports world as anyone else. As for TV sitcoms, the US leaves Britain for dead now - the British are boring.
Phil Miller, UK
I have lived in America for the past 12 years and I still look forward to Thursday night where I sit laughing at such comedies as "Keeping Up Appearances" and "Are you Being Served" . They are old ones, but nothing beats our sense of humour.
Blackadder, Fast Show, League of Gentlemen, French & Saunders, The Day Today, Ali G, Royle Family .... amongst the most innovative and ground breaking comedy shows of the past 20 years. If only we could keep this level of consistency we'd be laughing ...
Harry Hill, League of Gentlemen, Trigger Happy TV, Brass Eye, and Alan Partridge etc etc - we produce the funniest comedies in the world bar none - nothing has changed.
In certain aspects, such as sitcoms, yes, I think the quality of comedy has reduced, but British stand-up is as strong as ever, with Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans and Ed Burns leading the way.
The trouble with Messrs Cleese and Co is that they're trying to find something as good as or better than their previous efforts. They try too hard TRYING to be funny. Just give it up and leave it to the young.
Has Mr Cleese not seen The League of Gentlemen?
Having seen much of John Cleese's recent artistic output I have to say that I don't think it's us who are losing our sense of humour ......
It is not a lack of humour that we are suffering from but an increasing intolerance for "mucking about". People will not tolerate practical jokes and general silly behaviour as they see it as threatening yobbish behaviour - especially the police.
Ray Marsh, Australia
I think it's Mr Cleese who's lost his sense of humour.
You're only as good as your last film, and 'Fierce Creatures' was appalling.
I think the current batch of UK humour is the best in the world. League of Gentlemen, The Office, Phoenix Nights et al are excellent. Not the unoriginal, samey formulaic rubbish we are bombarded with from across the Atlantic. Do we need acceptance from abroad to be good?
Writing and producing comedy is a bit like cooking pasta "al dente". Many comedy series and their performers are funny and fresh at the outset, but they inevitably get soggy. Others never get past the raw uncooked stage. John Cleese has got soggy, comedy-wise, but he's a bright boy and he doesn't need to play the clown forever. Grow up John, and leave the clowning to the new generation of pasta performers. The League of Gentlemen, for example, is excellent, but who can say whether it will prove to be a timeless comedy masterpiece like "Fawlty Towers"?
Mat Allen, UK
Of course we're not losing our sense of humour. Look at who's Prime Minister and look at the two contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party. The leader of the Liberals is Charles Kennedy, the well-known guest on "Have I Got News For You".
I doubt the sense of humour has been lost. It has merely gone into hibernation, awaiting the likes of Messrs Elton, Cleese, and Mayall's next offerings. They have a moral obligation to those of us not umbilically connected to the diet of tripe currently on offer, to produce further Blackadders/Bottoms/Fawltys in order to help save our sanity. If I have to watch Ali G again I fear I may lose the plot altogether.
I don't think the British have lost their sense of humour, perhaps they have just stopped finding John Cleese funny?
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