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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 January, 2004, 15:19 GMT
Do the Americans get irony?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

Ricky Gervais gets a Golden Globe
Isn't it ironic?
UK sitcom The Office caused an upset at the Golden Globes, when it received two top awards. Do we still believe that Americans just don't get irony?

The British wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

After stepping up to the stage to accept the Golden Globe for best comedy actor, Ricky Gervais, co-writer and star of hit British sitcom The Office, was not about to collapse into a fit of mawkish gratitude in front of the auditorium.

Receiving the award - his second of the night - from Friends star Jennifer Aniston, Gervais proffered the statuette and said simply: "Two bookends. Excellent."

It's the sort of thing Brits come to expect from their stars whenever they, periodically, buck the orthodoxy and make it big beyond their own shores.

And it's the sort of acceptance speech they like to think breezes over the heads of the oh-so-sincere American showbiz sorts.

After all, the Americans "just don't do irony".

Absolutely Fabulous
Ab Fab, one of the few British sitcom successes in the US
It is the eternal lament of British comedians who fail to break the United States, and seemingly the most yearned-for quality among homesick British ex-pats.

Los Angeles-based British actor Tim Curry didn't pause for a second when asked what he missed most about the UK. "Irony," he replied.

And while The Office may have scooped a couple of big awards Over There, it should be remembered the Golden Globes are voted for by Hollywood's foreign press pack. The show itself is a small-scale hit in the US, broadcast on the cable channel BBC America.

Nevertheless, it takes only a cursory glance at the TV schedules of the US's biggest networks to see that the charge of an endemic nationwide irony bypass simply doesn't stand up.

One of the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions of irony is "a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used".

Friends of irony

Now think of the dialogue in mega-hit shows such as The Simpsons, Friends, Seinfeld and Frasier, which consistently use ironic situations to devastating comic effect.

'Ill-timed or perverse arrival of event that is in itself desirable'
'Literary technique in which audience perceives meanings unknown to the characters' (Both from OED)
But purists argue irony has wrongly become a synonym for sarcasm
Stand-ups such as Billy Crystal, who has ventured into the lion's den of mainstream Hollywood several times as a host of the Oscars, use irony as a staple of their act.

In M*A*S*H, a sitcom which drew one of the biggest TV audiences ever for its final episode, the banter dripped irony.

To New York promoter Arnold Engelman, who has brought comedians such as Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly and Graham Norton to the US, the irony issue misses the point.

"With British stand-ups you are less sure when the joke comes out," he says. "They take time to weave the threads of a story to make a show, whereas American stand-up is more gag-driven."

Engelman believes US audiences are slowly being won-over by the British style. So enthused was he by Izzard's latest sell-out tour of the US, he is staging the first New York British Comedy Festival in the spring, featuring acts such as Izzard, Bill Bailey and the League of Gentlemen.

"First Eddie sold out in New York, so you might say 'well it's just an East Coast thing'. Then he sold out in San Francisco, so maybe it's West Coast as well. But he played to full theatres in cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh - in Detroit he sold out without any advertising."

Time and place for it

Yet, in the UK the notion that Americans don't get irony persists. David Freedman, a US comedy writer who now lives in the UK, believes the truth lies somewhere in between.

A dentist interrogates Bart's friend Ralph
Ralph: 'Alright, I don't brush! (crying) I don't brush!'
Dr Wolfe: Let's look at a picture book - the Big Book of British Smiles'
The book is of people with crooked and missing teeth
Ralph: 'That's enough! (crying) That's enough!'
From Last Exit to Springfield
"Americans do get irony, but to them there's a time and a place for it," says Freedman, a writer and producer of the BBC's Mr Hell Show. The time and place is in the evening, sitting down in front of the latest blockbuster sitcom.

"Where you get into trouble is dropping irony into an everyday conversation in America. In Britain you hear it all the time - irony and its more unsophisticated cousin, sarcasm.

"Americans, and I include in this my mom, take themselves too seriously to appreciate irony in everyday conversation. They don't have time for it."

It's the same in Germany, says Freedman, who unsuccessfully pitched a comedy series there.

Ultimately, the majority of Americans may never get a chance to appreciate the irony of Ricky Gervais' award-winning series. The Office is being remade in the US, but with different scripts and actors from the British series.

But despite it all, says Freedman, "there's no doubt the Americans have a sense of irony. If we didn't we'd have thrown out Rhode Island years ago. That's not a state. You can walk across it in about five steps."

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

Isn't it ironic that the one song used to illustrate how Americans don't get irony was by a Canadian?
Fredrica Teale, UK

An American friend confided in me once, 'I understand irony, I just don't find it funny'.
Jon, UK

Americans don't get irony? Yeah, right.
Stephen, Manchester

If you don't think Americans understand irony perhaps you should read The Onion
Tom, UK

Duffy hit the nail on the head - Americans appreciate irony in the right context. Brits who attempt to use "irony" constantly in everyday conversation come across here as sarcastic, tiresome, and rude. This is why some British comedies can't make the transition to an American audience - too much of the dialogue sounds embarassingly rude rather than clever.
Rich, Connecticut, US

Bumper sticker seen in the US on a British expat's car: "Honk if you can distinguish parody from satire"
Hugh, UK

Ironically Challenged - I think that's the politically correct term, meaning those who "just don't get the joke". Moving from New York to Chicago was a challenge - I was immediately labelled as having a bad attitude - my comments were taken way too seriously.
Peggy B, US

Britain and America are separated by the Irony Curtain.
Dave Black, UK

Yes, we get irony loud and clear. However, we don't waste too much time contemplating it. By the way, calling a plain white dog spot is not ironic, it's just stupid.
Andy, US

Irony, you say? What kind of cockamamie, jumped up little idea is that?
Andy Cottingham, Texas - you bet it is

Favourite irony from the US? A line in Third Rock From the Sun, when the aliens are sitting an exam to try to get their driving licences. One says: "If it is this difficult to get a driving licence here, imagine how difficult it must be to get a gun licence."
Peter, UK

It seems a pity that your closing line by Freedman doesn't seem to contain anything close to a proper definition of irony. In essence the quote is saying that it is ironic that Rhode Island is a State when it is in fact very small. Are you trying to be ironic by closing a piece that seeks to prove that Americans DO get irony with a quote by an American who, while saying they do do get irony, gives as an example of ironic something that isn't? Was he trying to be ironic? Am I trying to be ironic? Gosh, it is confusing.
David S, UK

Most Americans don't appreciate irony, in just the same way as most British people don't really understand it. Like liberalism, irony has always been a quality associated with the middle class. To sustain itself it relies on not everyone "getting it". Some Americans have always pushed irony. Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm is steeped in a deep appreciation of irony. Seinfeld was more mainstream but was criticised in the UK for not containing actual jokes - surely the tag of irony? That neither show has achieved anything greater than cult status in the UK suggests the Americans are more open to comic ideas. There's a touch of irony in that situation.
Alex, England

If it's true that the Americans don't get irony, then it's just as true that we Brits don't get sincerity. I once had an American sympathise with my cold: "I feel bad for you because you got sick." I found myself scanning the statement for hidden meanings, but it was free of them (I think).
John Cookson, UK

Have been here 20 years and remember the difficulties making conversation straight enough and humourless for my co-workers when first arriving. My sarcastic Scottish attitude would fall on deaf ears and still does. Americans are straight shooters, they pare the English language down to basics.
Alastair, US

For me the US flavour of irony is more sarcastic, meaning one thing yet saying another, so for example Alanis Morissette was being ironic when she said "traffic jam when you're already late" as it is not what you expect. However the UK flavour seems to be more based around the concept of "traffic jam when you're already late for a meeting to discuss traffic problems". Basically more subtle.
Rich Holman, UK

A country which apparently understands irony cannot produce decent ironic comedy. Yet, a country that apparently has no understanding of irony can produce such good ironic comedy. Now that's ironic.
Liam, Cambridge, UK

How true it is that irony in the American workplace is frowned upon! If you're going to say something "funny" better make it obvious to all. Bosses here don't take kindly to feeling left out of a joke they didn't "get".
Emily, US

Oh, I reckon the Americans "get" irony just fine. It's the FRENCH who don't. I'm not saying the French don't have a sense of humour, but irony? Many times I have found myself going into laboured explanations as to why I said the opposite to what I meant as a form of self-deprecating irony, only to see French faces screw up in a desperately polite attempt to understand WHY it was supposed to be funny.
Amanda, Paris, France

Of course Americans get irony. They just don't know how to pronounce it.
Colin Hanson, Wales

Surely the question mark over Americans' sense of humo(u)r and irony was settled by the Simpsons. Nothing we - or any other nation - has produced comes anywhere near as good.
Stuart, UK

Americans do not get irony, a couple of years ago I sent a friend a plain white fluffy toy dog as a birthday gift and called it Spot! For the life of her she could not understand why.
Mike, UK

M*A*S*H may have had irony by the bucketload, but in the States it is broadcast with a loud laughter track which focuses only on the one-liners. If the writers meant it to be dripping with irony, the producers missed it completely.
Justin Rowles, UK The Simpsons is wall to wall irony! The truth is Americans don't expect Brits to be so ironic. They still have the image of us being reserved; when we treat everything as a joke, we confuse them.
Kelly Mouser, UK

I've been to the US and having been indoctrinated in the sorry state of their humour I was surprised to find that the Americans can do irony. They just don't feel the need to overdose on it and its derivatives, sarcasm and sneering.
John Leonard, England

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