America and Britain have a long history with each other. In film and television, comedy is one aspect that has been influenced by our British cousins over the years. In modern times, American comedy is starting to resemble traditional British humor. One way this can be seen is by looking at the lists of American remakes of British television and film, which are numerous. Another way is how comedy has changed over the years. This article looks at the differences between the two and how American comedy took inspiration from British humor and developed further.
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Censorship Make a Difference
One of the most significant differences between American and British television is the censorship of mainstream cable. What is said and shown on British mainstream television differs from what gets shown on American television. A ukessays.com article compares the differences between the two. It concludes that there are more complaints about not enough censorship in Britain, while in America, there are complaints of too much. This conclusion is a result of the lenient British television guidelines and the more strict American ones.
A perfect example of this can be shown through the difference between the successful British television show ‘The Inbetweeners’ and its American remake. While there are significant differences between the execution of the two shows, a substantial obstacle in the American version was censorship. The British version didn’t have to hold back when depicting the lives of young teenagers, while the American version had to pull their punches. If the British version were to be aired on an American station, it would have to be through a private company like Netflix or HBO. The British version is currently available on Netflix in America at the time of writing this article.
Private streaming services are becoming a more popular route in television. One of the reasons is the freedom from having to navigate the censorship restrictions of cable. However, there are examples where American cable has successfully provided a fresh take from their British counterpart. One similarity of those successes comes from the company behind the remake knowing how to utilize best the guidelines they have to follow.
Britain to America – Analyzing the Two Styles
In an interview with ITV News, Stephen Fry, a British actor, comedian, and writer, explained a difference between American and British comedy by dissecting a scene in ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House.’ In the famous scene, comedy legend John Belushi walks down the stairs during a toga party and encounters a musician playing a love ballad to a group of women. Belushi listens for a moment, perturbed, before grabbing the musician’s guitar and smashing it on the wall. He hands the broken instrument back and apologizes. The movie plays on. In the interview, Fry describes how the point of view from this scene follows Belushi and the audience roots for him. He then points out that the British version would be from the musician’s point of view.
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These perspectives were the trademark of American and British humor. In mainstream American comedy, the main character would strike against the grain and come out triumphant in the end. For British humor, the protagonist believes they are at the center of the universe only to find the world crashing down on them. An AV Club article describes this difference as possibly being the result of optimism. Americans tend to resonate more with optimistic humor. However, this traditional difference in comedy has been challenged in the past decade through a subtle shift in American comedy. In American film and television, dead-pan humor, pessimism, and cynicism have made their way to the forefront.
America Takes Notes
In the past decade, this tipping of the teeter-totter to pessimistic humor happened with shows like ‘Louie,’ ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ and ‘Arrested Development.’ ‘Seinfeld’ could be a precursor in some ways, and today the roots are in shows like ‘Corporate.’ Cynical humor can also manifest in a different form through a meta moment of self-parody and making fun of traditional tropes. The AV Club article describes ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ as possibly being a critique of American optimism in comedic television. The characters in ‘It’s Always Sunny…’ have an inflated sense of self-confidence, which often leads to horrible results for those in their paths.
This necessarily isn’t a new phenomenon in America, though. Woody Allen’s humor spans decades and can be quite pessimistic. The main characters in some of his classics, like ‘Annie Hall,’ display neurotic tendencies and are highly critical of their surroundings. However, examples like this tend to be the exception rather than the rule for American comedy. A significant difference, though, and one that is crucial to the importance of the genre, is blending the pessimistic realities of life with an optimistic outlook on moving forward.
Follow Through and Conclusion
In an interview with Charlie Rose, David Foster Wallace talks about dark humor and the problem of postmodernism in comedy. A Will Shroder video ties together the pitfalls of what Wallace was pointing out. The introduction of irony and self-parody through awareness in television and film brought the occurrence of pointing out tropes. A result is that it’s hard to make fun of a show making fun of itself. This pessimistic comedic style was a staple in British television and film that America adapted. It was a trickle that became a flow and is in many different outlets.
An issue with this style of comedy is that there is no follow-through. It doesn’t provide an answer. It’s fair to point out a problem, but it’s harder to follow that up by offering a solution.
Thankfully, some shows and films are aware of this and have stepped up to the plate. A great example is the American version of ‘The Office.’ The Will Shroder video breaks down how the American version sets up many points of sincerity in dealing with hardship. ‘Parks and Recreation,’ ‘Community,’ and ‘Modern Family’ are some of the shows that picked up the mantle of ‘The Office’ and brought more sincerity and resolution in addition to pessimistic humor. Films like ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ and ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ do the same.
It is interesting to see how British comedy influenced American humor over the years and where American comedy, in some areas, has begun to raise the bar. With a lot of uncertainty in film, television, and the world in general, thankfully, there is some awareness in the entertainment industry of taking the next steps and bringing something meaningful to the screen.
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Drew Alexander Ross writes for Hollywood Insider with the aim of bringing the reader an uplifting and insightful experience. He combines his degree in film and business to show a unique point of view on cinema and his beliefs coincide with Hollywood Insider‘s values of promoting positive and meaningful content. Drew enjoys reading at the pace of one to two books a week and loves movies of all genres. He has placed in several screenwriting competitions and has short stories featured in several different publications.