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British jokes in a global world

Updated Friday 1st June 2007

Christie Davies reveals the punchline to British jokes - they're often a local spin on international humour

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Where does the British joke come from?

During the last fifty years it has often come from the United States, which is curious given that country's strong dependence on Britain for new creative ideas in performed humour and particularly broadcasting. In the modern Western world America is the key source of new joke cycles. Jokes on a particular topic swirl up; their numbers grow rapidly to a peak, level off and then slowly fade away. America has in turn been swept by Polish jokes, disaster jokes, blonde jokes and lawyer jokes, which have then often spread to Britain and even the rest of Europe.

But that doesn't mean that British jokes aren't, well, British. Each time an American cycle of jokes arrives, it is captured, transformed and made British.

When the American jokes about 'Polish' stupidity were exported in the late 1960s to the 1980s every country in Europe adopted the idea of the jokes, but invented their own distinctive versions about the local targets. In France, it was the Belgians; in Spain, the Gallegos and Leperos; in Switzerland, Fribourg/Freiburg; in Denmark, Aarhus; in Greece, the Pontians and, in Britain, the Irish. All targets, not because any of these groups were unpopular but because they lived on the periphery, spoke a strange variation of the standard language and often did particular kinds of work.

In Britain the stupidity jokes merged with that great British humorous obsession - social class. The Irishman of the jokes was a labourer on a building site in his donkey jacket and wellies, with his pick and shovel and wheelbarrow.

The Irish, in their turn, transformed the jokes into Kerryman jokes.

The American version of the stupidity jokes had begun as riddle jokes and there is no agreed way of telling a "Polish" joke because there is no recognizable form of Polish-American speech. In Britain the jokes were merged with a three hundred years old, but temporarily lapsed, tradition of narrative jokes about the Irish and joke tellers told them with a brogue.

The same thing happened with the bland American Blonde jokes, which became Essex girl jokes. The British gave them a location, a language – Estuary English – and a social class. Only in Britain do Wayne and Tracey have sex in a Ford Cortina.

Once the British have the basic idea for a joke they create jokes that are their very own and very British.

The death and disaster jokes that flourish in Britain immediately after a vivid television report of a tragic natural event or the accidental death of a celebrity also first occurred in America after the Kennedy assassination and again with the loss of the Challenger space shuttle, but the British very quickly got the point of the jokes and the joke cycle sparked by the death of Diana is one of the biggest there has ever been.

As with all jokes, disaster jokes are a way of sneaking round the prohibitions on the ways we are allowed to speak.

When there is very little constraint, there are very few jokes.

We are expected to speak of disasters with feigned sadness, to be respectful about religion, polite about other nations and about ethnic minorities, circumspect in referring to sexual matters. Jokes break all these rules.

We are expected to argue in a logical way and to avoid ambiguity. Jokes revel in absurdity, incongruity and puns. Jokes are time off from the constraints on conversation. When there is very little constraint, there are very few jokes.

In the former Soviet Union, where any criticism of the regime was forbidden and punished, political jokes flourished. In Britain there are very few good political jokes because we can speak our minds.

We don't tell the kind of scintillating jokes so often told in Russia and Eastern Europe about Brezhnev and Andropov, socialism and shortages, the militia and the KGB because we can, if we wish, openly and savagely criticise our politicians and institutions. No one is going to lock you up or even ostracise you, so there is no prohibition to defy.

Yet we only joke about matters to which we can easily relate. When a wave of American jokes about lawyers as ravenous as sharks came to Britain, the jokes never caught on because the law and lawyers are not, or at least not yet, as central to our lives as they are in America. We do not have a detailed written constitution that defines what we the British people are. We just are. In the main we resolve our disputes without going to court and becoming suers.Trials depend less on minor procedural details than they do in America and are conducted with rather more dignity.

We do not have the reasons Americans have for laughing about lawyers, When American lawyer jokes are told in Britain, they are given an American setting in the same way that when Americans tell British jokes about social class, the jokes retain their British origins.

When it comes to jokes, there are clear cultural rules of the game but no one decides them. Jokes have no authors and no censors, no planners and no script writers. They circulate freely among ordinary people, regardless of what the powerful and the politically correct would like. They are a genuinely people's humour, emerging from chance quips that are then detached from their original context and polished into well-made jokes.

Much later they are stolen by comedians.

Jokes have always circulated by word of mouth and this was speeded up with the invention of the telephone. Today they zap between countries by email and roost in websites.

There is still a very distinctive British sense of humour and very British jokes that go with it, but it and they exist in a new and global world.





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