There is nothing quite like settling down on the sofa to watch an episode of your favourite UK or US comedy series, but what are the differences between the two? When comparing them it’s like comparing a takeaway pizza with a shop bought pizza. That isn’t me saying that one is top quality and the other is bad, but rather that they are both completely different experiences of the same product. Being from the UK it would be easy for me to sit here and ramble on about how our comedy is the holy grail but that’s from my perspective, growing up watching British comedy and steering clear of American comedy because I’ve never been able to get into it. On the other side of the coin an American may have the opposite view, since British comedy could potentially go over their heads which is understandable because of the contrast in comedic style.
I personally think the differences in the writing and deliveries of the lines; British is more dry wit whereas American is full on and goofy. Both of these styles make for good comedy when done properly.
Let’s begin to understand the differences in humour, Stephen Fry puts it brilliantly during an interview that can be found on YouTube by using the example of American comedy film Animal House starring John Belushi, in particular the scene in which Belushi’s character smashes another character’s guitar to stop him from playing. According to Fry a British comedian would want to play the character with the guitar.
“The great British comic heroes are people who want life to be better and on whom life craps on from a terrible height”
“The great American comic heroes can wisecrack their way out of any situation, they win the girl and they’ve got the biggest knob in the room”
The UK is far more comfortable with portraying themselves in an embarrassing and negative way. Awkward humour in which the main character is usually at the brunt of the joke is the basis of most of our comedy shows: Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring, Del Boy and Blackadder are all good examples. This is down to the kind of culture people have been raised in: they don’t expect success, they don’t have aspirations of world domination and they are happy to be the underdog.
Let’s take the 2003 Channel 4 comedy Peep Show as another example. The two main leads Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) and his flat mate Jeremy Usborne (Robert Webb) are frequently thrown into embarrassing and awkward situations in every episode, sometimes one of them (usually Jeremy) comes out of an episode smelling of roses but it’s always at the expense of the other.
What makes it brilliant is that after nine series both characters end the show in exactly the same circumstances as episode one; Mark is still alone and girlfriend-less, Jeremy is still a failed musician freeloader and they are both ultimately stuck with each other. No positive character development and no success story or happy ending for either of them… typically British.
To contrast, Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) from the US sitcom Friends evolves throughout the series from a spoiled daddy’s girl into a successful business woman and forms a relationship with Ross Geller (David Schwimmer). She drunkenly marries Ross which is eventually annulled and they accidently have a child. While the two remain apart until the end of the series she gets off a plane to France for a job at the last minute to confess her love in the final episode… a typical American happy ending.
American humour takes a different approach, because unlike the Brits they aren’t as comfortable with being portrayed as the underdog. They are raised with the ideas of the “American Dream”, that they can be as successful as they want, even becoming the President if they work for it. This is evident in their comedy as amongst all the jokes and gags the main character usually gets a happy ending. This is fine when it’s paired with clever comedic writing.
Let’s compare both versions of The Office to further show the contrast, in particular the main characters in both. The Original UK version from 2002 was written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and starred Gervais as the boss David Brent. The show was adapted for an American audience in 2005 with Steve Carell as Brent’s American equivalent Michael Scott. David and Michael are perfect characters to use for a comparison because of the contrast in the circumstances that causes them to leave their jobs.
Michael gets a typical happy ending in which he moves away with his fiancé to start a new life in Colorado, and over time his employees begin to see his genuine good intentions and are overjoyed when he finds a soulmate. Despite being a similar character to David Brent, the nastier elements of Michael’s UK counterpart are not present and there is more emphasis on him being a nice but lonely guy which is why he deserves a happy ending.
David on the other hand is made redundant and is seen desperately begging for his job back in the final scenes of the second series. You’re made to almost feel sorry for him as a viewer because you’ve been watching his desperate attempts to be liked by his employees throughout the series. Although, unlike Michael, we frequently see David’s failed attempts to make himself look good for the camera, often at the expense of his co-workers. This could be seen as poetic justice by some viewers.
Both can be seen as polar opposites and if you’ve grown up in a culture where you’ve been taught that you can do anything and the sky’s the limit, it’s obvious which ending you’re more likely to prefer… and that’s completely fine! I prefer the UK version of The Office because it’s a lot more realistic. David is ultimately useless at his job and is more focused on being popular amongst his employees and in the end, he gets what he deserves.
When it comes down to it, we can compare different styles all day but ultimately it doesn’t matter. We all have our different preferences and styles and that’s what makes both countries such unique and diverse places. We can all sit down on an evening after work and enjoy what we like to enjoy and let everyone else do the same.
Ben is a Social Media Executive, with a passion for watching and writing about TV shows and films. When away from the laptop, he enjoys meeting up with friends at the pub, going to football matches and watching comedy shows.