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Understanding British humour – knowing when to laugh and when not to!

British humour
Ricky Gervais, known for his unadulterated satire, is one of Britain's most famous comedians. Source: Frederick M. Brown/AFP

This post was contributed by Great British Mag, a digital magazine that covers every facet of living and studying in the UK.

Moving to a different country has many quirks and challenges but one that isn’t immediately obvious is understanding the local humour and knowing when to laugh and when not to laugh!

The UK has its own breed of humour and what gets a Brit laughing may leave you scratching your head, especially as it’s often subtle and delivered with a serious face.

Another thing that you may not know is that in the UK nothing and nobody is off limits, so you will regularly see politicians being ridiculed and anybody in the public eye, including the Royal Family, is fair game.

Closer to home, friends, family and colleagues often show their affection towards each other by poking fun at one another. From the outside, it might appear that they are being rude or even cruel, but honestly the ruder they are the closer they are!

British humour is mind-boggling but fear not, we are here to give you a crash course in the 10 types of humour you’ll find Brits indulging in. 

Banter

Banter is basically a jokey conversation between people who know each other well and involves good-natured teasing and is often delivered with little or no expression where the two parties exchange insults, but all in the name of fun.

British humour

British comedian Ian Stone talks about his style of crisis humour outside a comedy club in Camden. Source: Carl de Souza/AFP

Sarcasm and irony

To say Brits like sarcasm and irony would be an understatement. It is a staple that defines British humour. Sarcasm is often used in the form of saying one thing but meaning the total opposite. For example, saying “I love your new haircut, it makes you look so much younger” to a friend who has had the worst haircut in the world or saying “I totally respect what you’re saying” to someone who you totally disagree with. 

Understatement

An understatement is very British. It’s when someone deliberately makes out that something is less significant than it is. For instance, by saying “It’s a little bit windy, isn’t it?” when there’s a raging hurricane outside is an understatement. This kind of humour is sometimes also called “deadpan” and it’s when we make a joke without smiling and often it’s not that funny, but if it’s delivered right, you can make it funny. 

For example, “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One … provided the lightbulb wants to be changed”.  

British humour

British comedians and television presenters ‘Ant’, Anthony McPartlin, and Declan Donnelly meet with Britain’s Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Source: Dave M. Benett/AFP

Satire

Satire involves using biting humour to criticise people and institutions with power, like politicians. Satire is popular in the UK because Brits love taking people “down a peg or two” (humbling them when they get too arrogant) and there are many comedy shows dedicated to exactly this type of humour, including “Have I got news for you” and Charlie Brooker’s “Weekly Wipe.

Innuendo

The Brits aren’t shy of a joke that involves a sexual innuendo. Of course, there are varying degrees if you take comedians like Julian Clary, shows like “It’s Not the Nine O’clock News” and films like the classic “Carry On” where you will see that there are certainly no taboos but generally people take their guide from the social situation and who they are with when making this kind of joke. 

The absurd

Absurd humour focuses on the silly, ridiculous or surreal. Much of British comedy is about noticing the absurd things in everyday life. Like the way everyone squishes onto the train even though there is another one in just one minute. Luckily, Brits tend to see the funny side of this (usually). This kind of comedy is best done by stand-up comedians, including Jimmy Carr and Peter Kay.

British humour

Britain’s Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall greets British comedian Jimmy Carr. Source: Arthur Edwards/AFP

British class system

Brits are entrenched in the class system and everyone loves poking fun at everyone else. Over the years there have been some classics dedicated to every run of the social ladder, including “Keeping up Appearances” and “Jeeves and Wooster.”

Macabre

One of the main differences between British humour and the humour of other nationalities is that we enjoy the cringeworthy. This is perfectly demonstrated in the filmFour Lions” and the legendary TV seriesLeague of Gentleman.” 

Embarrassing and social ineptitude

Brits are sometimes perceived to be uptight or socially awkward saying and doing things at the wrong time. This even makes us laugh!  The caricatures of British social ineptitude are personified in “Mr Bean,” “The Office” and “The Inbetweeners” – all of which have been international hits, which must mean everyone loves laughing at the Brits too!

Laughing at everyday life

The UK has a number of hit sitcoms where nothing much happens apart from everyday life. There are no knee-slapping moments but a lot of cringe-worthy moments when you cannot believe someone has done or said what they have.  

These sitcoms are subtle but absurdly funny and ones worth watching are “Gavin and Tracy,” “I’m Alan Partridge” and the “Royle Family.”

So there you have it — a quick rundown of what tickles our national funny bone. The best way to understand British humour is to sit down and watch some of our TV comedy. Go on — you deserve the break from studying!

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