Westhampton College '10

Intelligent Life magazine published a report on humour this past summer. The article began with the findings of a recent study, which suggested that there was a "genetic explanation for some [of the] differences between the British and American styles of humour."

The statement caught my eye as I was searching the Internet for information on the technical differences between British and American humour. I had hoped that I could find some facts to use in my column this week, but sadly, the article only used the statement as an attention-grabber. The rest of the article focused on the delayed start of scientifically studying humour and the call to further investigate what makes us laugh.

Perhaps there is material out there that I overlooked, but on the whole I agree with the article. The more time I spend in London, the more I encounter instances of cultural miscommunication when it comes to humour, and all my attempts to pinpoint why this is so have been in vain. And although "why we laugh" is certainly not a critical issue, the disconnection between my American understanding and the British approach to comedy infects more areas of my daily interactions than I expected.

My confusion began when I first arrived. I was riding the bus and saw a billboard on the side of the road advertising toothpaste. I read it a few times without understanding it before I finally caved in and asked one of my London friends to explain it to me. Once she clarified the message I felt a little silly for being so slow, but when another Richmond student here told me it also took her a few moments to understand it, I felt a little more justified.

When some Richmond friends came to visit me a while ago, we went to see a movie. Like most movie theatres, they ran advertisements and previews before the show. After each commercial played we would turn to each other with looks of pure confusion. We completely missed the messages in each advertisement, whether it was the odd computer-animated Virgin Mobile skit or the commercial we could only guess was for Snickers (assuming it was a commercial at all - we weren't entirely sure).

A few weekends ago I decided to explore some of the lesser touristy spots of London. This included the Cartoon Museum and the Political Cartoon Gallery. They were both small places that wouldn't have taken long to look through, but I'm pretty sure my 10-minute viewing times were a new record.

My biggest problem wasn't that I didn't recognize most of the cartoon characters (because I didn't), but that I didn't even care. In no way could I relate to the Bash Street Kids or a British Dennis the Menace with jet black hair. Part of me feels as if I should have expected the Political Cartoon Gallery to be way over my head, since I know very limited amounts about the way Margaret Thatcher's policies were viewed by the general public or the minute highs and lows of the Conservative Party.

At least I can understand why I didn't get the political cartoons, since they require a great amount of cultural awareness and up-to-date knowledge about current events. But I can't explain every other area. I saw a clip from the UK version of "The Office" - the scene where the Jim character puts the Dwight character's stapler in Jell-O ("Office" fans should know what I'm talking about). I was shocked to find that it mirrored the American version almost word for word. Yet I didn't find it funny. The words were the same, but something in the voice inflections, facial expressions, the way the characters carried themselves and the comedic timing made me interpret the scene completely differently. Someone somewhere should get a grant to research this kind of stuff, and when you do, please let me know your results. I really want to know how these things make a difference and why. Maybe then I can join in the laughter.