The Office TV Show: Why Do Brits and Americans Laugh At the Same Jokes?

I must confess, when I was given this assignment, I was a little bit stumped. Why do British and American people laugh at the same jokes? A common language? A shared heritage? The introduction of YouTube? The advent of BBC America? The fact that we both find Ricky Gervais and Seth MacFarlane offensive?

A quick Google search shows that there is some determination by some people draw a line of difference between both nations in their approach to comedy and how they execute it. But there is something to be said that the arrival of things like YouTube iTunes and so on has made comedy from other places more accessible and in some cases.


The common areas where people do tend to try and assume or define the parametres of British and American humor is mainly things such as the use of irony in British humour, the assumption that Americans don't get irony or don't know when it's being used, the use of slapstick and one-liners being used more in the U.S., the "unwillingness" of American comedians to offend people, British people are more repressed with their emotions and so on and so forth. All of which are arguments that can have been shot down by media commentators.

It has been accepted that there is no difference between the two cultures as far as comedy is concerned; people such as Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) and Ricky Gervais (The Office), Vanity Fair's James Wolcott and Tim Minchin have all chipped into this debate of defining American and British humour, it even goes as far as a study being commissioned to find out why do British people laugh at self-deprecation. Pegg and Gervais debate that quite eloquently and point out that Americans do use irony, they just choose not to use it as much or if they do they normally add a "gotcha" or "just kidding" at the end.

You could spend hours trying to debate what certain things work with both audiences but the bottom line is that with the arrival of video sharing sites such as YouTube and Hulu you begin to see a greater appreciation of comedies from different countries or even similar comedies, a lot of British actors make appearances in sitcoms, and in some cases some American sitcoms drawing upon some facets of British comedy and vice versa, or even merging.

The best example of this is The Office and anyone who has seen both the U.K. and U.S. versions of The Office will see some subtle differences: whilst both Carrell and Gervais played their characters as bosses who are childish, insecure with an incredible lack of awareness as to how respected they are in the eyes of their colleagues perceive, Gervais said that they had to make Carrell's Michael Scott nicer and more optimistic than Gervais' David Brent.




A reason why the U.S. version of The Office worked so well could in part be attributed to the fact that the U.K. version of The Office came out in 2001 long before YouTube and indeed BBC America began to make an impact. The U.S. remake of The Office came out in 2005 around the time when YouTube was still a fledgling website. Contrast that with something like the Inbetweeners, which had a following long before the remake because people around the world were aware of the originals through things like YouTube and BBC America. 

We can spend hours, days, weeks even debating the differences and similarities between British and American comedy, but the bottom line is that the internet has made such comedies more accessible for people regardless of where they are around the world.

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Vicky Wong

Vicky Wong is a London-based trainee news reporter with the British politics website PoliticsHome. She has interned with the Reading Post, Wokingham Times, Bracknell Forest Standard, Total Politics Magazine, and Sky News. She studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading and was News Editor for the University's student newspaper Spark*.

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