Saturday, August 29, 2009

Happy to be sad


I am English but I write primarily for Americans. This has various consequences but one is that there is a major difference in the attitude to fictional entertainment.

I first noticed it many years ago when we started to get American soaps such as Dallas and Dysentery. British soaps are about poor people and usually have a suite of hopeless characters leading fairly miserable lives. American soaps are filled with rich, glamorous characters who may not be any happier but are certainly dominant individuals of one sort or another. Another characteristic of British soaps is that the pathos often transforms into humour.

The latter observation also applies to comedy. American comedy tends to feature beautiful people living fulfilling lives. British comedy is only a whisker removed from tragedy. A comparison between ‘Friends’ and ‘Coupling’ is instructive. Superficially, these are similar. The story is about six friends, three men and three women, and how they end up as couples. However, the two series are completely different beneath the surface. Coupling is a single beginning and end story spread over less than fifty episodes. Coupling is about adult relationships and is often extremely raw. The episode about men and pornography is especially hilarious, winning awards. Coupling doesn’t end completely happily in that two of the couples end up together because they have been dumped and no one else will have them. Another example is ‘Men Behaving Badly’. This was bought by American TV, recast and re-scripted until it would have been better entitled ‘Pretty Boys Being a Little Bit Naughty’.

This brings me to a further point. Americans like their entertainment fiction to have a happy ending. The British like to wallow in a bit of angst where in the last chapter the heroine dies of consumption and the hero is killed by friendly fire.

I am not the first person to observe that an American glass is half full but a British one is half empty.

To quote an Englisg catphrase: it's being so cheerful 'as keeps us going.

10 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL! So true, JJohn.

When my children watched the old TV series Blake's 7, and they got to the end and everyone was killed they were horrified.

I told them, it ended that way because it was a British TV show. If it had been American, Avon and the others would have vanquished the Supreme Commander!

I remember watching her in my 20s and thinking she was the sexiest powerful woman I had ever seen.

matapam said...

I've noticed the downer endings in British mysteries in the last few years. I find them particularly irritating because so many are detached from the plot and feel stitched on. "Editorial fiat" I grumble, but I don't actually know.

Kate said...

From what I've seen, the Brit sense of humor seems closer to the bone than the US version. There's a lot of "if you didn't laugh, you'd cry" in Brit series, and a much stronger tendency to show people living in less than ideal circumstances.

The Brits tend to do irony and understatement a lot more than US media, too, I've noticed. A lot of the funniest moments in Brit shows that I've seen involved nothing more than a situation and a look. The same setup in the US would require a laugh track and in-your-face pointing out the funny.

Allo Allo is a classic for this. I forget how many times a simple setup and the character expressions had me laughing until I hurt. For those who remember the show, the scene with the candles comes to mind.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

My family LOVES British comedy. We have heaps of shows and movies.

Red Dwarf
Black Books
The Young Ones
Ab Fab
All the Black Adders
Mr Bean
Monty Python series and movies
Mighty Boosh
Bottom
Sean of the Dead
Hot Fuzz

As for US comedy shows.

All the Scrubs
All Buffy
In the last month we bought Studio 60, the series and enjoyed that.

The US shows we have , Buffy and Scrubs, tend to be a bit off the wall.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Another good example of this IMO was "Blackadder Goes Forth." Had all these moments of total hilarity, yet with this utter sense of bleakness just under the surface. And the ending was absolutely moving.

So Kate, I believe your "if you didn't laugh, you'd cry" hits right on the money.

I wonder if some of it has to do with the fact that the British have a lot more history weighing down on their shoulders than we Americans do. To us Americans, a 200-year-old building is a "historical landmark"; to you folks across the pond, it's "new construction."

Just my two cents.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Terry Pratchett books usually have a happy ending. Is he an exception, or am I missing something?

John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena

There was a documentary on Blake's Seven recently that included interviews with the cast.

Jacqueline Pearce, Servalen the Supreme Commander, revealed that her fanmail showed that she 'had become the masturbatory fantasy for an entire generation of teenage boys'.

John

John Lambshead said...

Dear RJ

The last scene in Blackadder was one of the most poignant ever shown on British TV. It really does some up the British attitude to comedy and tragedy.
John

John Lambshead said...

Dear Ori

Ptatchet is like Wodehouse, a genius but not typical of British culture.

John

Satima Flavell said...

As a Brit by birth, I naturally dig British humour rather than that of our Stateside cousins. I think you hit the nail on the head John, in implying that Brit humour is about the underdog, and there are hints of that in the only two American shows I've really liked, Seinfeld and Benson - who is really Bertie Wooster reincarnate, no?

Perhaps with practice I could learn to love American humour. After all, when I lived in the States I got my friends there hooked on The Full Monty - once I'd translated it for them!