British humour

British humour carries a strong element of satire aimed at the absurdity of everyday life. Common themes include sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek, banter, insults, self-deprecation, taboo subjects, puns, innuendo, wit, and the British class system.[1] These are often accompanied by a deadpan delivery which is present throughout the British sense of humour.[2] It may be used to bury emotions in a way that seems unkind in the eyes of other cultures.[3] Jokes are told about everything and almost no subject is off-limits, though a lack of subtlety when discussing controversial issues is sometimes considered insensitive.[4] Many British comedy series have become successful internationally, serving as a representation of British culture to overseas audiences.

Andy Zaltzman is an English comedian


Some themes (with examples) that underpinned late-20th-century British humour were:[5]


Innuendo in British humour is evident in the literature as far back as Beowulf and Chaucer, and it is a prevalent theme in many British folk songs. Shakespeare often used innuendo in his comedies, but it is also often found in his other plays, as in Hamlet act 4 scene v:

Young men will do't if they come to't / By Cock, they are to blame.

Restoration comedy is notorious both for its innuendo and for its sexual explicitness, a quality encouraged by Charles II (1660–1685) personally and by the rakish aristocratic ethos of his court.

In the Victorian era, Burlesque theatre combined sexuality and humour in its acts. In the late 19th century, magazines such as Punch began to be widely sold, and innuendo featured in its cartoons and articles.

In the early 1930s, cartoon-style saucy postcards (such as those drawn by Donald McGill) became widespread, and at their peak 16 million saucy postcards were sold per year. They were often bawdy, with innuendo and double entendres, and featured stereotypical characters such as vicars, large ladies and put-upon husbands, in the same vein as the Carry On films. This style of comedy was common in music halls and in the comedy music of George Formby. Many comedians from music hall and wartime gang shows worked in radio after World War 2, and characters such as Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne used innuendo extensively. Innuendo also features heavily in many British films and TV series of the late 20th century. The Carry On series was based largely on smut and innuendo, and many of the sketches of The Two Ronnies are in a similar vein. Innuendo with little subtlety was epitomised by Benny Hill, and the Nudge Nudge sketch by Monty Python openly mocks the absurdity of such innuendo.

By the end of the 20th century more subtlety in sexual humour became fashionable, as in Not the Nine O'Clock News and Blackadder, while Bottom and Viz continued the smuttier trend. In contemporary British comedy Julian Clary is an example of a prolific user of innuendo.


Disrespect to members of the establishment and authority, typified by:


The absurd and the surreal, typified by:

  • The Goon Show, surreal radio show on the BBC Home Service (1951–1960).
  • Bus Driver's Prayer
  • Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, musical group playing songs inspired by the music of the 1920s and comic rock songs (1962–).
  • The Magic Roundabout, a dub parody of a French children's cartoon that gained a cult following (1964–1971).
  • Spike Milligan's Q, sketch show and direct inspiration for Monty Python on BBC2 (1969–1982).
  • Monty Python, comedy troupe, originally noted for performing sketches without conclusions (1969–1983).
  • I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, radio panel game with bizarre games, notably Mornington Crescent and One Song to the Tune of Another on BBC Radio 4 (1974–).
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in radio, book, TV series and film form (1978–).
  • Count Duckula, cartoon show on ITV (1988–1993).
  • Red Dwarf, science fiction sitcom on BBC 2 and Dave (1988–1999, 2009, 2012–)
  • Brittas Empire, Chris Barrie sitcom set in a leisure centre about an annoying manager on BBC1 (1991–1997).
  • The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, variety show of sketches and songs in the surrealist genre of comedy on the BBC (1993–1995).
  • Shooting Stars, panel game show with seemingly no rules on BBC2 (1993–2011).
  • Big Train, sketch show with absurd situations performed in a realistic, deadpan style on BBC2 (1998–2002).
  • The Mighty Boosh, comic fantasy containing non-sequiturs and pop-culture references (1998–2009, 2013).
  • The League of Gentlemen, sitcom about the eccentric inhabitants of a fictional northern village Royston Vasey, shown on BBC2 (1999–2002, 2017). Also macabre.
  • Black Books, sitcom about a bookshop owner, flavoured with surreal and nonsensical elements on Channel 4 (2000–2004).
  • The Armando Iannucci Shows, comedy sketch show utilising surrealism (2001).
  • Green Wing, experimental sitcom using surrealism, sped-up/slowed-down camera work and ethereal, dream-like sequences on Channel 4 (2004–2007).


Black humour, in which topics and events that are usually treated seriously are treated in a humorous or satirical manner, typified by:

Surreal and chaotic

  • Vic Reeves Big Night Out (1990 and 1991) a parody of the variety shows which dominated the early years of television, but which were, by the early 1990s, falling from grace.
  • Bottom (1991–1995) noted for its chaotic humour and highly violent slapstick.
  • The Young Ones (1982–1984), a British sitcom about four students living together. It combined traditional sitcom style with violent slapstick, non sequitur plot-turns and surrealism.

Humour inherent in everyday life

The humour, not necessarily apparent to the participants, inherent in everyday life, as seen in:

Adults and children

The 'war' between parents/teachers and their children, typified by:

British class system

The British class system, especially class tensions between characters; and pompous or dim-witted members of the upper/middle classes or embarrassingly blatant social climbers, typified by:

Also, some comedy series focus on working-class families or groups, such as:

Lovable rogue

The lovable rogue, often from the impoverished working class, trying to 'beat the system' and better himself, typified by:

Embarrassment of social ineptitude

The embarrassment of social ineptitude, typified by:

Race and regional stereotypes

The An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman joke format is one common to many cultures, and is often used in English, including having the nationalities switched around to take advantage of other stereotypes. These stereotypes are somewhat fond, and these jokes would not be taken as xenophobic. This sort of affectionate stereotype is also exemplified by 'Allo 'Allo!, a programme that, although set in France in the Second World War, and deliberately performed in over-the-top accents, mocked British stereotypes as well as foreigners. This also applies to a lot of the regional stereotypes in the UK. Regional accent and dialect are used in such programmes as Hancock's Half Hour, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Red Dwarf, as these accents provide quick characterisation and social cues.

Although racism was a part of British humour, it is now frowned upon, and acts such as Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson are pilloried. Although some observers once argued certain comedy series of the 1970s were targeting racism rather than being in sympathy with it, such series as Love Thy Neighbour and It Ain't Half Hot Mum are no longer considered acceptable for repeat screenings. Along with the first of these two series, Till Death Us Do Part, was an attempt to deal humorously with the influx of immigrants to the United Kingdom, but it is now usually considered to have been counter-productive. Still much admired, however, Fawlty Towers featured the mistreatment of the Spanish waiter, Manuel, but the target was the bigotry of the lead character, Basil Fawlty. The Young Ones featured a police officer (in sunglasses) engaged in racial profiling, only to discover the man was white and wearing dark gloves. Later, The Fast Show has mocked people of other races, such as the Chanel 9 sketches, and Banzai has mimicked Japanese games shows, which have an exaggerated sense of violence, sex and public absurdity. Goodness Gracious Me turned stereotypes on their heads in sketches such as 'Going for an English' and when bargaining over the price of a newspaper. An episode from The Goodies depicted all of the black population of South Africa leaving to escape apartheid, leaving the Afrikaners with nobody to oppress – instead, they begin a system of discrimination based on height, targeting short people, labelled "apart-height".

Bullying and harsh sarcasm

Harsh sarcasm and bullying, though with the bully usually coming off worse than the victim – typified by:

  • On the Buses, Arthur toward his wife, Olive, and Jack and Stan towards their boss Blakey
  • Blackadder, Edmund Blackadder toward his sidekick, Baldrick
  • The Young Ones, comedy TV series
  • Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty toward his waiter, Manuel
  • The New Statesman, satirising a domineering Conservative Member of Parliament
  • The Thick of It, satirising the spin culture prevalent in Tony Blair's heyday
  • Never Mind the Buzzcocks, satirical music-based panel show
  • Mock The Week, satirical news-based panel show
  • Black Books, where Bernard Black attacks his assistant, Manny
  • Bottom, in which Richie attacks Eddie with little or no provocation, usually resulting in Eddie violently (often near-fatally) retaliating.
  • The Ricky Gervais Show, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais mocking Karl Pilkington's unique outlook on life.

Parodies of stereotypes

Making fun of British stereotypes, typified by:

Tolerance of, and affection for, the eccentric

Tolerance of, and affection for, the eccentric, especially when allied to inventiveness, typified by:

Pranks and practical jokes

Usually, for television, the performance of a practical joke on an unsuspecting person whilst being covertly filmed, epitomised by:

See also


  1. Laineste, Liisi (2014). "National and Ethnic Differences". In Attardo, Salvatore (ed.). Encyclopedia of Humor Studies. SAGE Publications. pp. 541–542.
  2. British humour 'dictated by genetics' By Andy Bloxham, Daily Telegraph, 10 Mar 2008. Accessed August 2011
  3. What are you laughing at? Simon Pegg The Guardian, 10 February 2007. Accessed August 2011
  4. The Funny Side of the United Kingdom: Analysing British Humour with Special Regard to John Cleese and His Work Page 5 Theo Tebbe, Publisher GRIN Verlag, 2008 ISBN 3-640-17217-5. Accessed August 2011
  5. Black Humour in British Advertisement By Claudia Felsch, Publisher GRIN Verlag, 2007 ISBN 3-638-79675-2. Accessed August 2011
  • Sutton, David. A chorus of raspberries: British film comedy 1929–1939. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, (2000) ISBN 0-85989-603-X
  • Alexander, Richard. Aspects of verbal humour in English Volume 13 of Language in performance, Publisher Gunter Narr Verlag, 1997 ISBN 3-8233-4936-8 Google books Accessed August 2011
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