Recently I was asked about the difference between British and American comedies and why the latter tend not to do well over here.
I cited “Four Weddings And a Funeral” as one of a number of exceptions, and mentioned the obvious explanation: Brits grow up familiar with American culture because of the abundance of imported American films and TV shows.
Most Americans, on the other hand, have little knowledge of any way of life other than their own, see virtually no foreign movies and have never seen a British TV show on a network (except, perhaps, Princess Diana’s funeral).
Laughter happens because of recognition. You laugh when someone on the screen says or does something that you have said or done or, more often, wish that you had said or done, or – very often – wish that you hadn’t said or done.
Comedy in silent films was completely international, because human behavior is visibly the same all over the world. But language makes it much more specific, and verbal references to things that the Brits understand and take for granted frequently don’t translate to American audiences. It’s less of a problem in reverse because Brits grow up deluged by American pop culture.
But there’s a more fundamental difference in the British and the American approaches to comedy, and to films generally. American films and TV have their roots in Madison Avenue, in the world of advertising. The comedy is rooted in burlesque and vaudeville, but TV in America was always paid for by advertisers or sponsors.
In Britain, on the other hand, it was originally paid for by the viewer, in the form of an annual TV license which everyone who owned a TV set had to buy. Before TV existed, BBC Radio was financed the same way. The money went directly to the BBC. In other words, the consumer, not the advertisers, paid for what was on the screen. The BBC is still financed this way.
Furthermore, because the BBC was a public service broadcaster, it began with strict, paternalistic notions of giving listeners and viewers what was felt to be good for them. The object was education and improvement as well as entertainment. The content was thus derived from Britain’s literary tradition. British films, developing out of the same homogeneous culture, also drew on the literary tradition.
Another difference is that the British are perfectly relaxed about treating their leaders with disrespect. Anyone who has seen Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons knows this. The head of our government can be attacked (verbally) without any suggestion of a lack of patriotism.
Unfortunately, when the Founding Fathers devised the Separation of Powers here in the U.S., they forgot to separate the Head of Government from the Head of State, thus making it far more contentious to criticize the president – who is, after all, only a politician.
The two cultures, the two traditions, have fundamentally different purposes.
Madison Avenue is about reassurance. It’s about making the viewers feel good. It’s about pleasing the audience. It’s about selling. The literary tradition, on the other hand, is about telling the truth.
Literature, like all art, asks awkward questions, poses real moral dilemmas. It can act as a wake-up call. Above all, it criticizes society. That’s what popular culture in Britain has always done. Look at Dickens’ novels. Highly entertaining, very popular, often funny but deeply critical.
In Europe and elsewhere, film-makers are seen primarily as artists. Here, they may be artists too, but their job is to make a product for a factory called a studio.
A provocative movie presents a marketing problem. Advertisers interpret the market by studying demographics. They find out what the audience wants and give it to them.
There’s nothing wrong with that in itself (and it’s certainly not easy) but how do you check out the demographics of a film that’s different? How can you be sure that the audience will want something if they haven’t responded to something very similar before? You can’t. So you don’t make or distribute the film at all. Too risky.
Producer Peter Guber has said that we’re not in Show art, we’re in Show Business. He’s right. But ‘Show’ should still be the operative word, because without original, individual, perceptive and challenging shows, show business may eventually be no business – just people scratching their heads over demographics.
Jonathan Lynn is co-creator of the BBC series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minster” and director of “The Fighting Temptations,” “The Whole Nine Yards” and “My Cousin Vinny.”