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News Flash: British Humor (Re)Discovered
by Karma Waltonen

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Come on, Forrest, I mean, Fatboy!

Come on, Forrest, I mean, Fatboy!
The release of RUN FATBOY RUN (1) at the end of March has caused the American public to think through their relationship to British Humor (2), that is, to remember that there is such a thing.

Many conversations start like this: "What's at the theater?" "Well, there's something called RUN FATBOY RUN." "What's that?" "I dunno; I think it's British." "Like HAMLET?" "No—it's British Humor." "Like HAMLET?"

Recent surveys indicate that American thought concerning British humor enacts Cognitive Dissonance—the ability to hold two contradictory things in the mind at once and to believe them both to be true. (3) In this case, Americans generally believe that British humor is elevated and educated while simultaneously believing that THE BENNY HILL SHOW is the quintessential example.

One viewer commented, "Yeah, like, they're um . . . smarter than us—I mean, listen to the accent. They're all upper class and go to Oxford and write like Shakespeare—that's why their sense of humor is superior to ours."

The viewer's roommate added, "And they can show boobs on t.v.—they're really ahead of us. And not many Americans can keep up, like us. Did I mention the boobs—they're even high class boobs—all the women are, what's the word—oh, yeah, slags."

Americans who discovered that they were once a British colony due to the British invasion of the 1960s (which was more successful than the 1812 campaign) often cite THE BENNY HILL SHOW and CARRY ON films as their first exposure to humor different from their own. Although much of the material of the time is prurient in content (see NO SEX PLEASE, WE'RE BRITISH), the fact that the texts engaged in verbal humor such as puns and irony led the ex-colonists to decree British humor sophisticated and therefore not appropriate for everyday viewing.

"The Benny Hill thing is ridiculous . . . oh wait, are you writing this down? . . . wait—Americans' fascination with the artist Benny Hill, their subsequent belief that British humor is solely embodied by his oeuvre, and their determined opposition to facilitating their own matriculation of the subject is indicative of . . . shall we say, proverbially prevaricating on all sides of the shrubbery. It is a quandary . . . a query to masticate on," said a British Humor scholar who later requested anonymity. She went on to say that equating Benny Hill with Britain would be akin to assuming that Jerry Lewis was the paragon of American humor.

She continued, "Obviously, Jerry Lewis is representative of French tastes, as they don't have comedy there. Except, Sartre."

With RUN FATBOY RUN poised to either conquer Americans by making them laugh too hard to resist, or to begin another war, we at MATCHFLICK deem it necessary to introduce a few titles of British films in an attempt to elucidate the genre. In no particular order:

1. A FISH CALLED WANDA. Starring a few Pythons, Kevin Kline, Jaime Lee Curtis, and the old woman from WILLOW, this film juxtaposes the stereotype of the dumb, oversexed American next with the overeducated, uptight British Barrister. The Barrister wins and female viewers can remind themselves why foreign language skills are a must for "turn ons" list at internet dating sites. John Cleese, a writer for the film, stated that the "good guys," "bad guys," and plot twists were clearly delineated for an American audience. One viewer was heard to reply, "Thank God."

2. SHAUN OF THE DEAD. (Alternate: HOT FUZZ) This pairing of the minds of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright would probably create nuclear fusion if they weren't writing stuff down. It rivals the on-screen pairing of Simon Pegg with Nick Frost. The movies are exemplars of fine composition—every line, every shot, has a call-back. Drunken (i.e. American or Australian) audience members, fear not: you will not need to remember the original to find the call-back line funny. There's enough slapstick for you groundlings as well.

3. FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL. Although Andie MacDowell
It's fine to kiss in the rain, but not after the stupid line she said

It's fine to kiss in the rain, but not after the stupid line she said
appears, this film is actually quite good. It was Hugh Grant's first entry into cross-Atlantic comedy. His bumbling performance and his shaggy do were originally meant to signal his "dorkiness," but his English accent fooled American women (and not a few men) into finding him irresistible and cultured. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the girl who should have won the guy. A still shot with Prince Charles, along with naming the Grant's character Charles, further confused the American audience—many of whom decided they would in fact prefer a monarchy, if Grant came with it.

4. MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. (Alternates: LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL; THE MEANING OF LIFE; LIFE OF BRIAN) Americans cannot claim familiarity with British Humor without memorizing this film. Only then will they hope to understand why the nationality of a swallow matters, why it's best not to weigh the same as a duck, and why we hang "on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society." Once full memorization (including credits) is obtained, one can join the likes of Homer Simpson's college nerd friends and Weird Al Yankovic's WHITE AND NERDY alter ego: "I memorized HOLY GRAIL really well / I can recite it right now and have you ROTFLOL." When one hard-core fan was asked if it was the best film of all time, she replied, "Don't say that word; please don't say it again. Oh, no, I've said it. Shit, I've done it again . . ." (4)

5. THE FULL MONTY. Although popular with Americans who chanced to see this film, thinking they were going to view a raw documentary on Dr. Karma's mother (also a Monty), many anglophiles dislike this little gem. There's some dispute as to intellectual property and it ends a bit too happily. Perhaps those who do like it think it's because the ending is tragic—we never do get what the title promises, though we eagerly waded through the entire film to see all of Tom Wilkinson. (5)

6. KEEPING MUM. Although it may seem cruel to laugh at Patrick Swayze after learning he has cancer, we know that all of comedy is secretly cruel. Curl up with this sweet movie about a murderess, a minister, and the minister's wife, who opens her first scene with blasphemy. Viewers can not and should not ignore this one—if a cast list including Kristin Scott Thomas, Rowan Atkinson, and Maggie Smith means anything at all. A recent White House poll indicates that it does.

7. BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY. As in almost every Hugh Grant movie, this stars an American woman. When asked for comment about this phenomenon, the SETI lab refused to return our calls. But we're happy with Renee Zellweger as our lovable Bridget, randy with Hugh Grant as the cad, and lusty with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Every. Time. We. Get. To. Say. That. Moreover, we are taken with director/costar Sharon Maguire, because we are also a feminist who says "Fuck." A lot.

8. ABOUT A BOY. We did not mean to have another Hugh Grant movie here, but this film is pleasing in all respects. It is based on a cracking novel by Nick Hornby, the soundtrack is by BADLY DRAWN BOY, and it stars Toni Collete and Rachel Weisz. If you somehow want revenge on Hugh Grant for being a devastatingly handsome, naughty man, and BRIDGET did not give it to you, try this one. Fruit is thrown.

9. HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. Douglas Adams's book contains one of our favorite metaphors—"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." It also informs us that "time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so." One could hardly expect the film to capture the pythonesque (6) glory of the book, but one (actually many) did. And thus the film gets knocked about simply because it is not the book. This is hardly fair. Give it another shot.

10. WHITE TEETH. While Zadie Smith's book garnered much attention, the BBC film version, starring the fabulous Om Puri, did not. It's long, like the book; it requires you to keep a bunch of characters
A fine work about the value of lying

A fine work about the value of lying
straight, like the book; it's wonderful, like the book. We hope that we spend so much time watching good movies that we might share one character's response to being asked if his life flashed before his eyes: "It did, yeah. Thing is, I wasn't really in it."

11. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. We recommend any version, really, with the exception of American versions that tend to cast men as Lady Bracknell. While cross-dressing is a staple of British comedy, it is NOT that funny when the female character can carry her own—Wilde's women can. One respected, but angry, Wilde scholar has suggested that his imprisonment for buggery was actually a smokescreen and that he was really punished for giving actresses good parts. Where else could a stately woman say: "Mr. Worthing, I must confess that I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred in a handbag, whether it have handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life which reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution, and I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?"

As even novice viewers may discern, many of these films feature the same actors. There are, indeed, only a few British actors who appeal to American audiences (they tend to have good teeth), and thus only a few are allowed to act in film, by an act of Parliament.

They are: Hugh Grant (#3, 7, 8); Kristin Scott Thomas (3, 6); Bill Nighy (2, 9); Colin Firth (7, 11); Jim Broadbent (5, 7); Rowan Atkinson (3, 6); John Cleese/Michael Palin (1, 4). Although Judy Dench is only in #11, rest assured that in her greatness she represents at least four other actors.

Perhaps the best way for the public to educate themselves is to take one actor and watch all of his or her films. It is also recommended to ask other film fans to recommend pieces. Do not be fooled by imitations, however. Studies have shown that mistaking Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, or AUSTIN POWERS films for British humor only leads to a misunderstanding of the quality of British work. Dr. Anita Lay, of the Institute of the Study of Fictive Imitations of Flatulence in Anglo-English Literature, notes "there's a huge difference between seeing a British troupe pretending to be Australians claiming the Queen said it was 'hot enough to boil a monkey's bum,' as 'she's a good Sheila, Bruce, and not at all stuck up' and watching actual Australians praise our fair Queen."

(1) The film has the appropriate commas in the British release title. We are not surprised.

(2) The spelling/grammar here is American, which, as we are told, is not proper, as the language is apparently "English." Thus, there are more periods and commas, but fewer letters than "necessary."

(3) George Orwell coined another term for this: Doublethink. American susceptibility to doublethink is illustrated in their simultaneous abhorrence of communism and their frequent attempts to ban 1984, which is a critique of it.

(4) Memorizing the film will make you a level one fan. Level five members will also have the THE ALBUM OF THE SOUNDTRACK OF THE TRAILER OF THE FILM OF MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL memorized. A bit from the logician who explains the witch scene: "For example, given the premise, 'all fish live underwater' and 'all mackerel are fish,' my wife will conclude, not that 'all mackerel live underwater,' but that 'if she buys kippers it will not rain,' or that 'trout live in trees,' or even that 'I do not love her any more.' This she calls 'using her intuition.' I call it 'crap,' and it gets me very irritated because it is not logical."

(5) This can be achieved by viewing THE GOVERNESS.

(6) Actual word. Adams was also actually in a FLYING CIRCUS sketch.

Correction: The INDIANA JONES reference from last column should have been identified as belonging to the episode "Bart's Friend Falls in Love." The fact checker has been reprimanded (i.e. The Boy has been strangled).

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Comedies with Dr. Karma
Every other Wednesday

Dr. Karma discusses all things comic, from the classics to what may become classics. Laugh with, but not at, her, please.


Other Columns
Other columns by Karma Waltonen:

Goodbye -- Dr. Karma

The Dictator and Dark Shadows

Pirates and Whedon Movies: In Theatres Now!

A Touch of Cult

Our Random Favorites

All Columns


Karma Waltonen
Dr. Karma is a silly, nerdy know-it-all, but in a good way. She brings all her overeducation to discuss that which truly matters: comedy. As some famous guy once said: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.” Or something like that.


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