English comedy is often defined as being ‘dry’ or even obtuse. In fact, it is a unique type of humour that often goes completely misunderstood by cultures and language groups that have not had such influence.
They may also not be familiar with some of the terminology used or the references made. Commonwealth countries tend to identify more with humour, still enjoying it. Such countries include Australia, Canada and South Africa.
There are several distinctive themes that characterise English comedy.
•Smut and innuendo – for example Bottom, Benny Hill, Carry On, Hale and Pace, some Monty Python and The Dangerous Brothers. Smut usually refers to obscenity, while sexual innuendos are clear and obvious, without having to spell the details out, so to speak. This type of comedy is strictly for adults, and is usually quite offensive to conservative or sensitive viewers.
•Disrespect for those in authority – for example Not the Nine O’ Clock News, Brass Eye, Spitting Image, The Young Ones, Yes Minister and That Was The Week That Was (TW3). It has always been considered something of an emotional outlet to be able to take on fragile and oppressive decisions by laughing at them. This type of rebellion to authority is best represented in comedy, as it encourages its viewers to be introspective and to find the humour in an otherwise touchy situation or subject.
•Absurdity and surrealism – for example The Goon Show (Spike Milligan), Monty Python, Green Wing, The Mighty Boosh, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Black Books, and Brittas Empire. This theme is characterised by its silliness or lack of common sense. It makes statements (whether spoken or implied) that are simply untrue, but hilarious in their foolishness.
•The macabre – for example The League of Gentlemen, Murder Most Horrid, Snuff Box, Death at a Funeral and Kind Hearts and Coronets. This type of humour is sometimes known as ‘black humour’ for its morbidly comedic approach to otherwise tragic events.
•The manic – for example Bottom and The Young Ones. This is simply crazy, excitable humour, leaving the viewer exhausted and panicked at the chaos on screen. As is often the case during a time of mixed emotions (humour and excitement or concern, in this case), the spectator is left rolling helplessly on the floor in hysterical glee.
•Everyday occurrences – for example Only Fools and Horses, Till Death Us Do Part, The Office, Peep Show, One Foot In The Grave, The Vicar of Dibley, The Kumars at No 42, and Come Dine With Me. By exposing the comedy in situations that every viewer knows and with which they are acutely familiar, they are drawn in and involved in the frivolity on a personal level.
•The British class system – for example Fawlty Towers, Mr Bean, Keeping up Appearances, Blackadder, Dad’s Army, The Fast Show and Absolutely Fabulous. These comedies blatantly mock those who esteem themselves as English upper class and the dregs at the bottom of their perceived social ladder, creating a hilarious peek into the psyche of modern society.
•Social ineptitude – for example Mr Bean, The Office, One Foot in the Grave and Peep Show. Such embarrassment is caused by being socially inappropriate. However, when it is taken to ridiculous levels, the audience is helpless in fighting the giggles.
•Mocking foreigners – for example Mind Your Language, Till Death Us Do Part, 'Allo 'Allo!, Fawlty Towers, and The Fast Show. During the 1970’s, this theme was particularly popular and continues to be so, especially since it is considered so politically incorrect to say anything negative of another culture or race. By applying comedy to the situation, people are able to laugh at their own tendencies and weaknesses.
•Sarcasm – for example Blackadder, The Young Ones, The Thick of It, and Black Books. Nobody likes a bully and these comedies usually portray this one as coming short in the end, seeing the victory of the underdog. This makes them both funny and extremely popular.
•Depiction of stereotypes – for example Ali G, Little Britain, The Fast Show, The Young Ones, French and Saunders, Goodness Gracious Me, Blackadder and Monty Python. People are so quick to grab onto stereotypes and these comedies expose them for their true irrationality.