Someone has said that American humour consists in overstatement and English humour
in understatement. This judgement does not include everything, but so far as it
goes it is not only accurate, but helps both to explain English humour and the
frequently heard remark that the English are without it. I suppose one reason many ill-informed
Americans say that Englishmen have no sense of humour is because the English do
not indulge so commonly as we in boisterous jocularity, exaggeration, surprise
and burlesque. The average Englishman does not see why a stranger should accost
him with jocosity-many Englishmen do not see why a stranger should accost them
at all. It is an excellent plan while
travelling in England or
anywhere in Europe never to speak first to an
Englishman; let him open the conversation.
One of the chief differences between the average
Englishman and American is in amiability, responsiveness, amenity. Americans are probably the most amiable
people in the world, the most happy to respond to an exploratory remark, the
most willing. I dare say it is partly a
matter of climate. Our chronic sunshine
makes us expansive and ebullient.
In any American city on a terrifically hot day,
two hitherto unacquainted men will speak to each other as they pass on the
street, one saying, "Don't you wish you had brought your overcoat!"
which harmless jest is returned by the other with equal affability. If you said
that to an Englishman, he might stare at you blankly, and perhaps hazard the
query, "You mean, of course, your light overcoat?"
After introduction to a resident Englishman in Vancouver, British Columbia,
at a small dining-table in hotel, I
remarked gently, "Even though you are behind the times here in Vancouver, I do not see
why you should advertise the fact." "What on earth do you mean?"
he enquired. Then I called his attention to the dinner-card, on which was
printed Vancouver, B. C. He exclaimed,
"But it doesn't mean that, you know!"
I do not believe he was deficient in a sense of humour. I had just met him, and he did not see why a
stranger should be sufficiently intimate to be taken otherwise than seriously.
Punch is the best of comic papers; it expresses
the genuine original humour of a humorous folk. I remember seeing there a
picture of the village orchestra, and as the director rapped for attention, the
first violin leaned forward and asked, "What is the next piece?" and
being informed, replied, "Why I just played that one."
Woodrow Wilson once told me a story which
illustrates how dangerous it is for anyone to assume that the English have no
sense of humour.
Three Americans were telling anecdotes to illustrate
the English dearth of humour, when they saw approaching a representative of
that nation. It was agreed that he
should then and there be put to the test.
So one of them stopped him and narrated a side-splitting yarn. The Englishman
received the climax with an impassive face. The American, delighted, cried,
"Cheer up, old man, you'll laugh at that next summer."
"No," said the Briton, gravely, "I think not." "Why not?" "Because I laughed at that last
The humour of English political campaign
speeches at its best, is unsurpassed. When the late John Morley had finished an
oration by requesting his hearers to vote for him, one man jumped up and
shouted angrily, "I'd rather vote for the devil." "Quite so," returned the unruffled
statesman; "but in case your friend declines to run, may I not then count
upon your support?"
A perfect retort was made to the great and
genial Thackeray, on the one occasion when he ran for Parliament. He met his
opponent, Edward Cardwell, during the course of the campaign, and after a
pleasant exchange of civilities, Thackeray remarked, "Well, I hope it will
be a good fight, and may the best man win." "Oh, I hope not," said Cardwell.
The English are the only people who seem to be
amused by attacks on their country; does this show a sense of superiority that
increases the rage of the critic? Or is it that their sense of humour extends
even to that most sacred of all modern religions, the religion of nationalism?
The Irish are supposed to excel the English in
humour; but it is a fact that English audiences in the theatre are diverted by
sarcastic attacks on the English, whereas it is physically dangerous to try a
similar method on an Irish audience. The Irish patriot, Katharine Tynan, said
that if she could only once succeed in enraging the English, she would feel
that something might be accomplished. "But," said she, "I tell
them at dinner parties the most outrageous things that are said against their
country, and they all roar with laughter."
Undue sensitiveness to attack betrays a feeling of insecurity.
Typical American humour is not subtle and
ironical; it is made up largely of exaggeration and surprise-Mark Twain was a
master of ending a sentence with something unexpected. "I admire the
serene assurance of those who have religious faith. It is wonderful to observe the calm
confidence of a Christian with four aces." Anthony Hope, in his recent
book Memories and Notes, says that when Mark made his first dinner speech in London before a
distinguished audience, there was intense curiosity as to what he would say. He
began with an unusually slow drawl.
"Homer is dead, Shakespeare is dead and I am far from well."
Another true story (which I took pains to
verify) happened during the early days of his married life, which synchronised
with the beginnings of the telephone. Incredible as it may seem, Mrs. Clemens
had not heard Mark swear, for during the engagement he had managed by
superhuman efforts to refrain from what he called that noble art, and she did
not dream of his oral efficiency. But one day, thinking he was alone, he
started to use the telephone. (The Paris Figaro says that to get your telephone
connexion is not an achievement; it is a career.) Mark, having difficulties, poured out a
torrent of river profanity. He looked around and there was his wife, frozen
But she had heard that the way to cure a husband
of profanity was for the wife to swear in his presence. So, in a cold,
artificial voice, she said, "Blankety-Blank-Blank." Mark cried,
"Darling, you know the words, but you don't know the tune!"
Mark had a
way of combining philosophy and humour. This is the gospel according to Mark
Twain. "Live so that when you die even the undertaker will be sorry."