Indian TV viewers seem to have chosen open American humour over subtle British wit

“This could be legen-wait for it-DARY!” is not only the famous catchphrase of Barney Stinson from the American sitcom How I met Your Mother but also a common utterance in the Indian college lingo. Try “Rodney you plonker!” in the same college campuses, though, and be met with blank stares. British sitcom Only Fools and Horses character Del Boy’s often uttered phrase has not managed to seep into Indian pop culture as the numerous references from American sitcoms have.

American humour, especially that of sitcoms, has an ubiquitous presence on our television screens, which carry a full range of U.S. programming ranging from classics such as Seinfeld and Friends, to the latest batch of sitcoms and satire such as Two and A Half Men and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

However, there is a conspicuous absence of any British humour; odd indeed from a nation renowned for its dry and sharp wit. Is this absence merely an oversight, or a hint at a deeply ingrained social preference?

The Indian-American dream

“There is no doubt that the dream of the Indian upper-middle class is to Americanise,” says Sadanand Menon, an independent cultural commentator. “The appeal of American culture comes from its conflation of material rewards with hard work.”

Such an observation directly explains the popularity of American sitcoms such as How I met Your Mother or Friends, which relate to young Indians, working in corporations and living out of traditional family homes, in a simpler way than British sitcoms such as Not Going Out and Coupling, which are culturally bolder and more distanced from the Indian context and values.

“I think there may also be a sort of patriotic contempt for British values at play, determining the TV viewer’s cultural preference,” Sadanand observes.

Whitehall or Washington

It is also, perhaps, easier to ‘get’ American humour. It is open, and more familiar to Indian audiences, than its British counterpart, which often revels in its ability to unravel a particular socio-political exception; an insider joke, if you will.

One perfect example of this is the overwhelmingly popular British satirical series Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. Both series were praised for their admirable deconstruction of the political jargon that 1980s’ Whitehall was awash in, as well as keenly showing the often antagonistic relationship between Members of Parliament and the British Civil Service. Such humour, however, demands a specific understanding of the political situation and culture of a Thatcherite Britain in order to be fully enjoyed.

By contrast, American satirical shows such as The Daily Show, while no less keenly aware, seem simpler. The American political system is, in fact, quite complex. But, we don’t need to know those complexities to watch, for instance, Jon Stewart’s show. The host plays news clips and mocks them, showing why they are ridiculous, whereas Yes, Minister relies on the audience knowing about it beforehand.

Literally legendary

The beloved Blackadder series, starring comedy alumni such as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson (of Mr. Bean fame) as the eponymous character, follows the scions of the Blackadder family, tracing their lineage from the end of the middle ages (in series one), to the Elizabethan period, moving on to the 19th century regency, until finally culminating in the fourth and final series with the Western Front in the First World War.

The last season features some of the most well-known jokes of the Blackadder canon. But, they are concerned with things such as the German parentage of the royal family, and the behaviour of ‘Huns’. The humour, based on the cultural attitude the British have regarding not only the monarchy but also the Germans, and how that changed during World War One, lurks beneath the surface, and requires some ‘reading between the lines’.

Jokes concerning the American attitude towards Canadians in sitcoms and even a fairly complex series such as 30 Rock, on the other hand, are direct and open.

It is this, then, which potentially accounts for the lack of British humour on our television sets. After all, when what you are looking for is laughter to unwind with after a long day, would you want to unravel complex histories and politics?


Couch Potato March 9, 2011