The funny side of the United Kingdom

Analysing British humour with special regard to John Cleese and his work

Term Paper, 2007

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I. Introduction

II. Aspects of English Humour
A. How to define humour
B. Comedy and Humour in British Society
1. British sense of humour
2. German and English humour compared and contrasted

III. John Cleese as a Symbol of British Humour?
A. His life
B. His share in the British sense of humour

I. Introduction

“If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge its truth.”(Cleese)

If people who are living outside the United Kingdom are asked to characterise British humour, many of them will probably mention the jokes of one of the Monty Python series or maybe famous quotes from the British sitcom Fawlty Towers; and if you ask these people which person they would associate with the shows, the answer will probably be: John Cleese. He is well known in nearly all European countries and even in the United States. But how did he become that famous or maybe even a label for today’s view on English humour?

In my research paper I want to point out Cleese’s significance for British Comedy and humour. At first, I would like to give a general definition of the term and at the same time look at different types of humour in order to investigate why people start grinning or laughing in certain situations. I will present some criteria which can detect different types of humour and consider humour on phonological and syntactical levels.

Then I want to work out if there is a special concept of humour in the United Kingdom and if this humour even characterises the British culture. In a next step I will compare the stereotypical concept of British and German humour to show that they are at least rated as being contradictory.

After I have shown some typical styles and techniques of the British humour, my central focus will be on John Cleese. I want to give an overview of his life and introduce people who are close to him or supported him in his career. In doing so I will also concentrate on his major achievements: e.g. Monty Python’s Flying Circus and their films and Fawlty Towers. Their popularity throughout the world is really remarkable and shows that Cleese and his friends possibly managed to broadcast a new sense of humour. I will therefore finally analyse their and particular Cleese’s share in British sense of humour.

II. Aspects of English humour

A. How to define humour

The most abstract way to define humour is to look up its definition in a dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary here says that humour is “the quality of being amusing or comic” (OALD). In this case humour is seen as a character which has been adopted by a person. But if you look at the physical effect humour causes, it can be simply defined as a “type of stimulation that tends to elicit the laughter reflex” (Encyclopædia Britannica Online). This spontaneous laughter is an automatic reflex and is produced by the coordinated contraction of 15 facial muscles in a stereotyped pattern. Thus the response of the person who is confronted with a humorous situation or utterance can be used as an indicator for the presence of this “quality” (OALD), which we call humour.

Since people do not only start to laugh in pre-defined situations which aim to be funny but also in common conversations, we need a criterion for distinguishing types or modes of humour (Alexander 9ff). Two criteria could be whether humour is conscious or unconscious and, closely linked to this parameter, if humour is intended. But in both cases one needs to specify whether the intentionality or consciousness is on the part of the speaker or hearer, because there can be indeed situations where the speaker intends to be funny and the listeners are unconscious of the fact and vice versa. Moreover, differences in intention must be analysed: There can be malevolent intention and benevolent intention. The first type intends to hurt via humour by insulting, making fun or attacking verbally. Benevolent intention can again be subdivided. On the one hand the speaker can desire to amuse people and on the other hand he can just act in a cheerful fashion.

These criteria now detect different types of humour. Jokes are for example always conscious and intended - with either a good or a bad intention - and all jokes have the purpose to amuse people. But even if these criteria clearly define this kind of humour as a joke, it is still not easy to characterise a “typical joke”. A focus on a joke’s structure alone could reduce it to product which is separated from the performance of telling. It is therefore necessary to concern with a process aspect, too. Good joke-tellers can renew old jokes by inventing a new ambience; the new location of a joke “can be the name of whatever town the joker happens to dislike” (Nash 14ff). This aspect keeps the jokes dynamic. If we still want to define the structure of a joke, we can say that it normally consists of a setting of a scene which is followed by the punch line. Withal it is important that the listener’s perception of the end of the joke dissents with the actual punch line. This incongruity causes the stimulus, which may evoke laughter.

A pun however may be conscious or unconscious but is neither malevolent nor benevolent intended. It is used in two senses: a limited and a broad one. The first sense plays either with multiple meanings of a word or uses homonyms (rain/reign; urn/earn etc. (Nash 138f)), whereas the latter unexpectedly combines two unrelated meanings in a word or a phrase in order to amuse people. Nevertheless, both can be graded on a phonological or phonetic level. The clever placement of identically or similarly sounding words causes an amusing ambiguity, as the following example shows:

When does the baker follow his trade?

- Whenever he needs (kneads) the dough (Nash 138)

In this case no difference is audible between the pronunciation of “needs” and “kneads” and in addition a homonymic play on “dough” arises, which can be a paste out of flour and water or another word for money. This is first evidence that humour is in some way language specific. A language with many homophones or nearly homophones is qualified better for word plays than languages without many similar sounding words. But languages are able to build further word plays, which go beyond the purely phonological level. An example from Fromkin is “I roasted the cook” instead of “I cooked the roast” (Alexander 30). Even if two words have changed and turned into a verb / noun, the listener should be able to realise the change and may be amused by the occurring meaning. Close to the listed change are slips of the tongue which are switching initial consonants in consecutive words: “Sir, I must go[e] dye a beggar” instead of “Sir, I must go[e] buy a dagger” (Peacham in Alexander 29). They are called Spoonerisms and named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner who was known for his continuous use of these slips of the tongue. Such utterances can happen intended but also unintended and therefore unconsciously loosen daily conversations.

Every word has got an own rhythmic beat and makes up a metre when it is combined with other words. Swinging rhythmic patterns, often in combination with rhymes, can also be humorous and are a great favourite with children. These small verses probably became that popular because of their easy structure and recurring rhythm. Alliterations - the repetition of the same initial consonant - and assonances - repetition of the same or similar vowel sounds - are additional phonological figures which can amuse people if they are put smartly. But similar to the telling of jokes the quality of the voice which is telling rhymes or funny poems is quite important. Trained voices are able to create a large number of different atmospheres or can even imitate other public people. A good imitator is perceived as himself and somebody else at the same. It is worth mentioning in this case that the hearer probably will just laugh when the impersonation is in some way degrading. The most aggressive form of impersonation is known as parody. It is “designed to deflate hollow pretence, to destroy illusion, and to undermine pathos by harping on the weaknesses of the victim” (Encyclopædia Britannica Online). In spite of that the parodist does not have to design evil intentions when he imitates another person. He rather exaggerates the seeming traits or habits in order to show normally serious people (for instance politicians) in a humorous way which does not correlate with reality.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The funny side of the United Kingdom
Analysing British humour with special regard to John Cleese and his work
University of Osnabrück
British Life and Times
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
431 KB
United, Kingdom, British, Life, Times, john cleese, comedy, humour
Quote paper
Theo Tebbe (Author), 2007, The funny side of the United Kingdom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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