ENGLISH AND AMERICAN HUMOUR
By William Lyon Phelps
Some one has said that American humour consists in over-statement and English humour in understatement. This judgment 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 a 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 summer."
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 with horror.
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."