Daily Rumination No. 24: The Value of British Humour

Normally, before I start to talk or write about a show or film that I have seen, I try to finish it in order to reflect on its overall themes, plot and quality. That’s hardly unusual—you don’t leave a film halfway through it and then write a review.

Watching Ricky Gervais’s new Netflix show After Life, however, I have some thoughts to share after only the first episode. The story follows a miserable, middle-aged Englishman who is struggling after the recent loss of his wife to cancer. He treats others brutally and acts in a completely nihilistic fashion.

As much as I enjoy American comedy, there is something about the British that cannot be matched and After Life is a perfect example. Within only 28 minutes of television, Gervais and the supporting cast make legitimately funny, sophisticated jokes about death, paedophilia, suicide, mental illness, drug use and obesity. Thrown into the mix is a healthy amount of blunt profanity. Are any of the situations in the show even slightly offensive? Not at all.

British comedians like Ricky Gervais manage something that American comedians, as funny as they are, just can’t. They take crushingly awkward, embarrassing and even emotional moments and deliver them to you in a way that makes you cringe and chuckle simultaneously. Gervais is a master because he can make you sad and entertained at the very thought of cancer.

Such comedians and writers don’t seek to denigrate people or belittle their troubles, they seek to unravel situations that are seen unreasonably as sacred, taboo or just downright untouchable. In the process of avoiding topics such as death and mental illness, we don’t end up talking about them at all. In such a vacuum, harmful ideas and misconceptions take hold. As I watched the show, I thought about people I’ve known who are now dead, and I felt both sad and heartened. There’s an authenticity to British presentation and it enables us to grapple with our own personal negative experiences.

Unfortunately, too many people hear profanities from comedians like Gervais and switch off. They miss the subtlety, becoming offended without ever understanding the brilliance of the delivery and the potential relevance to their own lives. The world could do with more British humour, whether in the current era of Gervais or earlier style of Monty Python (which certainly couldn’t be written or broadcast today).

Satire and observational humour hold a mirror up to society, enabling us to mock and therefore understand ourselves better.