Television Deciphers Cultural Comedic Differences


In Jeffrey Sconce’s “What If: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries,” he states that many see television as a “technological and cultural ‘problem’ to be solved rather than a textual body to be engaged” (Sconce, 94).  Thus, scholars pride themselves in not watching the medium, and while “most scholars of American literature would be mortified if they misidentified characters or plots in Melville, such inattention to detail is frequent in television studies” (Sconce, 94).  Such passivity by television scholars is extremely problematic though, for television gives us unique views into other cultures and how they compare to our own.

While watching episodes of the British and American television show The Office, it was striking how different the humor was—even when some of the same jokes were being told.  For example, the Jim characters both seem to plays practical jokes on the Dwight all of the time.  Some of these such jokes have include putting Dwight’s desk into the bathroom, putting all of Dwight’s office supplies in the vending machine, sending Dwight faxes from his future self, dressing up as him, and of course putting his stapler in a Jello mold (at least these all happen in the American version).  However, while American Jim is always calm, cool, collected, and nonchalant in performing his pranks and in his reactions, the British version is more irritable.  For example, when British Dwight, Gareth Keenan, says “Wazzup!” and smacks British Jim, Tim Canterbury, with his newspaper, Tim yells, “Don’t do that!”  Later on in the episode, he also taunts Gareth by saying, “You’re a cock. You’re a cock. You’re a cock,” which simply makes Tim, by American standards, look childish instead of cool.  Thus, when Tim puts Gareth’s stapler in Jello and says that it is, “only a trifling matter,” it is clear that Tim’s actions are based purely in revenge instead of merriment and general trickery.  This scene then shows the differences in American and British humor:  While British humor seems to be more calculated and purely strategic, American humor is much more relaxed and based in youthful antics.

There are some jokes, however, that do translate perfectly between the two cultures.  For example, the repeated line, “assistant to the regional manager” and Michael’s (or David’s) obsession with being a humorous “friend first and a boss second.”  Even Tim eating the yellow Jello is easily translated to the calm, cool, and relaxed trickery that is accepted in American culture and TV shows.  However, despite these overlaps, there are many discrepancies in American and British humor, making the viewer actively participate in understanding the humor of the foreign show.

Thus, it is extremely problematic that so many scholars are so passive in understanding television, when television not only explains the cultural difference in humor but in all aspects of life from dress to beauty to behavior as well.  In this case, television is far from a “problem to be solved,” and is much closer to a text that reflects a subtle reality to be engaged with and to analyze.


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One Response to “Television Deciphers Cultural Comedic Differences”

  1. Administrator Says:

    Loved your reference to Sconce’s provoking article and attention to the details of the Office(s), but television remains a problem even if we decide to regard it as text rather than Blight upon the Culture and Humanity in General. if we’re using TV to understand “cultural differences” we may learn things, but what kind of things are we learning? Are we actually engaging with “a textual body”? Students, let’s discuss the textual/critical problem that remain when we drop our critical biases against the allegedly debased nature of television art.

    P.S. I think a stapler in “jelly” is pretty merry myself! Tim is so Puckish, as was Jim before he shrugged off the oppressed office worker ennui and began to display professional ambition.

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