I have religiously followed both the version of The Office and with a little bit of research, I am still yet to understand the subtle differences between the two regions divided by the Atlantic. The theory gets a lot of people agitated and a more sterner argument is that it is actually out-dated, but you still do see the stark differences between the two. Shameless is another example right after Skins, all hallmarks of British’s witty, snarky jokes converted into a cinematic adaptation that follows the American narrative. So let’s try to dissect the difference between the two; remember, I am not trying to say which is better.
1. Americans are more optimistic
This theory is so apparent in The Office series it is almost painful. Michael Scott is portrayed as this really embarrassing character that puts his employees in sticky situations, but he is beloved, respected, and above all, made humane at every possible opportunity. David Brent, on the other hand, is more like a low-life that you always take pity on and none of the characters in the series comes to his side. This is more apparent in the karaoke scene where Jim tries to sing along with his boss to make the moment lighter.
America is made of people who dare to dream, while Britishers are famously governed by their cynicism: let’s-not-risk-it, what-if-India-revolts-against-us kinds of attitude. This analogy is more contrast in their history as well: calculated risks that they have to take to go beyond their small island in search of resources and huge back-fired attempts such as the opium wars with the Chinese empire.
2. British are more sarcastic
Sarcasm is bread-and-butter for the British, in a way that they don’t bring about that peppered conversations with snarky, witty one-liners, but in circumstances that define the moments that require you to take control of the situation: through actions. British humor is especially filled with losers who embarrass the public and side-kicks who is always sarcastic to make the plot even more sticky (consider the Harry Potter series, for a moment). For example, Shameless the UK version has the main character who is inherently a drunkard that incidentally destroys his family heavily commenting on alcoholism through his sarcasm, but the US version almost glorified drinking and how even drinking–or God–can ever intervene Frank’s happiness.
3. Brits are character-driven
Stephen Fry put it gently: “with British humor, we are often laughing at them rather than with them.” That is true. With great American sitcoms, Friends, It’s Always Sunny, each scene ends with a character saying a witty line at someone else’s expense. Sponge Bob humor is a great example of this, but with the Brits it is always the subject that is inherently funny: it is not what they say or what they do–it is who they are that is funny.
4. Americans do tend to poke fun at their own optimism
It definitely is a land of dreams: the words “can’t”, “no”, or “stop” do not exist in their vocabulary. Especially in Louie, where the main character’s date escapes on a helicopter to get away from him, it couldn’t get any lower; it is actually a critique on America’s optimism, which begs the question: yes you want to get better in life, but at what cost?
5. Americans just can’t deal with sadness
Now, this is an out-dated theory. It Is Always Sunny or Seinfeld have a lot of bitter-sweet moments where their characters don’t always end up being happy in life, but it is also true that the American audience don’t take well with that style of writing. In The Office, Michael Scott moves back to a holiday retreat when he loses his job, but David Brent sacrifices all his dignity to beg for his old job back.
It is not without proof when I try to say British humor is as dark as it is funny while also being subtle, while American humor is littered with direct, optimistic one-liners. This is probably why American children are taught that they can be next president of the United States.