The man with nothing to declare but a sense of humour

BRYSON'S AMERICA

HERE'S MY tip of the week: don't make jokes in America, even in experienced hands - and I believe I speak with some authority here - a joke can be a dangerous thing.

I came to this conclusion recently while passing through Customs and Immigration at Logan Airport in Boston. As I approached the last immigration official, he said to me: "Any fruit or vegetables?"

I considered for a moment. "Sure, why not," I said. "I'll have four pounds of potatoes and some mangoes if they're fresh."

Instantly, I could see that I had misjudged my audience and that this was not a man who ached for banter. He looked at me with one of those slow, dark, cerebrally challenged expressions that you never want to see in a uniformed official, but especially in a US Customs and Immigration officer because, believe me, these people have powers you really do not want to put to the test. If I just mention the words "strip search" and "rubber gloves" I think you will latch on to my meaning. When I say they have the legal right to interrupt your passage I mean it in every possible sense.

Luckily, this man appeared to conclude that I was just incredibly thick. "Sir," he enquired more specifically, "are you carrying any items of a fruit or vegetable nature?"

"No, sir, I am not," I answered at once and fed him the most respectful and grovelling look I believe I have ever mustered.

"Then keep moving, please," he said. I left him shaking his head. I'm sure that for the rest of his career he will be telling people about the knucklehead who thought he was a greengrocer.

So take it from me, never joke with an authority in America, and when you fill in your landing card, under the question "Have you ever been a member of the Communist party or employed irony in a public situation?", tick "No".

Irony is, of course, the key word here. Americans don't use it much. (I'm being ironic; they don't use it at all.) In most circumstances this is actually rather a nice thing. Irony is cousin to cynicism, and cynicism is not a virtuous emotion. Americans - not all of them, but a significant proportion - have no need for either one. Their approach to everyday encounters is trusting, straightforward, almost touchingly literal. They don't expect any verbal sleight of hand in conversations, so it tends to throw them when you employ it.

We have a neighbour on whom I tested this hypothesis for the first two years we were here. It began innocently enough. Soon after we moved in, he had a tree come down in his front garden. I passed his house one morning to see that he was cutting the tree into smaller pieces and loading them onto the roof of his car to take away to the tip. It was a bushy tree and the branches were hanging over the sides in an extravagant manner. "Ah, I see you're camouflaging your car," I remarked drily.

He looked at me for a moment. "No," he said emphatically. "I had a tree come down in the storm the other night and now I'm taking it away for disposal."

After that, I couldn't stop myself from making little jokes with him. The crunch, so to speak, came when I was telling him one day about some disastrous airline trip I'd had, which had left me stranded overnight in Denver.

"Who did you fly with?" he asked. "I don't know," I replied. "They were all strangers."

He looked at me with an expression that betrayed a kind of panic. "No, I meant which airline did you fly with."

It was just after this that my wife ordered me to cease making jokes with him because apparently our chats were leaving him with migraine. The easy conclusion to draw from this, and one to which even the most astute outside observers are all too often tempted, is that Americans are constitutionally incapable of getting a joke.

I have just been reading In the Land of Oz by your own Howard Jacobson, a man of intelligence and discernment, who notes in passing that "Americans don't have a sense of humour". It would be but an afternoon's work to find 30 or 40 comments in a similar vein in modern works.

I can understand the sentiment, but it is actually quite wrong. As even a moment's reflection should remind us, many of the very funniest people who have ever lived - the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, SJ Perelman, Robert Benchley, Woody Allen, Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain - were or are Americans. Moreover, and just as obviously, they could not have achieved their fame if they had not found a large and appreciative following in their own land. So it's not as if we can't generate or relish a droll jape over here. But it is certainly true that wit is not as venerated a quality here as it is in Britain. John Cleese once said: "An Englishman would rather be told he was a bad lover than that he had no sense of humour." (Which is probably just as well, all things considered.) I don't think there are many Americans who would subscribe to that view.

Humour here is like good driving skills or having a nose for wine or being able to pronounce feuilleton correctly - commendable, worthy of admiration, but not actually vital.

It isn't that there are no people with an active sense of humour in America, just that there are far fewer. When you encounter one it is a little as I imagine it must be when two Freemasons recognise each other across a crowded room.

The last time I experienced this was a few weeks ago when I arrived at our local airport and approached a cab in need of a ride home. "Are you free?" I innocently asked the driver. He looked at me with an expression I recognised at once - the look of someone who knows a good straight line when it's handed to him. "No," he said with mock sincerity, "I charge just like everyone else."

I could almost have hugged him, but that, of course, would have been taking the joke too far.

Notes from a Big Country, Doubleday, pounds 16.99

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape