Joking aside, British really do have unique sense of humour

Transatlantic survey of identical twins shows our taste for biting satire and withering one-liners is in the genes

Roger Dobson
Sunday 09 March 2008 01:00 GMT

The British have a talent for caustic satire and painful put-downs: fact. Not one of the more provocative statements from The Office's David Brent, but the finding of a piece of research that is likely to ignite controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.

A survey of more than 4,000 twins suggests that humour regarded as typically British – sarcasm and self-deprecation – is linked to genes found in British men and women, but not shared, for instance, by Americans.

While telling jokes and looking on the bright side of life – which researchers dubbed positive humour – is common to both sides of the Atlantic, only in the UK did they discover genetic links with negative humour – biting sarcasm and teasing. Experts admit that the results have left them baffled.

They say it may explain why the British like aggressively sarcastic or denigrating humour such as Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and, of course, The Office.

"It is possible that differences exist between these nations in their sense of humour and that these may be the result of different genetic and environmental influences," said Dr Rod Martin, one of the researchers.

He highlighted the difference between Ricky Gervais's dreadful character David Brent and his much less embarrassing US counterpart played by Steve Carell. "The British may have a greater tolerance for a wide range of expressions of humour, including what many Americans might consider aggressively sarcastic or denigrating: like Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. In the North American version of The Office the lead character is much less insensitive and intolerant than in the original UK version," he added.

The study looked at genetic and environmental contributions to humour in nearly 2,000 pairs of UK twins. A second US study examined the humour of 500 sets of North American twins.

The results revealed that positive humour – saying funny things, telling jokes, a humorous outlook on life – was linked to genes and was shared by twins in the UK and US.

However, negative humour – teasing and ridicule, as well as more offensive, racist or sexist forms of humour, together with self-disparaging humour – appeared to be genetically linked only in Britain.

Dr Martin, from the University of Western Ontario, said the aim was to find out whether humour has a genetic basis. "In North American families, there was a genetic basis to positive humour, but negative humour seems to be entirely learned. Growing up in a family where negative humour was practised was important in the development of that sense of humour.

"In the UK, both positive and negative styles had a genetic basis in the sample. The genetic basis to negative humour in the UK was close to 50 per cent.

"Certainly in the UK, TV humour is more biting, whereas in North America it tends to be blander.

"One theory is that these styles of humour are associated with other personality traits that probably have a genetic basis. Self-defeating humour tends to be highly correlated with neuroticism. People who tend to be more negative, depressed and anxious tend to use that kind of humour."

The comedian Charlie Higson, who helped to create the hit TV series The Fast Show, said yesterday: "What they [Americans] don't understand is the British desire to keep putting themselves down, but they fully understand irony. Their humour is considerably more sophisticated than British humour. Look at their sitcoms – the level of wit and sophistication in Friends – we don't have anything to match that. Ours tend to be about silly people doing silly things, whereas in America, it's clever people doing clever things."

David Brent may perhaps have another explanation: "There's a weight of intellect behind my comedy."

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