How American humor got translated into English

The gulf between English and American humor can be as wide as the Atlantic Ocean or as narrow as whether you spell humor with one "u" or two. English humor is as distinctive as fish and chips and as difficult for Americans to decipher as cricket. American humor occupies quite another niche in the genre, but because of generous imports of American TV, motion pictures, and books, the English can understand and enjoy it.

Then there is Anglo-American humor, a hybrid that has found few successful practitioners. One of the few is an Englishman named Alan Coren, a whimsical, witty fellow who looks more like a Harold Pinter stage chauffeur than the dean of English humorists. Appearances aside, for the past two years Coren has presided over the affairs of Mr. Punch, that perennial top banana of Fleet Street.

In the last 15 years Coren has written articles for periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic and has published several books that fall into the category of Anglo-American humor. The Washington Post cited him as a genuine "transatlantic" funny man. As editor of Punch, the longest running (since 1841) weekly humor magazine in the world, he is in a unique position to make the English-speaking world chuckle, and sometimes even laugh.

Coren's office is in Tudor Street, a narrow thoroughfare equidistant between Fleet Street and the Thames. Because humorists have a reputation to melancholy, Punch's location has given rise to the barb that it is so placed so that despondent humorists can throw themselves under a bus in Fleet Street or into the river.

Alan Coren does nothing to feed this myth. Off paper, he's positively a jolly humorist. He's pleased with what he writes (for the most part) and pleased -- dare one say it? -- as Punch to work with other funny men to produce a humorous magazine. Unlike some of his predecessors at Punch, he even likes humorists. Moreover, he's willing to discuss such an unhumorous subject as the difference between English and American humor.

"The main difference between the cultures is a linguistic one," said the former Oxford scholar, who honed his funny bone in the early 1960s at Yale and Berkeley. "Most of the things that move us, most of the things we care about, most of our political stances are fairly similar -- it's the language that's different.

"If you compare Woody Allen to P. G. Wodehouse or S. J. Perelman with A. P. Herbert, or an Ealing comedy film like 'The Lavender Hill Mob' with an archetypal Neil Simon movie, you can see what I'm getting at. OK, some of it is mores, some of it is the furniture of life, but most of it is language, the way in which the American language is different from the English language."

Reading a page of Wodehouse and one by Woody Allen, Coren suggests, will put this view in focus. "An Englishman would never write a line like this from a Woody Allen New Yorker story. He's writing about a philosopher called Chalcot. Woody says: 'Chalot hated reality but he recognized it was the only place he would still get a good steak.'

"That is very much a wisecrack American throw-away line, a sort of line we get in 'The Odd Couple'; the sort of great Sid Perelman line. It's an American delivery you would not find in English humor."

Coren, who admits learning a trade trick or two by reading James Thurber, insists the late American humorist "is absolutely a 1930s Punch writer who just happened to write with a Columbus, Ohio, idiom." He gives top marks to the work of Wodehouse and Woody Allen as well.

Is there an English equivalent of the American Brooklyn joke? "Certainly. This is the way that every Polish joke has been heard by every Irishman, by every Jew, by every Armenian. It's the same joke: Why does it take four Poles/Irishmen/Syrians to put in a light bulb?, etc., etc. Brooklyn jokes are jokes about Neasden in this country.

"When we make a joke about Wembley or Wigan or some daft-sounding place which is rooted in the English music hall, Americans have no idea what we're talking about. If there is an American show on television or an American film, and someone makes a joke about Yonkers, Oshkosh, or the Okefenokee Swamp, the Englishmen will get the reference immediately. That's because we've seen the TV and the films and read the books."

Coren explains: "You see everyone here has read, for example, 'Catch-22' and 'Portnoy's Complaint.' English humorous novelists of equal stature -- and I'd put Kingsley Amis there -- are not really read in America, although there was a cult for 'Lucky Jim' at one time.

"'Catcher in the Rye' sold 10 million copies in paperback in Europe. There's no equivalent sales in your country for English writers, though there were popular books on campus when I was there -- notably 'Lord of the Flies.' But its sales were nothing like 'Catcher' in England."

What does the "Puck of Punch" think of the future of Anglo-American humor? He has aspirations that Punch will lead the way in opening that frontier.

"I would like more people to read Punch in America and laugh at it because it is a genuine Anglo-American magazine. The English are much more au faitm with the materials and references of American culture than Americans are with ours. But I think that over the years Punch will be able to build this up. I hope so."

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