Comedy Deep Dive: British vs. American Humor

Posted: December 5, 2023  |  Updated: December 6, 2023

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The landscape of television comedy is vast and no dichotomy in the genre exists quite like British vs. American humor.

From the thought-provoking charm of British wit to the exaggerated energy of American comedic storytelling, these two distinct flavors of comedy carve out their own specific niche in the hearts of viewers worldwide.

Beyond the obvious differences in linguistic nuance, the comedy emanating from either side of the Atlantic reflects the unique cultural landscapes and societal tones present in each country. 

StoryFit took a deep dive into these two forms of humor and uncovered some of the key elements and comedic distinctions between British and American T.V. shows.  The results might surprise you.

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British vs. American: Comedy Styles

First, let’s analyze the different styles of comedy present within each genre.

StoryFit’s proprietary AI engine analyzes billions of audience points to reveal story insights in the pre-production stages of a script. These narrative and viewership elements are then compared to thousands of other scripts within our database to see where a particular story matches up against its primary competitors (in this case, other comedy shows).  Details on the process here

Within a database of thousands of scripts, StoryFit compared the signature comedic styles of each against the comedy genre’s average to see what shows were distinctly British (or American) and what comedy styles were most present throughout.  

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As you can see from the graphic above, American comedy types swing towards Slapstick and Corny styles, with Incompetence Abounds reflecting the exaggerated humor tones displayed in popular American comedies like Glee and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

On the other end of the spectrum is British humor, which leans much more into the Dark Comedy and Dry Humor undertones that many viewers would agree are characteristic of their content. 

The Emmy award-winning dark comedy, Fleabag, is known for pushing comedy boundaries with its use of vulgar language and explicit content, but that’s part of the reason it was such a hit. 

Thematic & Tonal Distinctions

Within these comedy styles, there are many tones reflected that help to explain why popular narratives or themes exist within British comedy vs. American and vice versa. 

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When analyzed against StoryFit’s extensive database of thousands of comedy scripts, we can observe which themes and tones are most prominent in American and British comedies to identify the key differences and similarities.

American comedies registered as being significantly more action-oriented than British comedies, with tones like Action-Packed, High Stakes, Brutal, and Gore coming to the forefront of these shows. This aligned well with significant law & order type themes that StoyFit registered in the narrative of American shows, such as Law Enforcement, Justice, Crime Organization, Violence, and Class Tensions. 

American culture was also a primary thematic influence, with Nostalgia and Exaggerated Performances driving the “slice of life” depictions of families in American sitcoms.
British comedies registered as more Intellectual and Thought Provoking than American ones, with similar “slice of life” depictions associated with the Small Town Life and Gritty Realism of British humor. These performances were more grounded in reality and the day-to-day aspects of family life.

Many of the relational elements seen in comedies, like Optimism, Falling in Love, Troubled Relationship, and Bleak were shared among British and American shows, signifying the importance of emotional and physical connection in comedy regardless of nationality.

American Characters are More Anti-Social

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What’s American humor without a little Narcissism? StoryFit assessed the character leads in many of the most successful comedies to air in the past decade and found that American comedy characters had significantly more anti-social traits than their British counterparts.

Memorable American comedy characters like Hannah from Girls, Frank from Shameless, and Barry from Barry are loved in spite of their absence of redeeming qualities. This is reflective of the common “love-to-hate” sentiment typically expressed by American audiences.

Almost all of these comedy leads exhibit traits characteristic of anti-heroes, a favorite for American characters.

So if British characters aren’t as Physically Violent, Selfish, or Harmful as American ones, what are their defining traits?

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In analyzing the substantial database of our British comedy characters, StoryFit was able to identify which viewership superpowers were most present in successful leads. 

Viewership superpowers are character traits that are strong drivers for audience viewership and are highly correlated to success in a series. 

British comedy characters possessed many traits that were found to be more correlated to viewership, with traits like Inventive and Bold being 5x more likely to drive viewership, Interesting 6x, Creative 7x, and Complex 9x more likely to drive viewership within the audience demographic, making these characteristics a signature for the country. 

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On the flip side, American comedy leads registered with traits like Innovative, Cooperative, and Honest, while Unites Community and Inventive registered as being 5x more likely to drive viewership than other character traits.

Strong Comedy Characters are the Foundation of Good Stories

A comedic narrative is only as strong as the characters that deliver the punchlines to keep audiences laughing. 

Strong characters can make or break a comedy series and both British and American successes typically feature complex, multi-dimensional leads that audiences can relate to and empathize with. 

 At StoryFit, we like to say strong characters are the foundation of good stories. We measure the strength of a character through their character score – a combination of traits that register at the impact and prominent level within the genre (top 10% and 25%). 

Character scores are an overall indicator of a character’s potential as they measure the strong and defining character traits an audience will recognize. A higher score is always better, as this character assessment correlates to success.

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No memorable comedy lead is quite like another, which is why there is no specific set of traits that will define or determine a successful lead.

As you can see from the graphic above, many of the leads (both British and American) that are the most loved and respected by audiences worldwide possess an array of defining traits. 

While Fleabag possesses many of the anti-hero qualities in a lead audiences love like Narcissism and Complexity, Grace and Otis are more traditional comedy characters, using banter and comedy to reflect their good nature and sympathetic traits like their ability to Keep Promises, Help Family, and remain Competent in stressful situations. 

Almost all these comedy leads measure in the top 10% for Likable, a vital trait in determining audience sentiment. 

There’s No One Size Fits All

Part of what makes British and American comedy different (yet each successful in its own right) is each country’s ability to cater their humor towards their respective audience in a way that makes them feel connected to the content. 

Whether it’s the dry wit and subtle satire of British comedy or the bold, often irreverent humor prevalent in American comedic styles, each culture brings its own unique flavor to the world of laughter. While differences persist, it’s essential to appreciate and celebrate the variety that arises from these cultural distinctions. 

Ultimately, the dynamic interplay between British and American comedy styles contributes to a global comedic landscape that is continually evolving to keep audiences laughing. 

To learn more about what makes for a successful comedy series, read this article by StoryFit.