Humour: a Funny link to British Creativity


Creativity is clearly important to all of us and I think that, as a nation, we British have much to be proud of regarding this key quality, both in our past and also very much in evidence today. One possible element, when looking at what factors are conducive to creativity, and particularly in relation to Britain is: HUMOUR. An odd connection? Bear with me.

It’s surprising to me how we often don’t tend to recognise the value or centrality of creativity in British life; yet if we tend towards a cynical bias, we are more likely to perceive decline wherever we look, and in doing so, miss the presence and ongoing value of our nation’s creativity. Of course I’m not suggesting that the UK has some unique monopoly on creativity compared to any other country.

Creative sector is the second largest sector of British economy

Although we tend not to think so, as a nation we British have been and still are remarkably creative. I’ve frequently heard it said that after the combined sector of banking, financial services and insurance, the creative sector is the second largest sector in the economy, although I am unable to substantiate this claim. It’s difficult to come up with hard facts about a nation’s relative creativity. Britain is credited with having one of the largest creative sectors percentage-wise of any country. To get a sense of what is technically meant by ‘the creative industries’, this is usually taken to include writing, art, design, theatre, TV, radio, films, marketing, advertising, fashion, product development and certain types of scientific research and development.

Today Britain is internationally (even if not always nationally) known for creativity in terms of design, media, fashion, writing, architecture, popular music, theatre, TV programmes, film – especially documentaries, comedy, computer games and the arts generally.

We’re all comedians here

The British sense of humour is intrinsic to the national character and has been honed to a fine art and aesthetic. In one way or another, nearly every British person is a self styled comedian; you have to be. It’s simply part of our upbringing and conditioning, and is a way in which we navigate social intercourse. As well as being needed for social acceptance, it also supports  emotional strength. Ironic, subversive, surreal and quizzical, humour here is the great social lubricant: the way pomposity, pretentiousness and authority is cut down to size in low key and backhand ways. British comedy with its trademark understatement, self-deprecation and deadpan delivery is renowned throughout the world from the many British comedy programmes that are exported.

Absurd & surreal

One particular hallmark of the best British humour is its often absurd, eccentric and surreal nature, seen for example in Monty Python or The Mighty Boosh, with a cultural pedigree owing much to the Goons, and stretching back through Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. And it is this surreal aspect of British humour which I think could be quite relevant to creativity in this country. There is an interesting link between humour and creativity and there exists quite a body of thinking as well as research on the link between these qualities. And if you stop and think for a moment, it’s not surprising that there are strong, shared characteristics. Humour, and especially the absurd, surreal British variety, involves juxtaposing seemingly unrelated ideas, seeing things from novel vantage points, and not surprisingly that’s also seen as the basis of all creativity. Take this classic one-liner from much loved, eccentric comedian Spike Milligan, in its juxtaposing of unrelated contexts.

Spike: There’s only one cure for seasickness

Somebody: What’s that?

Spike: Climb a tree

Or Eric Morecambe’s, ‘My neighbour asked if he could use my lawnmower and I told him of course he could, so long as he didn’t take it out of my garden.’

Humour, the most significant behaviour of the human mind.

Attempting to explain jokes is not at all funny and best avoided. You either are tickled pink or you’re left untouched and perplexed. A lot of British humour is an expression of inventiveness rather than formal jokes. Edward de Bono, the originator of ‘lateral thinking’ and authority on creative thinking, says in his book, I am Right, You are Wrong,

‘The significance of humour is precisely that it indicates pattern-forming, pattern asymmetry and pattern-switching. Creativity and lateral thinking have exactly the same basis as humour.’ In the same passage he asserts that, ‘Humour is by far the most significant behaviour of the human mind. Why has it been so neglected by traditional philosophers, psychologists and information scientists?’

Rational linear thinking has enabled the great advances of modernity that we all continue to benefit from, and yet if it is seen as the only mode of understanding and the only mode of discourse, then we impose an inherent limitation on our comprehension of the world and of life and impose a limitation on creative activity.

Only one step from the ridiculous to the sublime?

In Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, he makes the point that,

‘The laws of disciplined thinking demand that we should stick to a given frame of reference and not shift from one universe of discourse to another …the creative act, in so far as it depends on unconscious resources, presupposes a relaxing of the controls and a regression to modes of ideation which are indifferent to the rules of verbal logic, unperturbed by contradiction, untouched by the dogmas and taboos of so-called common sense.’

Koestler’s most interesting statement on this subject to my mind, though, has to be, ‘We all know that there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous; the more surprising that psychology has not considered the possible gains of reversing that step.’

A sense of humour is just common sense dancing

Transcending common sense in the way Koestler describes creativity and humour is one interpretation of what occurs, though I also like the way philosopher and psychologist William James said that common sense and a sense of humour are actually the same thing, the difference being in their speed. He said that a sense of humour is just common sense dancing. I’ve spent a fair amount of time pondering these words of James and while I can’t quite logically explain exactly what he means, I sense the truth of it. Humour does have common sense rules of logic in its own context; it just happens to mix different unrelated contexts together in rapid succession. I think I’d better stop here however before I dig myself into a hole, since it always tends to be somewhat of a futile exercise to try to analyse humour.

Who knows how much the eccentric and surreal humour of the British has been a contributing factor to national creativity? Yet in its anarchic displacing of habitual views and frames of reference, it is surely likely to be one contributing factor. As James Joyce said in Ulysses, ‘He laughed to free himself from his mind’s bondage.’
Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available:

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