Monday, March 27, 2017

The Joys of British Humor

            Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away is, from start to finish, quite hilarious, though in a subdued manner. Bryson’s commentary on American life is quite unique, given that he was born here in the United States, but has, as the subtitle suggests, spent two decades living in England, has an English wife, and children who were raised there as well. His commentaries are coming from the point of someone who knows exactly why something is happening, but at the same time has absolutely no idea why. While this view is something that people only very rarely get to experience, it is hilarious nonetheless because plenty of Americans have, in fact, sat back and wondered why exactly some part of our culture is the way it is, or if certain things are done differently in other countries, and if so, how differently. Bryson allows his readers to not only explore this question in greater depth, but also allows them to get answers. What may be the best part about this book, however, is Bryson’s sense of humor, which has so obviously been influenced by his time in England. A review from the Wall Street Journal plastered on the back cover of the book calls his sense of humor “wonderfully droll” a characterization almost always applied to British humor, but very rarely to American humor. The reader can almost imagine Bryson saying various things throughout his book, that are clearly intended to be humorous, but never once cracking more than a wry smile, which almost makes the entire thing that much funnier. His humor is characterized by scathing sarcasm, rather histrionic expressions of disbelief, and just generally incongruous comments throughout his whole book.

            The humor employed can be easy to miss at times, as Bryson states things in such a matter of fact manner that readers are wondering what exactly the joke is, only realizing later that he was actually intentionally being funny. Arguably the funniest moment in the book comes after Bryson details his rather harrowing experience at the barbershop, that left him with what can only be assumed was a horrendous haircut. The moment comes after Bryson explains to his wife that he simply wished “to look like a banker” (Bryson, 34) and though one may not be entirely sure what a banker’s typical haircut looks like, it seems safe to assume it did not share any similarities to what was on top of his head. His wife responds in a way that only someone who loves another person really can. Bryson says that “she gives one of those sighs that come to all wives eventually” (Bryson, 34) which one can only assume is a mixture of defeat, love, and laughter, and finally says to him “well, at least you rhyme” (Bryson, 34). This joke honestly took me a few times before I finally realized what exactly had happened. At first I was confused and thought perhaps his wife had, had a stroke and was simply speaking gibberish, there was nothing in the entire paragraph that rhymed with “banker”. I realized that the reason I was missing the joke was because I had forgotten the fact that his wife was British, and at that very moment she was jokingly insulting her husband with arguably the most classically British insult one can use, and the second that I realized that the joke instantly became my favorite moment in the entire book. Someone without the outside influence would have likely just said outright what they were thinking, telling him exactly what he looked like, but the wit and dryness of his wife’s sense of humor was conveyed rather perfectly through Bryson’s writing. The entire exchange is rather incongruous as well. Initially with how bad the haircut sounded, the reader would expect some sort of outpouring of sympathy from the wife, but at the same time the exact opposite was possible as well, and given the context of the book, probably more likely. His wife’s responses were so wonderfully sarcastic and blunt, and somehow entirely unexpected that it gave the entire interaction an entire different level of humor. 

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