British Comedy That's Class-Neutral

I’ve been thinking of something with regard to British comedy: is there any British comedy that is sympathetic to characters who want to rise above their station?

The big difference between British and American comedy, traditionally, is something like this: American comedy is usually on the side of people who want to erase class distinctions, and British comedy, being more realistic and clear-eyed, sees such people as foolish or deluded. For example, both Brits and Americans frequently use the classic sitcom formula, a hero who constantly comes up with failed schemes to improve his status in life. But their attitudes toward such characters tends to be different. The most famous British example of the form is Fawlty Towers, where Basil Fawlty is a “snob” in the traditional sense of the word, someone who affects to be above his actual social station. Every episode features Basil trying to act like the high-class guy he wants to be, and that leads to all the disasters that befall him in the course of the story.

But the U.S. versions of this formula tend to be like The Honeymooners. Ralph Kramden is also a man who aspires to be more than he is, and his schemes always fail — but his aspirations are presented much more sympathetically than Basil’s. The fact that Ralph never stops trying, even though he can’t succeed (because then the show would be over) is one of the things that makes him likable, and one of the qualities that make his wife love him in spite of his flaws. (Also, whereas Basil’s schemes usually revolve around status, Ralph’s usually revolve around money; another common distinction between British and American comedy.) Most episodes end with a sense of hope, because while Ralph has not succeeded, the very fact that he tried is a small victory. With Basil Fawlty, the fact that he tried is what makes him so ridiculous: if he were smarter, he’d know what he is and what his limitations are.

And this isn’t even getting into the whole U.S. tradition of letting lower-class, ethnic heroes get the best of snooty upper-class WASPs.

As to where Canadian comedy fits into all this, it’s probably — where else? — somewhere in-between. I don’t think Canadian comedy is quite as hung up on class or money as British/American comedy, if only because we’re so busy being hung up on our outsider status and love/hate relationship with the cultures of two great countries (Britain and the U.S.). But I don’t think Canadian comedy can usually be quite as brutal as Brit comedy is to social-climbers.

When I posed this question on Twitter, Caroline Godin suggested The Kumars at No. 42 as a show where we are meant to sympathize with characters who aspire to greater things. I’m not sure about that, though I do think that show had a certain sweetness that might not have been expected from the premise. Are there other British comedies where people want to rise up in the world, and the show takes their side (instead of implying that they’re deluded)?

Update: In comments, Steve Bennett points out something important about British comedy that I left out, which is that the contempt expressed is not for poor people trying to improve their lot, but for “middle-class people putting on airs and graces and try[ing] to appear posh.” That’s quite true, and it’s the difference between satire and kicking people while they’re down. If Basil Fawlty were just a struggling hotel manager trying to improve his business, the comedy would be cruel rather than funny, but the plots revolve around him trying to attract the “right kind” of business and prove he’s the upper-crust type he pretends to be.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.