UNIT 24. OXFORD BLUES (Film)

Exercise 1. Watch the film closely and notice the way the characters talk, behave and relate to one another. Use their behaviour, conversation, appearance and terms of address to trace any possible social and cultural differences between them and see how they support or disprove the points made in the previous chapters. The language list below will help you do it better:

It appears you have already seemed fit to become part of the architecture here / the odds for their survival were clearly in their favour / remove without causing irreparable damage to … / report to your don / Marlon Brando / guide you through your three happy years at Oxford / Take care, buddy / Hot-shot / come up to Oxford to study detective fiction / Benny Hill / send smb down / prepared for the rigours of the interview / The Matriculation Ceremony / They do it every time they win a race / It’s invigorating, isn’t it? / That’s too bad! / very upper-crust / Thanks for the loan / the gift of the gab / Char with no sugars / I think I’ll pass / slumming / sit at the High table / I’d like to work alone / test one’s soundness / challenge smb to a drinking contest / The flies certainly don’t gather on you / lose a grudge match against / initiate a challenge match / I was on a winning streak one night / buy oneself a year / make sth. pay off / to lecture / Isn’t it enough to get by? / have a little anger and raw energy / a grand English manor, a grand title / row eights / a coxwain, to cox / to abandon the American colonies and permit them home rule / have a brash suggestion / suit a redneck / to wash (at Oxford) / there is nothing beyond our grasp / Hear, hear! / I didn’t think you like chicks at all / to storm into a room / You are making strides / This kind of thing isn’t simply done / NBA play-offs / punting /I think you are being paged.

Exercise 2. Prepare to talk about the cultural things, cultural information, the idiom (including noises) and stereotypes reflected in the film.

Exercise 3. Drawing on your general background knowledge of the subject, outside reading, the Internet, etc., write an extended (300-word) cultural commentary for the film on:

a) English academic culture and teaching styles and formats;

b) University sport in Britain / the USA.

Exercise 4. Write a 500-word essay on one of the following:

a) What aspects of English life and national idiosyncrasies come as the biggest cultural shock to an American? Illustrate and comment.

b) Should Columbus have stayed in Spain? Argue.

c) The English and Their Language. Discuss.

d) The Americans and Their Language. Discuss.

UNIT 25. HUMOUR TRAVELS?

Transatlantic laughs:

When two countries share a common language it is easy to assume that they also share the attitudes and points-of-reference which are the basic stuff of humour. Yanks and Brits really don’t. If proof is needed, remember initial Ameri-bafflement at things Pythonesque. Or how edited highlights of the vastly popular Johnny Carson Show laid a UK egg.

There are, of course, successes as well, which explains the frequent cross-fertilization of TV programmes; but choices must be made with care. Some things won’t travel. A Brit trying his favourite Rik Mayall impression on a Yank should prepare for a blank stare. And American comedienne Joan Rivers leaves her favourite ‘K-Mart’ jokes out of all her UK routines. The point is that, when your plane leaves LHR or JFK, you leave behind a whole series of cultural references, too.

AMERI-LAUGHS:American humour is about stand-up comics, rooted in Vaudeville and aspiring to Vegas (or a spot on the Johnny Carson Show) with a series of quick-fire gags and one-liners. ‘New wave’ comics are those who start out at the Comedy Store or similar, before moving to Vegas and the Carson Show by way of Saturday Night Live.

But, the influence of the ‘Greats’ – George Burns, Jack Benny – remains. The best (and most exportable) American sit-coms are a collection of high-quality laugh-lines bedded in the matrix of a story: (M.A.S.H., Rhoda, Cheers). The most popular funny films feature the likes of Eddie Murphy or Woody Allen, firing gags just as appropriate to the midnight show at Caesar’s Palace: ‘That’s my ex-wife ... I almost didn’t recognize her without her wrists cut.’ Or: ‘Hollywood’s so clean! No garbage in the streets – because they put it all on television.’ Or: ‘Been to Beverly Hills? They’re so rich, they watch Dynasty to see how poor people live. They’re so rich, the 7–11 has a fur department.’ Or (in Annie Hall): ‘Nice parking. I can walk to the curb from here.’

To be funny in America, you have to be:

1) a member of an ethnic minority. There are no such things as ‘W.A.S.P.’ jokes – unless a Jewish comedian tells them.

2) from a large urban area, and (preferably) a deprived background. The scepticism which is the leitmotiv of Ameri-comedy is honed in adversity, which is the same as Brooklyn.

3) a natural cynic, with a tendency toward paranoia. (If you’ve suffered at the hands of the American medical profession, so much the better). Life’s a mess, human motivation is base, and they’re all out to get you anyway. Classic Ameri-comic sees himself as the long-suffering, hard-pressed realist (Jackie Mason, Lennie Bruce, Mort Saul, Bob Hope) ... the last bastion of sanity in a flakey world, knowing the score, telling it ‘like it is’, keeping his head when all around him are losing theirs. ‘I met a guy the other day ... wife’s left him, he’s got no money and no job. But he’s happy. Know why? Stupid.’

BRIT-LAUGHS:Modern British humour also derives from Music Hall – which is the rough equivalent of Vaudeville. It, too, is urban in outlook ... though only specific urban areas will do. People from northern cities like Manchester and Liverpool are funny, because the alternative is suicidal despair. (In some northern towns, suicide is redundant.) Rural areas do not generate humour (Brits take the countryside too seriously) and Chipping Sodbury has produced few great comics.

Londoners can be funny, but only if they’re from the East End – with the chirpy, street-smart, wide-boy sense of humour which that implies. You can poke fun at people who come from NW3, or Islington or Surbiton. No one funny has ever come from Twickenham, Croydon, or Friern Barnet ... though comedians from the East End who have made money hurry to live there.

To be funny in Britain, you have to:

1) portray yourself as a loser and nitwit. It is you who are out of step with the rest of society, you who march to the beat of a different drummer. Brit-comic often plays the nerd, or the loony. A classic example is John Cleese as Basil Fawlty; or Morecambe and Wise, vying with each other to see who is the bigger nincompoop. Ditto the Two Ronnies, or Pete and Dud ... the unselfconsciously hopeless, pitted against a world which is basically sane. Then came Python, in which the world and the people in it were mad, and followed to the letter the logic of their own lunacy: summarize Proust competitions and parrot sketches, and

‘Buried the cat last week.’

‘Was it dead?’

‘No, we just didn’t like it very much.’

2) be brave about death. (Yank-comics won’t touch it with a barge-pole ... and Ameri-audiences don’t believe in it anyway.) But north of Watford, the sense of humour is sub-fusc black. Nothing raises a bigger laugh than a good death or funeral joke:

DOCTOR (TO PATIENT): ... You’re in great shape. You’ll live to be 90.

PATIENT: ... I am 90.

DOCTOR: ... Oh, well. That’s it, then.

Even Python raised its biggest laugh with a sketch about an exparrot who had gone to meet its Maker and was nailed to its perch.


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