I'd just finished my show. The band was playing, everyone was on their feet shouting for more and I was blowing kisses. In my moment of glory, just as I was leaving the stage (floating on a scented bed of self satisfaction, actually) I walked in to my microphone stand and tripped over. There might as well have been a bunch of bananas on the stage. Of course the audience screamed with laughter as I limped off thoroughly humbled. I'd blown one kiss too many.
So, how did you react to that story? Did you laugh at my misfortune or feel sorry for me? Your reaction will almost certainly give you away as a typical American or Brit. I say typical because what I'm about to say will irritate the exceptions.
I told that story to an American lady right after my show. I just wanted to make her laugh. She didn't. "Oh my goodness," she was concerned, "are you all right?" Not the reaction I was expecting. "Yes, I'm fine, it was just funny," I assured her but she wasn't convinced.
I went outside for some air and told the same story to a British passenger. He burst out laughing and ran off to tell his wife.
These reactions are typical and good examples of the differences in American and British humour. It's important for anyone performing to international audiences to understand what makes different nations tick. And by tick I mean laugh.
Here's another example. This happened just last week.
I've been telling (a true) story for years about a time a passenger inadvertently insulted me right to my face. The night after performing my Sinatra show I was sitting in the audience waiting for the next show to start. I started chatting to the guy sitting next to me and said, “Have you noticed how people always seem to sit on the end of the rows first when they come in to the theatre, and then spend the next 15 minutes having to let people squeeze in past them?” “Yes,” he said, “my wife and I were just talking about that.” “You know why they do it don't you?” I said, “Because it the show's rubbish they can just get up and leave!” “Oh yes,” he said, “we did that last night for that Sinatra bloke.”
I always tell this story in my show. It's true and gets a nice laugh. A week ago I was outside the theatre chatting to guests after my show and two young women came up to say how they had enjoyed the show. They seemed very earnest. One of them put her hand on my arm in a reassuring way, "You are wonderful," she said, "we felt just awful about what that man said to you." I was lost. "Which man?" "The man who said he walked out of your show. So rude and really, you're not awful." They'd completely missed the point. I tell the story because it's funny, self-effacing and as it happens, true. They thought I'd told it as a plea for sympathy. As if I'd do that in the middle of a show! Bless there hearts, but no.
A final example. When I work to British audiences I like to close with a quote from Dr Johnson:
"Taking a voyage is like being in prison. With the added risk of drowning."
Brits love this kind of dry, dark wit. Not Americans. "Did he say drowning? Why would he say that when we're on a cruise ship?" They simply do not get it and actually, with this particular line, they do not like it. It makes them feel uncomfortable.
Many comics revel in making their audience feel uncomfortable (listen to my Podcasts with Anthony Davis and Harry The Piano) but I'm not a comic. I sing nice songs punctuated with pleasant humour. Unless it makes everyone feel good I've no business doing it.
Lesson: Understand your audience; if it doesn't work cut it; and always, always remember where you left your microphone stand.
So what do you think? Do Americans different find different things funny to the British or is it just my imagination? Leave a comment and let me know.