In British Comedy, Sometimes the Joke's on You

05/04/2015 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2016

If you're American.

I've witnessed this first hand during the slew of comedy shows I've attended since landing in London for half a year of study abroad.

I've always loved comedy. I was the kid who grew up on hilarious 90s sitcoms and Dave Chappelle's Comedy Central show as a preteen. Plus as a Chicagoan it's basically a requirement to tap into the well-known Second City comedy shows that have produced the likes of John Belushi and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Despite my understanding of U.S. comedy I soon found that the types of jokes Brits and Americans find laughable differ dramatically. As a study abroad student in the U.K., I know that I sometimes get a bad rap for not fully immersing myself during this experience because British culture has so many similarities with American culture (ahem, I can still speak English here).

But then there are times when it feels like British comedians are speaking a different language. I've had to feign laughter while a stand-up comedian did an entire sketch about the irony in "British values" and cringed as a comic joked about elitism in soccer (or should I say, futbol) teams. Because I was not part of the culture, I found it difficult to laugh at it.

When I went to the Comedy in the Dark, a show that offers stand-up comedians an opportunity to perform in pitch-blackness to their audience, I experienced the same confusion. I spent ten minutes listening to a comedian ramble about the odd sexual affection he had for everyone from his grandmother to his next-door neighbor to his lawn gnome. It was...different.

Many argue the prominent difference between American and British humor is that we Americans don't get irony. British comedians are more direct and usually don't qualify their absurd and gritty jokes.

Yet, some students in London transplanted from home universities in the U.S., have used comedy to give them a deeper understanding of British culture. Particularly performing improv in front of and alongside Brits has helped them delve into all the nooks and crannies of cross-cultural comedy.

Vanessa Matthews, an American student who grew up on Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live and is now completing her undergraduate degree at King's College in London, said she always had an obsession with U.K. culture and secretly wanted to have a British accent. When she joined a newly formed improv group at her university she felt she had finally tapped into the culture.

"Americans usually like a big obvious laugh and that doesn't mean stupid," Matthews said, "but I've seen that British comedians are much more subtle."

From her experience on the stage in the U.K. and through taking improv classes at Hoopla (which Matthews described as London's version of Chicago's Second City), she's learned how important cultural references can be -- and at times difficult when you don't share the same background as the comedians you're performing with.

For example, there was a time when a British student in her improv group started imitating a factory worker from Northern England, and she along with other American students was left to quickly pick up on the connotations.

"If you didn't know the cultural divide between the north and the south then you would probably be like, 'Why's he doing that weird accent? Why's he working in a factory?'" she explained. "But everyone else from England will laugh a bit more at it. Because they know."

Andrew Marks also has a unique perspective on performing improv in England. He is British, attended high school in California and returned to London to go to King's College. Marks is also the founder of Running A Mock Improv, which is his university's first and only improvisational comedy society.

From his experience Marks acknowledged that punch lines sometimes get lost in translation.

"I had to do a joke referencing Friends and I have never seen that show in my life," he said. "But I got up there and said, 'Hello friends, my name is Chandler, I think is one of them.' And that was the whole scene: me saying that I've never seen Friends and we just went."

Compared to the solitary act of stand-up, improv sets the stage for more cross-cultural togetherness among American and British students.

"The focus of improv is to foster trust and common ground between performers," Marks emphasized, "so that when you get up and get a scene suggestion it's not about how we're different and we're on the same page."

As I explore humor (or should I write, humour?) across multiple cultures, I see how comedy differs in various corners of the world. What people laugh about reflects on the country and thus gives me a deeper understanding of the culture.

So if you're a study abroad student feeling like your trip is becoming dull, take a moment to go to a comedy show -- even if you don't always get the jokes.

Marks says he already sees more study abroad students fitting into the fold of his improv group that is primarily comprised of English students, but has a sizable number of American ones as well.

"There does seem to be something attractive to study abroad students," he said. "Maybe it feels more familiar to them or maybe because it's wildly different."

For Matthews, her experience with improv across the pond has been beneficial for her confidence.

"Comedy, wherever it's done, pushes you out of your comfort zone," she said. "I came from this small town in New England and there's sort of nothing like doing comedy [in London]. Even if it's a little different, it's definitely worth it."

Laughing is universal, but comedy is not. Learning the nuances in comedy through a cross-cultural lens can be an enjoyable experience for someone studying abroad. But just like learning anything new or unfamiliar, make sure to go into it with an open mind. Because nine times out of the 10, the joke could end up being on you and your "Yankee accent."