Comedy and Dignity

Here’s perhaps the most famous moment in Only Fools and Horses. Why is this so funny?

The explosion of audience laughter comes at the obvious point of Del Boy’s pratfall, but after the first time through I found myself reacting more to David Jason’s effort to recover his dignity after he gets up. To see a pretender brought low is a staple of comedy. This miners of this comic vein have being heavily represented in class-conscious Britain (Fawlty Towers is a thousand variants of this basic joke), but have also included talented American practitioners (Though some of them, like Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films, were of British origin). Those who are the best at this type of humor manage to get the big laugh from their character’s loss of dignity but afterwards garner some sympathy from a pathetic, very human effort to recover it. Brilliant.

p.s. The sketch was based on a real incident, as Sir David explains here:

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.