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 has a hundred 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. According to Sir David, the sketch was based on a real incident that he observed in a pub.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. 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, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.