“The Chinese have sent their first female astronaut into space. They will do anything to get rid of their girls." The rapid-fire quip is delivered with the straightest possible face. It is just after 10pm in the UK, time for one of the numerous British TV quiz shows devoted to the current headlines.

The format is systematically the same: two teams of two or three panelists do battle over the week’s news. There are no prizes, nobody cares about the points scored, and no one has any interest in coming up with correct answers. The competition is simply an excuse for the panelists to poke fun – preferably vicious fun – at each other, deliver their wisecracks and generally parade their wits.

The shows have become so popular, there is one for virtually every night of the week: 8 out of 10 Cats, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, QI and Mock of the Week etc. The best known in the genre, Have I Got News for You, which features the hilarious and formidable Ian Hislop — who is also the editor of Private Eye, the British equivalent of the Canard enchaîné — and Paul Merton as team captains, has been running since 1990 and regularly attracts audiences of more than five million.

Self-deprecation

But be warned: humour is a serious matter in the United Kingdom, which is probably the only country in the world to define itself in such terms. As a rule, coarse banter should be avoided, or only deployed sparingly. Witticisms should be full of innuendo and self-deprecation, and delivered with a straight face. Any kind of boasting is considered to be inexcusable, and more often than not, the Americans who are invited to participate in these panel shows are completely lost.

For proof, look no further than the profound incomprehension displayed by Baywatch star David Hasselhoff during his recent appearance on 8 out of 10 Cats.

In the course of the same programme, one of the panelists, Jon Richardson, spoke at length about how he is anti-social, clumsy and awkward. "Generally, you go to university to find out who you really are. I found out that I was a prick." Of course, all of this is completely bogus. He is a TV star whose one-man shows fill up theatres. At the same time, it is very English.

In her book on English society, anthropologist Kate Fox devotes an entire chapter to humour. “In other cultures, there is a 'time and a place' for humour. It is a special, separate kind of talk. In English conversation, there is always an undercurrent of humour. Humour is our 'default mode', if you like. We do not have to switch it on deliberately, and we cannot switch it off."

Fox argues that the English are not necessarily funnier than other people, but that they consider humour to be more important. And that is why the TV schedule for virtually every evening features a programme whose main purpose is to make fun of the nation, and to speak out on subjects that are rarely touched on by polite conversation. "Sweat, pain, endurance, people going beyond their limits... That is what the Underground is like during the Olympics."

Read the other parts of the series:

Romanian jokes that got around the censor

Spain’s bawdy smash hit

The series that sends up the middle class

In Italy, the joke is on them

Tickling Germany's funnybone