Thursday, 7 August 2008

Getting The Joke

My good husband has taken to watching comedy skits on YouTube. He comes home exhausted after a long hard day at work and he and our youngest sit together at the computer and laugh until the tears run from their eyes. Sometimes I even join them.

It has taken me some time, but I get British comedy skits now. At first, I was completely flummoxed by a large number of them, but now I can watch them and laugh almost as much as my husband. In fact, if any uninitiated Americans happen to watch them with us, I can even interpret.

The sad thing is that a lot of the American stuff confuses me no end now. There are cultural references that elude me -- and my husband. "Who's that?" he'll ask, or "What does that mean?" and I cannot answer. The other day, I was thrilled to be able to explain who Tammy Wynette was. He had no idea; the fact that she co-wrote and sang Stand by Your Man made everything clear.

Of course it's hardly news that humor is culturally bound, but one thing I've come to see is that a joke that is shared is far funnier. This must be why they always had canned laughter on the comedies of my youth. I always assumed that this was to prompt the audience to laugh, but now I see it was there because laughter needs to be shared. There is something rather sobering about being the only one who is laughing your head off. When everyone else laughs with you, the joke is better and the whole experience is infinitely richer.

Before I went to Japan for the first time, I went to see the movie Love at First Bite in a Manhattan cinema. There is a scene in which the hero, a Jewish psychiatrist, brandishes a Star of David at a vampire. In New York, this brought the house down, but when I happened to see the same movie about eight months later in Tokyo, you could have heard a pin drop. And suddenly it just wasn't as funny.

Or take the British skit that features a large group of British sub-Continentals who go to an English restaurant and eagerly study the menu. One of them insists that she cannot bear English food; that she must have something spicy. Her friend urges her to at least try something a little mild -- why go to eat English cuisine if you do not at least try? The skit ends with one of the young men bragging that he can take the very mildest dish of all. He gets a bit too exuberant and begins to dance on the tables and behave loutishly. The first time I saw this, I was fresh off the boat and it sailed right over my head. The second time I saw it -- after years in the U.K. -- I could hardly stay in my seat. The fact that everyone else around me thought it was hilarious made it all the funnier.

When you cannot understand the humor because of linguistic and cultural limitations, you are doubly cursed. Once at a friend's house, we played a silly party game in which a series of questions with obvious answers are read out. Everyone knows, of course, that the obvious answers cannot possibly be the right ones: the response to What does a dog do on three legs, a man do on two, and a woman do sitting down? will absolutely have nothing to do with peeing. Everyone knows this, of course, except any hapless non-native English speakers who are present. We'd all had a laugh over the answer (shaking hands) and moved on to the next question when one of the guests, a boy from France, suddenly leapt to his feet, after long deliberation, and shouted "Pissing!" This response made us laugh far harder than the joke itself, and for the life of us, we could not explain to him why it was so funny.

I don't think I could count the times this happened to me in Japan. When all around me, people were laughing themselves silly and I just sat there, aching to understand the joke, but not getting it at all. There is nothing sadder than not getting the joke when everybody else does. I remembered the boy from France and his triumphant "Pissing!" and felt great sympathy. Even if you crack the linguistic code, you've still got the cultural hurdle left to negotiate, and chances are that if you manage both of these against all odds, you'll be too tired to get the joke.

But boy, when you do, it's heady stuff. "What beer makes you smarter?" a beginning EFL student asked me once. I pretended not to know the answer. "Budweiser!" she screamed, and the rest of the class got quiet. Brows were furrowed. Puzzled looks were exchanged and lips silently mouthed the words. All of a sudden there were explosions of laughter as student after student got the joke. I did my best to laugh along with them.


Brian said...

Many years ago, I was the ONLY person in an old dilapidated cinema in an impoverished Sydney suburb.

The film was a Red Skelton comedy -- not a very good one-- but there was one hilariously funny line at which I laughed long and loud.

Disconcerting in the echoing darkness


Jacqui said...

I speak English fluently and as my first language and this seems to happen to me anyway :)

When I took Japanese, we delighted in teaching our senseis English euphemisms, which we'd translate directly into Japanese. The best was "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse" which started incomprehensible and horrifying to them, but eventually brought hilarity on both sides.

debra said...

Mt mother-in-law was an English war bride, and has been in the US for many years. She still has a booklet that was give to her before she came here. It tried to prepare these new spouses for life in the States, including the American sense of humor. Interesting stuff.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have a very strange sense of humor. Some things will provoke me to gales of laughter. But a lot of stuff other folks find funny I don't at all. I also simply don't get 90 percent of British humor. If I'd found the "star of David" skit funny, for example, I would have laughed as hard if others were laughing or if no one was laughing.

Kim Ayres said...

When I was in Canada on a Student Exchange, I discovered "Ren & Stimpy" which was watched all the time in the common room. I found it hysterically funny, along with everyone else.

When I came back to the UK, I was raving about this cartoon I'd seen, and lamenting the fact it wasn't shown here.

To my delight, a couple of years later, BBC started showing Ren & Stimpy, so I insisted my wife sit down and watch it with me.

It just wasn't her kind of humour in any way.

Ren & Stimpy suddenly seemed gross, childish and devoid of laughs.

I should have watched it with a bunch of teenagers instead

Mary Witzl said...

Brian -- I love that image, and I too have heard my laughter echo through empty rooms. It's a little like eating by yourself; sometimes it's fun, but it's generally just not the same.

A man who can laugh alone with utter confidence is either supremely sure of himself or out of his mind.

Jacqui -- (Let's see..."Uma ga taberareru hodo onaka ga suite imasu yo..." Yep, that's funny.) This sort of humor was hugely helpful when we lived in Japan, and thank God for the fact that it translated -- eventually.

I was the only person who laughed when we went to see 'The Day After Tomorrow' at a cinema here, at the scene where all the Americans are desperately trying to cross the Mexican border. My kids were sliding down in their seats, covering their faces out of embarrassment. No one else got why this was funny. If it had been a group of Brits anxiously awaiting their visas to Bangladesh, I'm betting they'd have sussed it.

Debra -- I would LOVE to see a copy of that booklet! In fact, I'm sure I've heard of this before -- a booklet that attempts to explain American cultural phenomena to newly-arrived immigrants. Things like this tell you so much about America of that time -- all the expectations, prejudices and hypotheses about foreign cultures.

Charles -- Isn't it fascinating to analyze what you find funny -- and why? I love British humor now -- it is wonderfully dry and generally understated -- but way back when Monty Python was huge, I often found myself puzzled. I knew it was supposed to be funny; I just didn't know why.

Good for you, being able to laugh by yourself. I can do this too, but I'd prefer not to.

Kim -- This has happened to me so many times. I've found some comic or movie from my past that I found uproariously funny -- and brought it home. Only to discover that I'm the only one who thinks it's funny. And, on close introspection, even I don't find it funny anymore. Sad, isn't it?

Carolie said...

Thank you for another lovely slice of life, Mary! I love when you give us such sweet, poignant endings that I get a little teary.

Had a similar experience today with five Japanese friends from the TIME Magazine Reading Club for which I instruct. (I love explaining the various figures of speech, and see the comprehension as it moves around the room!)

We went to a lovely beach on Hirado Island (a real experience for me, watching them put on their hats, t-shirts, skirts, beach shoes, sunscreen and elbow-length gloves in order to head into the water!) and then to lunch. Most of the time, they all spoke English, out of deference to me, but several times they slipped into Japanese.

Twice, everyone burst into laughter, then they all turned to me to earnestly try and explain what was funny. The third time it happened, I pretended to "get it" and laughed, just so they'd lose those worried, earnest looks and stop trying to help me understand!

Eryl Shields said...

I have a bit of a problem with humour and either laugh when no one else does or don't laugh when everyone else does. I can't tell a joke to save my life, and very rarely get them when other people tell them. Though there are a few (Bill Bailey springs to mind) comedians that have me clutching myself and almost hysterical with laughter.

Alice said...

Some humor is just beyond me. I used to get 'The Daily Nation' in Kenya and there was a little comic strip called Pili or Little Pili in there.

It was, without a doubt, the MOST UNFUNNY thing EVER. I guess it may have been funny to the Kenyans, but I just would have a mind-crumple looking at it every time. Go figure what makes folks laugh.

Gorilla Bananas said...

This is why the humour of great comedians is not parochial and crosses cultural boundaries. You don't need to be American to laugh at Laurel and Hardy.

Tabitha said...

You're so right that things are funniest when laughter is shared. It's kind of infectious, isn't it? :)

Humor and me have never been friends. At least, that's how it looks to others. :) When I was a kid, someone would tell a joke and it would take forever for me to connect the dots and then laugh. And, sometimes, someone would say something not intending to be funny, and my brain would connect some *other* dots, and I'd laugh. I'd try to explain why I was laughing, but most often the other person didn't get it. So I've given up, and I just laugh whenever the mood strikes. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- You are quite welcome, and thank you for reading what I write and appreciating it!

I know exactly why you pretended to get the joke even when you didn't: this happened to me dozens of times in Japan, and after a while it gets so tiresome. Even if you don't understand, you just want to be done with the issue. Giving up is awfully face-threatening, so faking it becomes the only possible option. This happened a lot in Wales, too -- I just couldn't understand despite my best intentions, even though I so desperately wanted to.

When you described the TIME group getting on their sunscreen, long gloves and other protective gear, I felt myself blush. All of that used to crack me up too, but after 17 years in Japan, I now do the exact same thing myself. I probably wouldn't even bat an eye watching that whole sunscreening process now.

Eryl -- I know how you feel. Others often get jokes that I don't, and all too often I am well and truly amused by things no one else finds the least bit funny.

My kids are huge fans of Bill Bailey, especially the youngest. They also love Eddie Izzard and George Carlin, and Russell Peters is another favorite.

Alice -- Knowing your sense of humor, I utterly trust your opinion of Little Pili. If you didn't think it was funny, I'm betting I wouldn't have either.

And speaking of humor, your V Ice posts are my idea of comic genius.

GB -- I was once on a train in Tokyo and saw one of my fellow passengers, a vain-looking young man who was studying his reflection in the window, get his huge forelock trapped in the train doors when they snapped shut. The other passengers and I almost wet our pants over it, and not a single word was exchanged.

Tabitha -- Oh, you and me both, and my sisters were even worse! We often had to have jokes explained to us when we were kids. I suspect that we were not exposed to as much contemporary culture as the kids around us got (our parents were older) and that is why we were somewhat behind. Or maybe everyone around us had lousy senses of humor...? I laugh when the mood strikes me too, and only try to suppress it some when I happen to be by myself, walking down the street.

A Paperback Writer said...

I remember that scene from Love At First Bite!!
But I'm sure it wouldn't be too funny in Tokyo.

This one is nowhere near as funny as yours, but it does fit.
When I was on a dance tour to China, Mary Wilson, who often comments on my blog (she's my former student and good friend) was on the tour, as was a guy named Joseph Smith (very funny in Utah, but nowhere else). Anyway, one morning we were all on the bus to go perform, but when noses were counted, we were missing 2 bodies. Our director called out, "Who's missing?"
I said, "Mary is."
Someone else said "Joseph."
And I snapped out, "They're still in the inn."
Everyone laughed. Except the Chinese interpretor next to me.
"Why is that funny?" he asked.
It just wasn't funny when I had to explain it.

Kara said...

There is something rather sobering about being the only one who is laughing your head off

the story of my life, lady. i'm always laughing at parts of movies when no one else is making a peep. watching The Life Aquatic was the loneliest experience i've ever had...and it was freakin' hilarious.

Angela said...

Great post. I've never really thought about the application of the canned laughter, but you're right on the money. It's interesting too how different cultures find different things funny. Me, I love Monty Python for Brit stuff. Cracks me right up!

Barbara Martin said...

Mary, your post reminded me of my three older brothers who loved to watch The Three Stooges and laugh at their antics. For me, the short movies were a waste of time and not funny. Looking back on it now, I consider the time period they grew up in was still getting over the last of WWII, while I was finding Howdy Doody humorous. It's all in the perspective.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I'm glad I'm not the only one who remembers that scene. George Hamilton was the actor, I seem to remember.

Mary and Joseph back in the inn would have cracked me up too, and yet I know from experience that this would be a tough one to explain to your tour guide. I think it was W S Gilbert who said that nothing killed a joke dead like trying to explain it to others. I've murdered many a joke in my time, both mine and others', in just this way.

Kara -- I sat through the sappiest romantic tragedy movie once, featuring a young piano player who was dying of cancer and her cynical older boyfriend, whose life is transformed by her goodness. Boy, the nasty looks I got as I tried in vain to suppress my laughter. I felt lonely, but also gratifyingly superior to those around me. No one else saw how dopey it was.

Angela -- I loved that Monty Python skit you posted the other day! To be honest, I was never a great fan back when MP were really big, but that skit was great. My husband have seen a few MP episodes and not found them half as funny as that miner son and his creative father.

Barbara -- It is possible that after the war, slapstick comedy was just what people needed to make them laugh and forget all the horror around them. I can't say I'm a big fan of it either. It never fails to amaze me that the French used to be passionate fans of Jerry Lewis. Truly, it is all in the perspective.

Carole said...

I went to a "The Titanic" with a friend and when the ship started to sink, and the musicians started to play, my friend burst out into long loud laughter. I wanted to slink under my seat. I saw now humor in the story, and certainly not at that point. She loved the song "Nearer my God to Thee" being played as people were dying.

It does amaze me the difference in people's funny bones.