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Why comedy isn’t always a universal language

– Posted in: Language and Culture, Uncategorized
Theatrical comedy and tragedy masks, isolated on black.

A few years ago, the North Korean newspaper The People’s Daily reported on an American newspaper voting their leader Kim Jong-Un as the “Sexiest Man Alive”. The only problem? The original article came from satirical magazine The Onion. International misunderstandings of articles from The Onion have happened before, but they all point to a long-standing issue around how comedy is received outside of its native audience.

Grammar, syntax and meaning are as intrinsically important to comedy as the standard set-up/punchline of a joke, and all of these things completely change if a gag is told outside of the language in which it was written. Comedians frequently go outside of their linguistic comfort zone and find success – the Edinburgh Festival sees more performances from international comics every year – but what is the secret to success?

Slapstick is funny everywhere

One of the rare homegrown examples of a comedian who has tailored his act to different languages and cultures is Eddie Izzard. Starting with his Glorious show in 1997, Izzard has performed his act in French, German and Spanish, with the help of his brother Mark. In a recent podcast interview, he joked that Mark translates his act line for line into “good French, but not brilliant French,” adding that “everyone says there’s a different sense of humour in every country – this is not true. It’s the references that are different.”

There are comedians whose work has found acclaim in unlikely locations. The late Norman Wisdom, for example, was extremely popular in Albania as much for the fact his work was allowed to be screened there, as for his exaggerated physical comedy. Likewise, Rowan Atkinson’s slapstick creation Mr. Bean has been shown in 190 countries – interestingly, Atkinson has also cited French comedian Jacques Tati as his primary influence on his work as Mr. Bean.

How to make your comedy translate

In the same podcast, Izzard explained his process for bringing his material to an international audience: “I’ve dumped all puns, all jokes with sayings included in them them, and all very British references.” This is one reason why a show such as Seinfeld has struggled to find acclaim outside of English-speaking nations – as one article notes, the self-described Show About Nothing is “just too complicated, too cultural and word-based, to make for easy translation.”

A psychological study on humour conducted in Singapore demonstrated the difference between Singaporean and American humour, with the aid of research and statistics. The research showed that Americans were more likely to joke about sex than people from Singapore – 37% of participants over 23%, respectively; by contrast, Americans were less likely to joke about violence.

Interestingly, this research also indicated that the way people of different nationalities use humour varies; according to Psychology Today, Chinese culture uses humour “to illustrate a concept, prove a point, or win an argument,” rather than the traditional Anglo-American function of being a coping mechanism or tension-breaker.

Whatever function laughter can serve in cultures across the globe, it is still a universally-understood emotion. What precisely it is that tickles the funnybone of people of different nationalities, however, remains elusive. Perhaps it’s simply easier to know what people won’t find funny, and build a joke from there.

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