Four years ago this November, I was on a date with a lovely Japanese businesswoman in downtown Shibuya, Tokyo. Desperate to impress, and wary about breaking some sort of cultural taboo, I started chatting about humour in different languages. I tried to explain how well-regarded English humour is around Europe. “Ok” she replied, “Tell me a joke”.
In a blind panic, I dived into an almost word-for-word rendition of Monty Python’s famous ‘Buying a bed’ sketch. It was an Oscar-worthy performance, certainly one of my best. When I’d finished, I waited patiently for the obligatory fit of giggles. Instead, I got a long awkward silence, broken only by my own yammering.
“You know, I guess it’s much funnier when you watch them do it.”
We looked at each other for a long, silent moment. And then, sharing in the awkwardness, we burst into tears of laughter together.
That day I learned an important lesson about humour across cultures. So much of what we find funny is socially ingrained. Our sense of humour is deeply rooted in our nationhood, our shared view of the world, and the norms that are so familiar to us, but so foreign to others. But there are deeper levels of humour – comedic elements that cross boundaries and tap into something universally human. Knowing the difference can be the key to capturing the comedic imagination of your audience, no matter where they are from.
“Our sense of humour is deeply rooted in our nationhood, our shared view of the world, and the norms that are so familiar to us.”
Do you need to be funny?
One point that is universal is that watching a person trying too hard to be funny is almost never funny, no matter where you’re from. At the very best, it’s funny only in a pitying, ironic way, and only then in certain cultures. Although our desire to entertain might drive us to think of something quirky and creative, a misstep can quickly lead to awkwardness and disaster. The easiest way to be boring is to try to be funny all the time.
Before you start, ask yourself the important question: “Do I really need humour to get my message across?”. Once the pressure to be funny is off, you may find that jokes grow organically from the conversation.
This is especially important when it comes to humour in advertising. There’s nothing more groan-inducing than a TV spot that desperately claws at a joke as a way to engage and entertain its audience. But when you have a funny message to relate and you tell it in an honest way, you’re likely to uncover an unexpected wit in your work. Check out the story of how Old Spice’s ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like‘ campaign was brought to life. This piece that virtually defined viral humour in marketing didn’t even start out as a joke.
The bar is lower than you think
We often make the mistake of thinking that humour is performative – that we need to think of something clever, outrageous, or provocative to make someone laugh. In actual fact, most people are predisposed to finding things funny. Given the chance, we all want to laugh. This means that the thought and effort required to make a situation funny is a lot less than you might think. Instead of forcing it, you simply need to understand why something might be funny and let the humour shine through.
What makes something funny?
Given the diverse range of cultural differences in humour, it’s difficult to imagine that there is a universal formula for what makes something funny. Over at the Humour Research Lab at the University of Boulder, Colorado, however, they’ve managed to take a convincing crack.
Peter McGraw’s fantastic TEDx talk illustrates that anything funny always has two components; it must be unthreatening and it must subvert your expectations. If you take away a joke’s benign nature or it’s element of surprise, you end up with something that’s unfunny at best and downright creepy at worst.
If you’re looking to work humour into any of your work, McGraw’s formula is a great place to start. Think carefully about how you can subvert the expectations of your audience in a light, unthreatening way. What surprises people, however, is very likely to vary from place to place, culture to culture. Let’s jump into exploring some different ways that jokesters subvert expectations throughout the world.
We asked a handful of talented people from different countries how they would describe humour at home. Their answers provide a fascinating insight into the differences among cultures. But more than this, they help to underline the universal aspects of what makes things funny.
Humour in Europe
With its complex political history and broad variation in cultures, it’s difficult to sum up the European sense of humour in anything smaller than a textbook. Nevertheless, there are a few strings of commonality that bring us all together.
In Britain, we love to laugh at ourselves, and much of our humour is delivered at the expense of the teller. We also tend towards deep levels of irony, and love jokes that push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.
‘Did you hear about the guy who had his entire left side cut off? He’s all right now.’
In France, Spain, and Austria, regional satire is extremely popular and often fuelled by competitive relationships between districts and countries.
-¿Qué hace un catalán cuando tiene frío? (What does a Catalan do when it’s cold?)
-Se acerca a la estufa. (He gets close to the heater.)
-¿Y cuando tiene mucho frío. (And when it’s very cold?)
-La enciende. (Turn it on.)
In Germany, political satire and social taboos are often at the crux of comedy, as is clever wordplay and double entendre.
‘I just told a friend a joke about lemonade. Fanta/found it funny.’ In German, ‘Fanta’ and ‘Fand er’ (found it) sound similar when pronounced.
Polish people love bitter and sarcastic jokes, the subtleties of which are often lost on other nationalities.
Of all these different approaches to humour, the one thing that binds us all is satire. For us in Europe, comedy is an excuse to play with and ridicule the structures that hold us in place.
Humour in Russia
Though the Russian temperament can seem dower on the surface, in fact it hides a deep love of laughter. Much Russian humour is tightly bound to the subtleties of the language, and so can often be extremely difficult to translate. Nevertheless, with a little explanation it’s possible to see the clever and surprising Russian wit shine through.
Take this clever joke based on a well-known proverb:
‘Без труда не вытащишь и рыбку из пруда’ ‘Without an effort, you won’t even pull a fish out of a pond’; or in English ‘No pain, no gain’.
So the joke based on the proverb is: Без пруда не вытащишь и рыбки из него ‘Without a pond, you won’t pull a fish out of it’
Humour in Asia
Comedy is often deeply rooted in language. As such, the vast linguistic differences that pervade across the Asian continent make similarities in two countries’ approach to humour especially rare.
In Chinese humour, jokes are often deeply embedded into the multi-level meanings of the Chinese writing system, which uses characters that change their meaning depending on the grammatical context. The Chinese language, therefore, is the perfect place for clever puns and wordplay.
‘There are two reasons why you are single: first is nobody is good enough for you; second is you are not good enough for anybody.’
Japanese humour, too, frequently uses puns, though they’re often referred to as ‘old man’ jokes with a groan and a sigh. The Japanese also love to tell long, comical stories, called Rakugo that feature foolish characters and awkward social faux pas.
Indian humour is diverse and difficult to pin down but often revolves around the roasting of certain individuals or groups, especially those from rival regions or with different daily practices. You’re also likely to hear people in India making fun of their own cultural practices and traditions; this is much more likely to occur in groups of younger people, for whom certain activities seem outdated. There is also a big spin on typical family scenarios, and humour in the media maximises on this as it is universally applicable to those from all walks of life. For example, a TV son who gets married to an ‘overly modern’ woman can spark enough jokes to last many months, usually based around the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law rivalry, with the son caught in the middle.
In Korea, comedians love to play with the idea of personas and societal roles, often putting on an act to make funny, yet well-meaning, observations about others.
Humour in US & Canada
The USA and Canada are both hugely influential in the field of entertainment and have a diverse range of different comedic styles. In general, though, you can expect humour from the US to be fast-paced, with a lot derived from stereotypes and ethnic differences. American humour also loves to play on the absurdity of seemingly normal events, or to inject absurdity into the mundane. By contrast, Canadian humour often focuses on light satire, irony, and parody.
Humour in South America
With Spanish and Portuguese being the predominant languages in South America, much of their humour is shared with their European cousins. This doesn’t mean, however, that each country won’t have its own unique flavours of comedy. Brazilians might describe their humour as sarcastic, dry, or a touch on the dark side. In Mexico, mockery is used as a way to break tension and build affectionate relationships. Mexicans also pride themselves on their political-incorrectness and ability to make light of nearly everything. Argentinian humour, by contrast, is littered with references to their history and national identity.
¿Por qué los mexicanos no pueden jugar billar?… porque se comen los tacos.
Why Mexicans can’t play pool?…because they eat all tacos.
Humour is an intensely human habit. It’s our way of showing affection, of breaking boundaries, and of sharing in common belief systems. And although somebody’s sense of humour may seem alien, impenetrable, or downright odd at first glance, it only takes a little patience and persistence to be able to see the commonalities in all of us. If you’re exploring the humour around the world, never take it at face value, and always seek to understand the elements that make a joke surprising yet benign. They may be more subtle than they first appear. Keep this in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to using humour for global brand success.