Friday, August 15, 2008

The Pitfalls of Humor

I couldn't blog last night because I was out - watching the taping of the NPR radio quiz show called "Wait, wait... Don't tell me."  My husband loves this show, so we often hear it on Saturday mornings.  It's full of political humor and quirky stories from the week's news.  I laughed so hard my face hurt - but I wonder if someone from a different culture or country might have enjoyed it quite as much.

Humor doesn't translate well.

I admit I laugh at "Wait, wait... Don't tell me."  And Jon Stewart gives me quite the chuckles.  The hardest I've ever laughed was at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Monty Python - English humor.  Some of the jokes, of course, went right by me.  They didn't make me groan, but instead made me go, "Wha...?"  The ones that got me, on the other hand - whoa!  Monty Python's parrot sketch brought tears to my eyes.

I think a lot of humor is like that, because if humor didn't tread borderlines, it wouldn't be funny.  My preference is for humor along the random/weird borderline, because if I don't get it, it just leaves me behind.  I laugh at some types of uncomfortable/taboo borderline humor, but when I don't get it, I can hardly stand it.  With Mr. Bean, for example, I have to leave the room after about five minutes - same with Mike Myers at his worst.  Profanity generally leaves me cold, but it "fits" well with certain types of humorous content.  Seinfeld was always firmly on the borderline of inanity/pet peeves, and I couldn't stand it.

But in English generally, even if I don't "get" the humor, at least I understand what it's trying to do.  Humor in a foreign language is much tougher.  

French humor was always a rewarding effort for me.  I thought Asterix and Tintin comic books were hilarious - Tintin went more for the physical slapstick humor that was relatively familiar, while Asterix added a dimension of puns that is difficult to describe.  I think puns in English are often considered to be low humor, though they are used constantly in the area of sports, and often in news headlines.  The puns in Asterix were so thoroughgoing that you just had to love them.  And the cultural borderlines they played with were somewhat familiar. 

Japanese is harder.  I've studied a heck of a lot of Japanese, lived there three years, watched a lot of Japanese television shows, and I have yet to get it completely.  Some stuff I've figured out.  The physical humor - I can understand the ridiculing/embarrassing/fooling/injuring people borderline to some extent.  It was a little like America's most sadistic home videos.  The humor satirizing extreme elements of Japanese culture, I could also get - like a sitcom-style show that depicted a number of families going to extreme measures as their children passed through rigorous testing to enter kindergarten.  Or like Juzo Itami's The Funeral - a great movie - which satirized the societal expectations of behavior surrounding a funeral for a man whom everyone in the film disliked.  But some of it, especially comedy-dialogue, left me totally bewildered.

So what about in writing stories?

Well, as I've told all my critique friends, I can't write humor.  Not jokes, at least.  So I don't try to go for ridiculous situations or funny twists or wild over-the-top comedy.  On the other hand, I love to have my characters be funny just because of who they are.  Like the gecko Allayo in Let The Word Take Me (Analog, July/August 2008), who because of her cultural background drew the utterly serious and sensible conclusion that the young Human man David Linden was possessed, simply because he talked so much. 

When I started writing this post it made me wonder what an alien or fantasy society would look like if it were designed with its own particular brand of humor.  I'm not sure if I've ever seen anyone do something like that - not having the entire story be a comedy, so much as having the people in it make humor an important and integral part of their lives.  If any of you have encountered such a thing, do tell me where, because I'd love to see how it was done!  


  1. William Sanders has a wonderful story called "The Undiscovered" about an alternate history William Shakespeare who gets stranded in the bnew world and captured by Cherokees. He gets the Cherokee to put on a production of "Hamlet." The Cheroee are laughing their heads off at what we'd consider a very somber story, a tragedy.

  2. I read a similar story, Byron - I believe it was an academic article about how King Lear was received by a tribal group somewhere in Africa. Needless to say, Shakespeare is brilliant but not universal in his appeal.

  3. Yeah, I read an article very similiar to that. It might be the same one you're thinking about although it was Hamlet rather than King Lear. It was called "Shakespeare in the Bush" by Laura Bohannon (1966).

  4. Have you read "The Uplift War" by David Brin? He's devised a race of aliens who love practical jokes to the point of playing practical jokes in situations that could be deadly and consider humans (and most other aliens) as extremely dull and serious. At some point, when things get scary for people, most of us drop the jokes and try to cope. It doesn't sound like the Tymbrimi would do the same.

  5. Wow, thanks for the comment, bumble brain! You may already have guessed that I didn't read the uplift war, as I couldn't think of an example of alternate senses of humor. Now I'll have to go look for it (wish I had time to do more reading, but I'll do my best!).