Does Comedy Change Depending On What Language You Speak?

Is humor the same everywhere? Not exactly.
Humor in other languages represented by two women laughing while looking at a phone.

When talking about culture, you might think of art, music, cinema, and literature… and forget all about humor. However, humor is an integral part of any culture. Do we laugh about the same things in English, German and Russian? Not really. Each language comes with its own particular kind of humor. While Laurel and Hardy, Peter Sellers and Monty Python might be considered classics in the English-speaking world, their humor isn’t necessarily universal. Let’s take a look at humor in other languages — as well as in English — to better understand what makes people laugh.

What Are The Main Types Of Humor?

While humor can be a number of different things, there are a few broad categories that many jokes fall into.

  • Dark humor takes aim at serious and sensitive subjects in order to shock people and make them laugh. This kind of humor may be considered offensive by some people or cultures, depending on the context.
  • Irony is all about saying the opposite of what you think. When irony is used as form of disguised criticism, it’s called sarcasm.
  • Parody distorts a work of fiction, art or a real situation in order to ridicule it. It can often be found in movies and music, but also increasingly in the media. In the United States, The Onion is well known for its made-up articles and headlines making fun of the news. There are numerous international equivalents, including Le Gorafi in France, Il Lercio in Italy, Der Postillon in Germany and El Mundo Today in Spain. When the goal is to expose or criticize something, parody is instead called satire.
  • Puns, spoonerisms and other word games play on the similarities between words and sounds. It’s one of the most complicated kinds of humor to translate because it’s specific to each language’s own vocabulary. George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams were famous for their quick wit. Also worth mentioning is the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
  • Slapstick is based on visual gags, sometimes deliberately exaggerated.
  • Self-deprecation is the ability to laugh at yourself or your culture.
  • Absurdity is based on nonsensical comedy.

Did you know? There’s a word in Indonesian for a joke that’s so bad it’s actually funny. This word, “javus,” deserves to be adopted in every language… because no culture is immune to this kind of joke!

The Absurdity And Darkness Of British Humor

British humor uses nonsense and dark humor. It’s a complex and offbeat kind of humor that’s not always understood abroad. To cover their tracks, the British are adept at “deadpanning.” This attitude uses humor while remaining serious to sow doubt about your intentions.

For centuries, at least since Shakespeare, the British have also used slapstick, a highly visual form of humor that doesn’t need any translation. Charlie Chaplin, Benny Hill and Mister Bean, who have all been successful internationally, are the worthy modern heirs of this tradition. You can find similar representatives of slapstick in France with Pierre Richard and Louis de Funès, who were even famous in Siberia.

When we talk about British humor, we often quote Monty Python, the incarnation of absurd British comedy. In the 2000s, several British television series achieved some critical success for their sophisticated humor, including Little Britain, The IT Crowd and Black Books.

Did you know? The French word humor actually comes from English, but in turn the English word “humor” was borrowed from the French word humeur (“mood”). In the past, avoir de l’humeur (“to have a mood”) was a way of saying you were feeling happy. We can find this etymology in many languages today. “Humor” in German, “umore” in Italian, “юмор” in Russian and so on.

Comedy In Germany, Italy And Other Places

In Italy, slapstick is still very much present. It comes from the heritage of popular theater, especially commedia dell’arte. Today, Roberto Benigni and his exaggerated gags pay tribute to this art. For his one-man show TuttoDante, he’s directly inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Humor is a question of culture more than it is of language. We don’t necessarily laugh about the same things in the United States and the United Kingdom, even if we speak the same language. There’s a similar difference between Spain and Latin America (as well as within Latin America), or between France and Québec. In the 1990s, the American clown Jango Edwards was often seen on French television. His kind of humor, considered vulgar or even aggressive by some, is nothing like the more refined British humor. But traditions originating in the circus are readily apparent. The same goes for El Chavo del Ocho, a popular Mexican series in the 1970s about an orphan who lives in a barrel.

And where do the Germans fit in? Do they have a sense of humor? That might seem like a harsh question. But this is a persistent cliché associated with Germans: that they don’t have a sense of humor at all. That’s not true, of course. The Germans have their own way of making people laugh. What is true is that their language is perhaps less prone to ambiguity and “double entendre” because of its grammar. Where Germans excel is in the mastery of anti-humor (Antiwitze). This alternative kind of humor relies on a deliberately unfunny punchline to fool the audience and, indirectly, make them laugh. For one example: Zwei Männer gehen über eine Brücke. Der eine fällt ins Wasser, der andere heißt Helmut! In English: “Two men go across a bridge. One falls in the water, the other is called Helmut!” That’s it.

There are many other kinds of German humor. The cliché of “humorless Germans” is linked to clichés about the language being highly standardized and Germany being a rigid, disciplined society. Ironically, German culture has a significant number of creative subcultures that break the norms. From Berlin’s underground electronic music producers to Freikörperkultur, Germans can often be found places you least expect them. And that goes for humor as well. Germany as a country is quite attached to political and social satire. You can find a few examples in the movie The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). The shortages, corruption, and censorship suffered during the Third Reich and the communist period are often sources of inspiration. And that’s also the case in Russia.

History And Humor In Russia

The “anekdot” (анекдот) represents quintessential Russian humor. Borrowed from the French anecdote, the Russian anekdot is a politically incorrect joke that makes fun of power. It’s often an anecdote from everyday life, hence its name, but it conveys a deeper message at the same time.

In the days of imperial Russia, anecdotes were already a widespread oral tradition denouncing the power of the tsar and protesting against the general misery. These short stories generally address a context rather than a specific person. The proof: One authoritarian regime follow another, but the jokes remain. This typically Russian kind of humor reached its peak during the Soviet era. Brezhnev himself, aware of the funny stories about him, considered it an honor. It’s said that he though of it as a sign of the people’s affection towards him, a bit like teasing someone you have a crush on.

Since 2010, the anekdot has become fashionable again in Russia, with Putin as the target. It’s a lively form of humor, appreciated by the opposition, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. So what’s the difference between a good anekdot and a bad one? Answer: Five years hard labor. Humor is not just about laughing for the sake of laughing, but about being aware of certain issues by talking about them in a different way. And because every people has their own problems, humor is also a question of language, place and time.

Can Humor Be Universal?

With globalization and American comedies exported around the world, we’re witnessing a certain homogenization of humor. The new generation, regardless of language, watches content creators pranking each other. Twenty-year-olds from the United States and France probably have more in common with each other than with their own parents. Do young people still laugh at Absolutely Fabulous, the cult comedy from the ’90s? Nothing is less certain. And as humor becomes more uniform, humorous and cultural differences tend to disappear. So yes, humor can be universal, though not everything will translate.

A version of this article originally appeared in the French edition of Babbel Magazine.

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