Culture and the Humor Gap


I remember attending a party in Chicago in the late 1980s. I had just returned to my hometown after living in Japan for ten years. Two guys were telling jokes and doing impersonations, and everyone was roaring with laughter. Except me.

In this instance the guys were impersonating well-known characters on Saturday Night Live, a cultural phenomenon that I had missed living in Japan for the previous decade. (Nope, no cable TV in Japan in the old days.)

Think about it. If I’d never heard or seen the character being imitated, then how could I appreciate the quality of the impersonation? This is precisely the same reason my Japanese wife would never laugh when she heard Rich Little impersonate John Wayne. She knows who John Wayne is but never heard his voice, since Western movies in Japan were always overdubbed in Japanese. (Indeed it’s kind of freaky hearing John Wayne babble away in Japanese.)

Likewise, I didn’t get the humor at the aforementioned party because I lacked the shared experience that gave context to the Saturday Night Live impersonations. I had completely lost touch with mainstream American culture.

The moral of the story is that even though linguistic barriers make it tough to bridge the humor gaps, the gaps are much deeper than words. Humor requires shared experience and values to crossover.

Years ago I read about an American businessman who went to Japan to give a speech. He met with his interpreter in advance to preview the content. About halfway through the speech the American planned to tell a joke. The Japanese interpreter understood the joke but knew the Japanese audience wouldn’t. So he advised the businessman to remove it but his advice fell on deaf ears. Frustrated, the interpreter took matters into his own hands: when the American told his joke during the speech, the interpreter turned to the audience and said (in Japanese of course), “the American told a joke, he thinks it’s funny; please laugh!”

As instructed, everyone laughed. The American speaker then turned to the interpreter and said, “See I told you they’d get it!”

The Pitfalls of Sarcasm

The movie Gung Ho has a funny scene that shows American-style sarcasm missing the mark. Consider this dialogue between Hunt Stevenson (played by Michael Keaton) and his Japanese boss right after Hunt has been offered a job in the plant:

Kazuhiro: “Can we count on you?”

Hunt: “Fellas…is a frog’s ass watertight”?

Kazuhiro: (After discussing with fellow Japanese colleagues) “Yes, we believe it is!”

Nope, Japanese don’t get American sarcasm at all. In the best-case scenario it sails harmlessly over their heads. In the worst case it offends.

Here’s some frustration-driven sarcasm that I unleashed on an unsuspecting Japanese acquaintance years ago. First some background for context.

Even after a decade of living in Japan, well-intentioned Japanese folks were still complimenting me on my “skillful” use of chopsticks. Truth is I was skillful, that’s what happens when you use them everyday for ten years. But they also praised me ten years earlier when I really did suck at it, so go figure.

So after a thousand or so compliments on my amazing chopstick skills, it started getting on my nerves. Was the lavish praise born of embarrassingly low expectations? Were foreigners akin to clever monkeys learning a cute new trick?

One fateful day while eating a Japanese bento with chopsticks, my Japanese table mate hit me with the chopstick rap: “Tim-san, you are very skillful with your chopsticks!”

In an ironic twist of fate, he was cutting into a piece of beef with a knife and fork. So I said, “Well you’re pretty good with a fork!”

To which he replied in earnest, “Arigato!” (Thank you.)

Religion and Other Sacred Cows

Religion is a risky topic for humor even within a culture. For better or worse most Japanese see religion as fair-game for humor, including Buddhism (see Okechimyaku for more on this). The important exception is the Emperor, completely off limits.

Years ago I remember a shocking commercial that aired on Japanese TV. The product being advertised was innocuous enough: Bee-Line pens. But the commercial content was so offensive to Christian viewers that it prompted a slew of angry letters to the editor of the English language newspaper, The Japan Times. It was a very strange commercial, all about shock: a man made up to look like Christ is suddenly doused with a red liquid that looks like blood. That’s it. Total senselessness after which they pitch their pens and the commercial is done.

I discussed this commercial with many Japanese friends and colleagues at the time. Not defending the content itself, but everyone I spoke with was totally oblivious to how offensive this was to Christians. At first I rationalized: how could they empathize unless they themselves are offended by the desecration of Buddhist or Shinto symbols? Then Shinto rang a bell, and I started asking how they’d feel if the Emperor were in the commercial rather than Jesus. They all got it.

Humor that Works in Both Cultures?

In my quest to identify American jokes that work in Japanese culture, my wife is my guinea pig. Below are examples of American humor that made her laugh:

She thinks the snarky mother-in-law character in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is a scream. This makes total sense, as in Japan, mother-in-laws are notorious for abusing daughter-in-laws.

My wife also appreciated the Seinfeld episode on “re-gifting” because, well, Japanese are habitual re-gifters. Back in my college days I taught English to Japanese doctors, all of whom gave me copious amounts of premium Scotch and other spirits that their patients had given them, all of which I re-re-gifted to friends who actually drank the stuff. What’s especially funny about Japan is that it’s technically taboo to re-gift even though everyone does it. The unspoken rule is that it’s okay as long as the original gift-giver doesn’t find out.

Here’s another joke that made my wife laugh:

An experiment that proves dog is truly man’s best friend: Lock your dog and wife in the trunk of your car. After an hour open the trunk. Which one is glad to see you?

If there’s a pattern in crossover humor it’s the universal human condition. Most folks, regardless of culture, can relate to annoying in-laws, social taboos, and angry spouses. Lots more common themes where that came from.

And what better defines our humanity than how we deal with our common mortality? Coming up in the next post: why do we laugh at death?

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2010


6 responses to “Culture and the Humor Gap

  1. Here’s an interesting article on Japanese humor in the Japan Times.

  2. A friend in Japan emailed this response (with permission to post):


    Had to laugh when I read your post about unwanted chopstick compliments. I’ve used the same line numerous times and nobody’s gotten it. Same as when I give a cheery “shitsure shite kudasai.” to students or Ray’s friends when they hit me with a “Shitsurei shimasu.” Most Americans and Europeans use jokes as aisatsu, but here in Japan I’m better off sticking to the weather and I’m not talking about comments like, “Nice day for a hanging,” or “Cold enough to hang meat.”

    Years ago, when I took a course on comedy, the simplest definition offered was that humor involves breaking a frame, or convention. If you don’t share the same frame, you ain’t gonna get a laugh.


  3. Craig-san,

    Thanks for taking time to write and confirming that we both have a warped sense of humor, LOL. Shitsurei shite kudasai, I love it! Back in the day when visiting guests would come to our Japanese home and say, “Ojama shimasu!”, I would encourage them with, “Dozo, ojama shite kudasai!” (But it always made Kurumi frown so I stopped.) And when Kurumi would tell chibi Ry, “iikagen ni shinasai!”, I know he was thinking, “Hai, iikagen ni shimasu!” What a weird expression: you’re literally telling someone to be “iikagen”.


  4. I have a lot of “gaijin” friends in Japan. Many of which don’t speak any Japanese.

    Japanese TV in general is strange and beyond comprehension for many foreigners, but there is one show that effectively humors even the most oblivious gaijin.

    The show is Gaki-no-tsukai-jya-arahende. It is a show run every year at New Years by the Japanese Comedy super duo DownTown.

    The show consists of 5 guys who are forced to go through a series of activities with a particular theme. My favorite involved the 5 men having to experience journalist training at a newspaper company.

    Here, they were asked to complete several tasks for the next 24 hours, but during the training, they weren’t allowed to laugh or they’d receive some sort of “punishment.”

    The form of punishment is different every year , but here are a few of my favorites: Flogging by big rubber nightstick, kicked in the butt by a trained thai kickboxer, blow dart in the butt.

    No doubt the reactions are pretty funny.

    So here are some things that are universally funny: Suppressed laughter, Pain, Reaction to Pain.

    Sometimes its funny when something hurts…sometimes its funnier watching somebody receive pain.

    But its even funnier when you can watch both being taken part on one stage by people other than yourself!

    There are clips on youtube of the show and you will be amazed at how funny slapstick can be when it involves a bunch of guys who are not allowed to laugh.

  5. Sounds like “Candid Camera meets Jack Ass”, lol.

    Here’s a sample clip of the show Ry’s talking about. (With English sub-titles.)

  6. This reminds me when one time we were watching an old episode of Laugh In. My daughter could not understand what was so funny. Old Bob Hope routines are the same way. Without a frame of reference to the politics of the time, there is no response.

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