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The Myth of Universal Humor

What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

“Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator says ‘Calm down. I can help. First let’s make sure he’s dead.’ There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says ‘OK, now what?’”

Nearly 10 years ago, this was the zinger voted “The World’s Funniest Joke.” Apparently, the one thing today’s world finds universally funny is murder. Having spent a great deal of time pursuing what makes comedy unique to a culture, I must admit the example of what unites cultures in the humor department is a bit of a letdown. Sounds more like a dad joke than the great equalizer. Luckily, there exist individuals and organizations devoted to exploring the cross-cultural complications of humor beyond just a winning punchline.

I don’t mean to disparage the work of the LaughLab, the group responsible for finding the world champion yuk-yuk. In many ways this brainchild of Psychologist Richard Wiseman and the British Association for the Advancement of Science was far ahead of its time in 2001, using the internet to collect international research before Facebook was even a thing. As explained on the LaughLab website, anyone around the world was allowed to submit a joke. People could opt to take a survey on humor and then rate a random selection of jokes using a “giggleometer.” Clearly, scientists were involved, but so was a great deal of whimsy.

According to their stats, the project pulled in over 40,000 jokes and 1.5 million ratings. Those are some impressive numbers even by today’s standards. The problem with distilling this database down to one joke to rule them all (LOTR4Lyfe) is that their methods don’t seem to give equal representation to this world for which it is deciding.

Now, obviously the LaughLab’s survey was more of a fun exercise than a full-blown academic endeavor — but it seems unfair that the site skews pretty much 100% to the English-speaking demographic. Meaning there may just be a Nepalese joke waiting patiently in the Himalayas to dethrone the current champ. But the site is all-English with no sign of friendly translations. I’m not trying to unearth any scandals here, but the winner and runner-up jokes came from Britain. I’m not asking for a recount, just a grain of salt.

That said, some interesting data can be gleaned from this study on international humor, if only to corroborate my point that the survey caters to the developed West and all but ignores the Global South. For example, each participant was asked to include their country of origin. The LaughLab then collected this information and ranked the nations based on who found jokes to be the funniest. Here’s the results:

1. Germany
2. France
3. Denmark
4. UK
5. Australia
6. The Republic of Ireland
7. Belgium
8. USA
9. New Zealand
10. Canada

So basically English-speakers and their buddies. Although, it is interesting that a country as seemingly dry as Germany laughed the most. And, perhaps it can be said cultures from a similar socioeconomic status are more likely to have senses of humor in common. But how would the Chinese vote change the standing of the over 40,000 contenders in the contest? This I’d like to know.

Since France loves to laugh so much, at least based on the results of LaughLab, it stands to reason they would have an organization like the Association for Development of Research into Comedy, Laughter and Humor (CORHUM). Of course being French as they are, the website is only available in their native tongue and if you don’t have a command of it, the website is virtually useless. With the help of Google Translate, though, you can at least get an idea of what CORHUM is all about.

Founded in 1987, CORHUM “aims to promote studies, research, work on the comic, laughter and humor in all their aspects: literary, linguistic, historical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, graphic.” Okay, maybe some stuff got lost in translation there. A cool thing the organization does do is publish a biannual journal called Humoresques and despite the French language thing it focuses on much more macro topics. For example, in 2005 “The Comedy of Love,” or “Humor and Identity” in 1990, and more recently in 2009 “Translate, translate, adapt the comic and humor.” How about you translate your website, France? Crap, I just became the Americans you hate.

Speaking of Humor Journals, have you heard about Humor: The International Journal of Humor Research? If it didn’t sound so dry, I might be worried about it eclipsing my Comedy Tourism gig. That said, it does boast an international scope in both its content and contributors. Published by De Gruyer Mouton, Humor was “established as an international interdisciplinary forum for the publication of high-quality research papers on humor as an important and universal human faculty.” Okay, I’m listening…

Actually, Humor is the official journal of the International Society for Humor Studies. Searching for a one-stop academia shop in international humor? Look no further than ISHS. It’s a scholarly and professional group all about analyzing, researching and discussing the topic of humor. And, for the bargain bin price of $105, you can be a member! Their site is a little difficult to navigate, but is a great resource on humor seminars, relevant links and news in world humor. And if you’re as into this stuff as I am — the annual ISHS conference is going to be in Boston this July. Who’s coming with me?

A quick glance at the editorial staff for ISHS certainly boasts much more diversity than, say, the LaughLab, but it still skews very Western and predominantly American. Then again, perhaps the obsession with studying humor is a cultural tendency specific only to Western countries.

I found a fascinating article in the archives of ISHS’s Humor that suggests perhaps what unites us in humor is not what we all find “funny,” but rather what we all find “not funny.” No matter where you’re from, no one likes being laughed at.

Gelotophobia is the fear of being laughed at, and apparently we’re all a little gelotophobic to varying degrees. Seems like a fairly obvious fact, but the degrees can be quite telling about what makes individual cultures feel uncomfortable. And if The Office is any indication, it is playing with these levels of discomfort that make for some of the best comedy.

In the study “Breaking ground in cross-cultural research on the fear of being laughed at (gelotophobia): A multinational study involving 73 countries” published in Humor, researchers from Zurich sourced peers from 73 nations to find out if gelotophobia could be measured and what that might suggest about each country’s sense of humor. And the 15-question survey was translated into 42 different languages, keeping in mind the regional differences even within countries. Finally, the fair international shake I’ve been looking for!

Spoiler alert: it is measurable. I’ll spare you the algorithmic details of the study and get straight to the good stuff (at least in my subjective opinion). The first question on the survey stated “When they laugh in my presence I get suspicious.” Finland gave the lowest endorsement and Thailand gave the highest. What does this mean? Well more research specific to these countries is probably necessary to draw any concrete conclusions. But, I’m not a scientist so I’ll take a few liberties. What it could mean is if you laugh in the presence of a Thai person, they may immediately be on guard, where a Finnish person might not even notice. Does this mean Thai people are uptight and Fins are laid back? Probably not, but it highlights the possibility for subtext in humor within each culture.

Another question states “It takes me very long to recover from having been laughed at.” Surprisingly, the lowest endorsement here came from America (U-S-A, U-S-A). Maybe because we’re just arrogant enough to assume they weren’t actually laughing at us. The highest endorsement came from Japan. As a more formal culture steeped in manners, it makes stands to reason that being laughed at may deeply horrify a Japanese person.

One more example: “I control myself strongly in order not to attract negative attention so I do not make a ridiculous impression.” Lowest endorsement? USA again for the win! Well, win is subjective here because some may argue we lack humility and reserve. Two qualities not very valuable in American culture, but of the utmost importance elsewhere around the world. For example, in Indonesia, which ranked the highest endorsement in this category.

I highly recommend reading the entire study, published February 2009 in Humor. It doesn’t directly reveal information about international comedy — but amply provides the thing I love so much: context.

Deconstructing comedy is tempting to do, but sometimes the parts you are left with are much less sexy than the sum. Academic organizations dedicated to exploring how comedy works as an intercultural communication tool certainly have a place in the world, but I believe serve a better purpose as a complementary resource than absolute expert.

My takeaway: no matter how much context humor gets, it might not translate. But everyone laughs, even if what they laugh about differs. If that’s as universal as it gets, I’ll take it.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

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