That Wacky Foreigner Said WHAT? The Comedy of Culture Clash

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When cultures collide, hilarity often ensues. So too, often, do one-dimensional stereotypes. Speaking of often, it is with a similar frequency that I use this Comedy Tourism series to explore intercultural communication through humor — to try and understand laughter from the angle of others. But it’s also a popular choice in comedy to turn that which makes us different into the joke itself.

This culture clash trope is a pretty old entry in the joke book, but not necessarily antiquated. Most people know what it feels like to be the oddball, the fish out of water or at the very least left out. I know my fellow comedy nerds are nodding knowingly. But for all its relate-ability, the culture clash punch line is a delicate one to walk. Portraying colliding cultures comically offers a perfect opportunity for social commentary or biting satire. Then again, emphasizing the odd man out versus the “normal” group can play for cheap laughs — cheap laughs that might perpetuate racism, sexism and all those other “isms” that Ferris Bueller deemed “not good.”

We live in a world of consistently shifting global powers and perceptions. The connectivity of the Internet and social media has increased our exposure to a variety of new viewpoints and cultures. It doesn’t change the joke of cultures colliding, it just causes the terms of the humor to change and shift more rapidly. At one point in the not so distant past, Russians were the bad guys and there seemed to be carte blanche in lambasting those pinko commies. Nowadays, harping on the oddness of former Soviets might be less offensive than just plain anachronistic. There are much more egregious examples of racial and ethnic stereotypes that may have elicited uproarious laughter 50 years ago, but would today muster groans and disapproving glances of the politically correct variety.

So, it isn’t so much that relying on this comedic device is outdated, it’s just that the use of the culture clash trope puts a comedic work at an immediate risk of becoming quickly outdated. READ MORE


11 Comedy Tourist Destinations of 2011

It’s been almost a year since I first invited the readers of Splitsider to join me in asking “what is the deal with international comedy?” Thusly, we embarked, you the reader and I, on a cross-cultural odyssey into the literal world of humor. We found trends. We found traditions. We found ourselves, if you think about it (don’t). Because I wanted to do a 2011 retrospective but can hardly choose a favorite child, I opted to select a rather subjective cross-section of countries. Think of it as a world comedy mood board, rather than a countdown.

While the year might be drawing to a close, the tour is only beginning. If there’s a destination or culture about whose humor you are dying to know more, share in the comments section below. Please let me take your there in 2012. READ MORE


2011: The Year of Women in Sitcoms, at Least According to the Liberal Media

Man Up! Last Man Standing. Two and a Half Men. In my day, it was Three Men and they didn’t even need a woman to raise a baby. These days, television is chock full of emasculated male heroes, trying to muddle through somehow in a woman’s world. What’s that Beyonce? Who run the world? Girls? I’m pretty sure that’s what the Equal Rights Amendment was all about, castrating the other sex. Or being like them enough so we can become them and overtake them? I don’t know. I didn’t take women’s studies; I had boyfriends. High five, Dr. Pepper Ten and Light Beer Commercials! Boobs.

I am pretty tired of the whole Girls Aren’t Funny/Girls Are Funny Too conversation. Frankly, I find the excessive coverage of women “really doing it” in the comedy boy’s club kind of patronizing. I’m always excited to see ladies breaking through the laugh ceiling, and encouragement for more women to try is also important. But, this obsession with “look at this funny woman doing it just like the boys do,” is just putting lipstick on the same problem pig. On the flip side, I think we can put a moratorium on discussing Whitney’s awfulness. For women, for comedy, for NBC’s promo team. Enough. These things tend to kill themselves without more of our bullet holes. Unless they’re on CBS. Then they live forever.

Leading up to this fall television season, there was a maelstrom of hype about all the new female-centric shows and the new show runners that didn’t have a third arm dangling between their legs. Great! Yes! We go girls! As long as these shows didn’t just reinforce gender stereotypes and were, you know, actually funny. The latter is much harder to do with any new sitcom no matter what genital hangs behind its creation.

With shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls premiering on HBO and the return of 30 Rock in 2012, I have a feeling all this “look at you up there, doing your little sitcom thing” for women in comedy is going to stick around for a bit longer. I just sincerely hope by 2013 we don’t have to make the distinction anymore. Then we can focus on actual problems in primetime, like a total lack of diversity. READ MORE


Klovn Your Enthusiasm: The Many Layers of Discomfort in Danish Humor

There certainly is something rotten in the state of Denmark: the dark and twisted Danish sense of humor. So-called “Danish Humor” gained international attention at Cannes this year when provocateur/film director Lars von Trier declared that he was a Nazi to a room full of journalists. Whether or not this comment was taken out of context, Cannes organizers were not amused and declared him a persona no grata to the same festival that has honored him many times. Von Trier would later apologize for his comments, citing the untranslatable nature of Danish humor as the culprit for misinterpretation. He told Israeli publication Haaretz:

“It was a stupid joke. But that’s the kind of humor I use when I talk to my friends, who know me and know I’m not a Nazi.”

Even Salon film critic Andrew O’Heir, who heard the remarks first-hand at the press conference, described it as more of “an ill-advised attempt at provocative humor, not a sincere declaration of Nazi sympathies or anti-Semitic attitudes.” While such jokes may be acceptable in Lars’ home country, France has a zero tolerance policy for Nazi references — a lesson Dior designer John Galliano (rightfully) learned this past year as well.

So were Lars von Trier’s comments misunderstood or just tasteless? It’s possible they were both. I can’t say I was surprised the director of the Dogme 95 dramedy The Idiots, about a group of adults who go around behaving like mentally disabled people in public, would make a controversial statement — at the risk of sounding reductive, it’s kind of his “thing.” However, von Trier probably should have known better that while humor doesn’t always translate, bigotry usually does. So perhaps it was in poor taste he thought his sense of humor would seamlessly translate on an international stage. READ MORE


Those Clowns Down in Peru

Americans may be familiar with Peru as home to the breathtaking Machu Picchu, or perhaps as a bordering nation to Lake Titicaca. But, the Republic of Peru is also home to 29.4 million people (UN, 2010), rich natural resources like copper, silver, lead, zinc, oil and gold (BBC 2011) and a small but fruitful world of comedy in its capital city of Lima.

A friend connected me with an aspiring comedian in Lima named Charly Cervera. To start, he described to me the current comedic climate in Peru.

Comedy in Peru is a small world; it’s only really practiced in the capital as stage comedy…In the provinces, comedy shows aren’t very developed. There are very few people involved in comedy or dedicated to this art. The most popular comedians are those who are able to get TV shows, and then perform their monologues in theaters or small cafes around the city.

In July, the BBC reported that Peru was “said to have one of the world’s fasted growing economies.” However, the rural provinces in areas like the Amazon and the Andes Mountains are home to many indigenous groups — as well as Peru’s disproportionate poverty. This may explain why the comedy scene has yet to flourish in these areas. Or, these groups may already have their own culturally-specific brand of comedy. READ MORE


Bhutan, a Big Wooden Phallus, and the Secret to Happiness

Picture, if you will, a wooden phallus resting atop your head. Imagine using this phallus for a traditional house-blessing ceremony. Then return your mind back to its position on your crown and meditate on its function. If it has lightened your mood, then it has served its purpose. I forgot to mention you are currently at a Tsechu festival in Bhutan, and the person holding the phallus is wearing a large, blood-red mask that features a permanent grin and an exaggerated nose. Fear not, though, for you are in the company of an atsara, one of the most revered folk figures in Bhutanese culture. Also, a clown.

Seated to the south east of the Himalayas, Bhutan is completely land-locked between Tibetan China and India. It has a population around 700,000, life expectancy of less than 60 and its own national language of Dzongkha. Founded in the 1600’s as a Buddhist sanctuary, “The Land of the Thunder Dragon” was subsequently all but shut off from the outside world until the 1960s.

In 1999, the king allowed television in Bhutan for the first time ever. Physical televisions. It did not take long for cable conglomerates to capitalize on this virgin market — looking at you Rupert Murdoch — and Bhutan’s national broadcast network BBS never really tried to compete. In 2008, the government began the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional, permitting the country’s first elections. Although this recent influx of change has had some effect on Bhutanese society, centuries of isolation helped preserve Bhutan’s cultural traditions while the world rapidly shifted around it. READ MORE


Humor: Greek for Humor

Before all my Latin scholars get up in arms, yes, technically “humor” originated from the dead language as a word for “body fluid” or “fluid or juice from a wet plant.” But it’s the contextualization of the word humor that belongs to the Greeks. It was the Greeks who applied “humoral medicine” to treat the balance of these bodily fluids they believed controlled a person’s temperament. And it is from the Greek words komoidia, komoidios and komos that we eventually got the English word “comedy.” Granted, Latin had the word “comoedia,” but again, contextualization belongs to the Ancient Greeks. Before I start sounding like the patriarch of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I’ll put down the Windex and give a little contextualization of my own to this piece.

If you are not a world news buff, the current economic crisis in Greece may have all but passed your consciousness by. As much as I follow the news, I’m prone to skip over all things financial because I find it dry and depressing. And since the only B I ever got in college was in Economics 201, I’m especially unfit to properly explain the situation. To say it in the most basic, over-generalized and caveman way: the Greek economy is on a serious downward spiral, a bail-out didn’t work, the EU is currently freaking out and now Greece wants a new Prime Minister even though their current PM George A. Papandreou has been fairly resistant to step down. You’re welcome, now you know everything. Congratulations on acing any future exams you will take on the Greek economic crisis. Love, the worst economics teacher in the world.

But in all seriousness, a lot has been made about what Greek culture has given modern society versus what Modern Greek society has become.  Some would say that these same people who gave us modern democracy are now faltering under it. As a community of comedy enthusiasts, we ought to show some solidarity with Greece. In addition to democracy, mythology and the movie 300, Greece was a godfather of comedy as we know it today. READ MORE


Can I Finnish?

Geographically, Finland is sandwiched between two countries that could not be more different. Its neighbor to the left Sweden took first dibs on the country during the great Northern Crusades of the 12th century. Once its right side neighbor Russia caught the conquering bug in the 18th century, it was only a matter of time before Finland became a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. Despite winning its independence in the famed 1920 Treaty of Tartu, Finland would remain nothing more than a poor second to Belgium. That is of course if you take your history lessons from Monty Python — and why wouldn’t you? I whole-heartedly believe Cardinal Richelieu does a killer Petula Clark impersonation and refuse to be told otherwise.

But back to the land of Finns. As far as I was concerned, the best comedy to come out of Finland was its name. Did you see what I titled this article? And you still chose to keep reading? You are too kind. But I challenge anyone to find a country with a riper name for the punning. I’ll be waiting here until your search is Finnish-ed. I rest my case. Finland seems like a perfect candidate for go-to European punch line. Despite a respectable landmass, it has a population of only a little over 5 million and its northern border is the freaking Arctic Circle. There are parts of Finland where the sun never quite sets in the summer. Few people outside of the country speak the language, and it’s not the prime tourist destination of the European Union. Yet naysayers be silenced, Finland has a very distinct sense of humor and a whole lot of comedy to back it up. READ MORE


The Evolution of the Sitcom Family

The sitcom is a format difficult to define in detail but instantly recognizable when we see it. The field is broad, as is often the comedy. It has undergone significant changes over the years only to end up, to some extent, back in the same place. Sometimes it holds a mirror up to society to reflect the changes going on in the world, and sometimes it’s a show about nothing. But one major constant throughout the years is the sitcom family. While Seinfeld’s influence may have threatened the future of the nuclear sitcom family in the 90’s, the ties that bind managed to survive.

Sitcoms began in the family and remain family-oriented. You could argue that at its core, situational comedy is all in the family. Then you would immediately apologize for insulting your readers with such a terrible pun. I’m sorry.

But as evolution has taught us, in order to survive one must adapt. Sitcom families are no exception. Unless you think God created sitcoms. Which is impossible. As long as Big Bang Theory lives, there is no God.

Let’s take a look at some of the sitcom families that changed the game throughout the years. READ MORE


Egypt's Ancient Comedy History

Have you heard the one about the bored Pharoah? It’s literally one of the oldest jokes in the book, or the papyrus scroll in this case. It goes:

"How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?”

“You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."

Well, that doesn’t exactly translate. Smithsonian Magazine consulted a London Egyptologist for a possible explanation. She said ancient “Egyptians were amused by nudity, drunkenness, slapstick and political satire. The magician's sly suggestion appears within a political treatise; the fishing trip precipitates a convoluted narrative meant to underscore the cosmic inevitability of the new dynasty's rule.” The same article also claims that the papyrus roll was inscribed at 2600 BC making it the oldest recorded joke. However, a BBC article reported that this joke occurred in 1600 BC and that an Iraqi joke about flatulence is in fact the oldest. Who are we to argue?

Regardless of who got there first, Egyptians are some of the lucky few who can trace their sense of humor back to ancient times. During the Tahrir Square protests earlier this year a great deal of attention was placed on this famous sense of humor. An article in the Atlantic was one of many documenting how the humor of the protestors went viral. Many protestors tweeted and posted in English allowing the rest of the world to get in on the joke to some extent. The Onion-esque online humor magazine El Koshary Today is available in English, and continues to serve as an exemplar of Egyptian satire. READ MORE


Better Living Through Hilarity: Looking at the Healing Power of Laughter Yoga

When approaching the idea that “laughter is the best medicine,” I proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism. But when the idea is expanded to “anyone can laugh for no reason without relying on humor, jokes or comedy,” I’m confident we’re headed straight for quack territory. Yet this is exactly the doctrine that Laughter Clubs preach. And with 6000 strong in over 60 countries, I can hardly write off these so-called Laughter Clubs as the latest in New Age garbage.

In fact, since 1995 people have congregated in increasing numbers to engage in a series of exercises that essentially manufacture laughter. I can’t help but think of the scene from The Tin Drum in which the blasé young people of post-war Germany gather at clubs to peel onions in order to weep in each other’s company. Fake emotions to create a mutual experience. But Indian physician Madan Kataria does not necessarily see that as a bad thing. While doing research for a journal on the medicinal benefits of laughter, Kataria hypothesized that the body cannot physically differentiate between fake and real laughter. By his logic, one does not need to see Louis CK do stand-up or watch Arrested Development to attain the healing power laughter can provide. READ MORE


Stand-Up, Croatia

If the cerulean waters of the Adriatic Sea aren’t enough to compel you to visit Croatia, then perhaps a burgeoning comedy scene will tip your scales in its favor. If you head inland from the beaches of the aforementioned sea, you will reach Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia and home to the country’s first ever comedy club. Though modern Croatia is barely two decades old — its nationhood was officially recognized by the European Union and United Nations in 1992 — Croatian culture dates back nearly fourteen centuries. It’s unclear in which century humor entered the picture, but for the past six years live comedy has enjoyed a growing popularity amongst Croatians. READ MORE


Looking at Hong Kong Humor

The Chinese have no sense of humor. At least that’s what the title of a recent study published in the October 2011 issue of HUMOR would have you believe. “The Chinese Ambivalence to Humor: Views from undergraduates in Hong Kong and China” postulates that Chinese (1) “tend to value humor but consider themselves to lack humor,” (2) do not associate being humorous “with being orthodox Chinese” and (3) “humor is important but not for everyone.” In actuality, it is not so much that the Chinese are a humorless people, but rather they do not necessarily aspire to be funny.

According to Xiao Dong Yue’s study, their Taoist roots influence them to appreciate comedy as a harmonious encounter with nature. But directly in conflict with this appreciation is the stronger influence Confucianism still holds on Chinese society – specifically, the Confucian belief that humor is “a sign of intellectual shallowness and social informality.” In other words, comedy is low class. READ MORE


Eleven Non-English Humor Publications (In No Particular Order)

Different approaches to satire do not translate well across national borders, nor often does the subject matter. But if ever there were a case to be made for the universality of satire itself, allow this compilation of satirical magazines to lay a humble foundation. Discover we’re not so different after all! You know, aside from linguistically, historically, culturally, economically, etc.

Whatever your intentions, please enjoy perusing these humor periodicals from around the world. READ MORE