Learning to Laugh in another Language

Humour is funny.  While this seems like a given, I am actually referring to the nature of humor itself.  What is and isn’t funny often seems inherent.  It is not until we expose ourselves to another culture that the idea of humour is challenged.

For most of the English speaking world this first comes when we are exposed to the gap between English humour and American humor.  Two countries separated by one language but also by their humor.  Comedy films make for great examples: English tend to mix the mundane with the absurd, whilst American comedy seems to crux upon petulant man-boys finally coming to terms with adulthood.

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Don’t even try to argue with me on this.

  While the humour in these countries is undeniably different, it is quite similar, and mutually intelligible.  When the language changes however humor begins to change as well.  In fact the more distant your second language is from your first language, the greater the difference in humour.  As a student of a foreign language its very easy to tell yourself that jokes are different, but it’s not until you actually immerse yourself in that culture that you finally begin to understand how radically different humour is across cultures.   Take this for instance:

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This is one of my old cartoons called Breakfast of Champions.  In China, it’s not funny for two reasons, one: no one here knows what pancakes are, and 2: humour based on randomness and absurdity just doesn’t go over well in Chinese culture.

Now look at this:

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This series of pictures recently went viral over Chinese social media.  They find it hilarious. Most Westerners however do not.  When I and many of my friends saw it, our first response was a hard eye roll and a beleaguered sigh that briefly permitted the soft sound of  “idiot” to escape our lips.  To us, it’s apparent that it is in anyone’s best interest to keep the business end of an alligator snapping turtle pointed safely away from one’s body. Furthermore, most of us have been taught not to handle any animal with such disrespect.  Still the fat lip resulting from this incident is hilarious to most of China.

As a creative cartoon design studio run by westerners but based in China, we at ALBA have had to find a way to reconcile the humours of our radically different cultures.

At first we didn’t understand a thing.  We even went as far as to treat our friends and contacts as “humour consultants”.  This yielded mediocre results at best.  We still felt completely lost in the quagmire of puns and number references that seemed to compose the bulk of Chinese language-based humour.  Then it got even more complex.  We came to understand that Chinese humour has distinct geographic divisions.  Travel 15 minutes out of town and no one will understand your jokes.  The same might be said of England, but this stems from the fact that accents radically change over the same time traveled.

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“Ligature, yeff gutter fierce lake appearer tets.”

  Our agony compounded further when we found that there is also a wide humour gap between generations.  To our dismay, we concluded that there is no single variety of humour that would be widely accepted in China.

Between this realization and our aspirin budget wearing thin from trying to understand all this, we ‘gave up’ on trying to learn and develop a Chinese sense of humour.  We were trying to be what we weren’t , and it was really hurting us.  We were also frustrated as we had to depend on other people to “grind” and polish our jokes.  Also, they stopped being funny to us, which as an artist can really take the wind out of your sails, begin to hurt production quality and stymie motivation.

We have begun to strike a balance though.  We have begun a comic book of our mascot Mort, which starts in the US and will eventually see the character move to China.  As he adjusts to China, so will his sense of humour.  This be using this as an opportunity to collaborate with a community of fans that we hope to foster into an entire creative community.  We have also had some success in combining our two humours by taking things that are funny to them and adding a western twist.  Remember that idiot with the turtle?  Now look at this:

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Learning how to humourously address a different culture can be taxing, but it can be done.  We’re steadily working toward more successes.

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