Comedy and Humor

by Vassia Mastrogianni

Even though comedy has a specific style in the television industry, sense of humor differentiates according to cultural background. Through an investigation of students who are originally from countries outside the United States, it became evident that sense of humor, comedy, and laughter are elements connected with a culture’s ideology and background such as political views, historical background, wars, and domestic and international policies.

In several articles and scholarly papers that examine the cultural connection between countries around the world, the idea of humor is always mentioned and analyzed. This phenomenon, however, is also seen in the medium of television. For instance, the American network Adult Swim contains material that is widely considered to be funny. Still, this is not always the case. In an interview that included ten students from European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, several television series, such as American Dad, Family Guy, Mr. Bean, and Friends were discussed. From a general perspective, ethics, personal background, political views, country of origin, personal preference, and domestic television programming were the factors that differentiated the responses. With these, but also several other factors of each interviewee’s personality, I gathered some information about how differently viewers interpret the medium of television. Nevertheless, it is important to first mention and analyze a significant theory or ideology that can deeply clarify how or why the sense of humor of an individual changes throughout the world.

In more detail, throughout the last decades globalization seems to have affected several aspects of the world in several ways, such as politics, trade, history, music and film. Yet, the television industry and the internet might be characterized as the two factors that deeply and consistently influence the world. The phenomenon of globalization nowadays brings several parts of the world closer faster compared to the past. As a result, the effects of it can be seen respectively more often. For example, countries with an extreme geographic distance can connect to each other instantly through the effectiveness of globalization. An interviewee from Kazakhstan supported this effect of globalization by describing their early lives before the medium of Internet and by only watching domestic television programming. According to the Kazakhstani interviewee, “we used to have a poor programming, without many choices. Before the Internet I did not know shows like Saturday Night Live or Friends. Only after the creation of more private networks I had the chance to watch American television programming. It wasn’t always funny, but I loved Mr. Bean”.

According to a 2011 analysis by Robert O. Keel, the globalization theory “is defined as the spread of worldwide practices, relations, consciousness, and organization of social life.  Globalization theory emerged as the result of real world concerns with the dramatic transformations of globalization as well as a reaction against the earlier perspective of modernization theory.  Globalization can be analyzed culturally, economically, and politically.” In other words, several parts of the world throughout the years started sharing or exchanging ideas, customs and experiences. The meaning of globalization throughout the years is that worldwide openness brings the fundamental wealth of all nations. As a result, globalization does not necessarily refer only to political or economical sharing, but also to cultural. Therefore, globalization undoubtedly refers similarly to the media and the medium of television in particular.

In her article, Julia Seirlis refers that “comedy as a cultural indicator extends beyond the specifics of geographical, historical, linguistic, or prosopographic references” (2). The writer, through analysis, explains how comedy is viewed and understood in Johannesburg, South Africa before and after the establishment of democracy. Throughout the article the reader comes to understand an earlier statement that was pointed out in this paper – the sense of humor differs. People of several standards create humor and make jokes that refer to their own life, personal struggle or happiness and they express their feelings through that way towards others. However, it is clear that since an individual has a unique personality and point of view, not every part of a society is able to follow what is said.

Furthermore, when it comes to American comedy shows and television programming, non-American viewers do not necessarily find comedians and their jokes funny. Popular comedians, such as Louis C.K., Conan O’ Brien and Daniel Tosh were discussed in the meeting and each interviewee gave a different approach. For the Qatari interviewee, the three comedians were unknown. She had never seen any episode or video featuring them online and she could not participate in the discussion. That incident alone verifies when the theory of globalization exists and when it does not; the Qatari and Kazakhstani interviewees had never watched the three comedians before and more specifically the Kazakhstani interviewee started watching after moving to the United States for studies. The interviewees from Greece and Spain were only familiar with Conan O’ Brien before moving to the United States. However they specified that they “became familiar with C.K. and Tosh after a couple of months.” Surprisingly enough, due to geographic distance, the Chinese and Egyptian interviewees were familiar with Conan O’ Brien as well. According to them “internet and global networks” were the reasons why. When the interviewees were asked if those three comedians are funny enough for their personal taste, most of them replied in a positive way. Conversely, a Greek and the Egyptian interviewee found Louis C.K. and Daniel Tosh jokes overreacting and exaggerating. In more detail, the Greek female interviewee responded, “ some videos are more racist than funny, I believe that they cross the limits sometimes.”

The interviewees were then asked to point out some American and non-American comedy shows of their personal preference, some of which were: Friends, Monk, Mr. Bean, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Family Guy, American Dad, South Park, Seinfeld, The Office, and The Simpsons. Most shows listed by the interviewees were originally American except the British The Office. None, however, knew that The Office was originally a British sitcom. Shows such as Family Guy and The Simpsons are accurate shows/examples that illustrate the difference or appreciation of joking. More specifically, these two shows among others were discussed in the meeting. The discussion within the interviewees led to the indication and verification of the effectiveness of the globalization theory as well as the difference and uniqueness of each culture. The Asian interviewees responded that the two shows are offensive towards their own culture, since “the shows often portray Asian women as reckless and unwise.” However, a completely opposite respond came from the Greek and Spanish interviewees that characterized the shows as “hilarious”, “smart” or “extremely funny.”

In his online article, Ronald Hilton refers to globalization and sense of humor by saying:

“Some people might like to call social globalization Americanization. The English and Americans have a shared sense of humor as shown in the shared popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan. The Spaniards have a good sense of humor, but not the Russians. The Jews do, but the Muslims seem not to. A whole field has opened up: the sociology of laughter. Laughter is spreading, which is a good thing.”

Furthermore, Joel Stein states in his article How Everybody Loves Raymond Plays in Moscow that “almost none of the shows pulled in enough viewers to have a financial impact, American sitcoms don’t play very well outside the United States.” According to Stein’s article it is so “largely because different cultures have very different senses of humor.” The sense of humor therefore varies throughout the cultures. It is the family or personal background, life experience, maturity and mentality that develop the sense of humor of an individual.

In order to receive more personal views and information from my interviewees about their perception upon sense of humor, joking, American comedy and the American television industry as a whole, I decided to interview one at the time. The Kazakhstani interviewee instantly referred to Mr. Bean when asked about his favorite comedy series. Moreover, the interviewee referred to his personal television preferences and explained why he particularly liked it by saying “ it is one of the most unusual sitcoms I have ever watched, in my country nothing was like this show”. Besides, the interviewee clarified that it was “the minimum dialogue and Mr. Bean’s uniqueness” that surprised him and his family the most. Likewise, the British interviewee stated that this particular show was a hit for years in England and in several parts of Europe as well and she truly enjoyed watching it. The British interviewee also clarified that the widely known, in its American version, The Office was mostly a disaster in her own country by saying “ it was a series that nobody talked about, it was not bad but it did not have anything special; I enjoy the American version better.”

American sense of humor and American television are viewed and appreciated differently in other parts of the world. Globalization theory, as already mentioned, consists of several aspects that among others include politics. The American jokes or the American approach differs in countries such as Middle East. In order to secure and create a certain profile in Middle East after September 11th, the US government created a network called al-Hurra, or according to journalist Craig Whitlock “The Free One”. Moreover, according to Whitlock’s article, the al-Hurra network “is the centerpiece of a U.S. government campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East” however the local people describe this American effort as a misunderstood and untrusted move since the network “is widely regarded as a flop in the Arab world, where it has struggled to attract viewers and overcome skepticism about its mission” (Witlock). The al-Hurra network is a precise example to understand how differently people appreciate the American television, the medium of television in a general perspective, but it also confirms the combination of the television medium and the globalization theory. In his article, Whitlock demonstrates several reasons for the network’s failure by stating “ the U.S. government miscalculated in assuming that al-Hurra could repeat the success of Radio Free Europe during the Cold War, when information-starved listeners behind the Iron Curtain tuned in on their shortwave radios” and by implying that successful methods for television programming do not exist and every region and country is exceptional.

The Qatari interviewee mentioned the al-Hurra network by saying “only a few people watch it in Doha, I do not know any but some do. However, it is nothing like American television they even make mistakes on air.” She talked about the American Television Industry with excitement and appreciation. Her first reaction when asked about her favorite American television sitcom or series was “30 Rock, The Office, X Factor and American Idol, America’s next Top Model and How I Met Your Mother.” It is noteworthy to mention that the Qatari interviewee did not have access to these shows while living in her country of origin. She started watching American television just after she began her college studies in United Kingdom.

Nationality and humor are often combined in American comedy shows or television series that mostly emphasize cultural differences, distinctions or worldwide known events. Other audiences, rather than the American audience, often watch American television series. According to the Spanish interviewee “nationality or current events are often mentioned or included in stand-up comedies or other popular American shows and series and they have an effect, one classic weekly show that I always watch is Saturday Night Live. I even remember that the Greek crisis was also portrayed in an episode of Saturday Night Live in which actors were making jokes while dressed as Greek gods.” Subsequently, a form of a show created by either producers or comedians, in whom nationality and ethics are used in various ways, generates tension or misunderstanding between audiences that represent each culture.

The tendency of exporting American television series to European countries, Middle East or Asia is significantly large for several decades. One of the two Greek interviewees, from Thessaloniki, Greece referred to old Latin- American drama series like Esmeralda and Maria from the 90s or American comedy ones, like Friends and Seinfeld. This tendency of exporting is also referred in the article by Giselinde Kuipers that mainly focuses and analyses the role and position of television buyers and the import of American television series in four European countries: France, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland. Throughout her introduction, Kuipers discusses the meaning and effect of humor in cultures. “ Humor, indeed, is very strongly linked to culture and group boundaries. For migrants developing a feeling for the local sense of humor often is one of the last steps in fitting in and feeling at home” (Kuipers, 2). Furthermore, Kuipers adds that according to television executives “the most striking example of the translatability of humor is American television comedy” (2).

Kuipers analyzes each country’s imports from American television material. It is noteworthy to mention that the Netherlands is most open to American import, whereas France is the extremely opposite. The latter, uses a “very active protectionist policy” and also “a marked and often government-approved anti-Americanism” policy (Kuipers, 4). Even though Italy is more reliant on American imports the imported programs are not only dubbed but also modified; in other words “strong language, nudity, homosexuality and non-positive references to Christianity are often edited out” (Kuipers, 5). Finally, Poland did not use to air much American programming until the end of the communism administration in 1989. However, nowadays Polish networks “favor remakes”. Throughout the last decade, by mainly “using the voice- over as the translation system, several remakes are made about the classic and popular American comedy series Married…with Children, Man about the house, The Honeymooners, and The Nanny” (Kuipers, 5).

Even if the American television industry is undoubtedly powerful, the British industry happens to be truly important as well. In his article, Jonathan Bignell deeply analyses the power of British television programming. In more detail, it is widely known that series as The Office, Strictly Come Dancing (generally known as Dancing With The Stars), and Pop Idol are some of the most popular programs that were officially made and aired first in the United Kingdom. According to Bignell, “the critical discourses of television study have negotiated a complex understanding of American programs. But for British and other European theorists, what is evident here is not the teleological progress of US media hegemony, but the unevenness of the impact of different genres of US television and their contestation in specific contexts” (Bignell, 186).

In his online article, Steward Lee, comedian, described his trip to Germany as an English visitor. He explained his experience and misinterpret of the German sense of humor by helping composer Richard Thomas to develop a stand up comedy show in Hanover, Germany. In order to explain the German sense of humor Lee briefly tells a joke about a German boy who talked for the first time when he turned 17, just to tell to his mother “this soup is a little tepid.” The boy replied to his mother, who was astonished, that the reason that he had never spoken was that “up until now, everything has been satisfactory” (Lee, “Lost in Translation”). By telling that joke, Lee tries to indicate how differently Germans perceive joking comparing to English or Americans. He precisely states that “the implication of this fabulous joke is that the Germans are ruthlessly rational, and this assumption leaves us little room to imagine them finding time to be playful. But be assured, the German sense of humor not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form we are ill-equipped to recognize” (Lee).

Consequently, even if the American Television industry is a major part of the global television industry nowadays, it should not be seen as a way of separating or dividing cultures. It is only a part of globalization theory that creates a gap between cultures, mainly caused by marketing policies, politics, history, the press and domestic or international journalism. However, the theory of globalization simultaneously combines cultures. As a result, even if an individual appreciates the sense of humor and laughter differently, it is globalization theory that makes the sense of humor of that individual to go beyond the borders of his country.

Works Cited

Bignell, Jonathan.  Journal of Literary Theory (18625290), Dec2010, Vol. 4 Issue 2, p181-198

Hilton, Ronald. “Globalization: The Sociology of Humor And Laughter”

Kuipers, Giselinde. Comedy and Hegemony: Television Buyers and the Import of American comedy in four European Countries. 2008, p 20.

Mills, Brett. Television Comedy as an invented tradition. No. 134, Feb 2010: 64-73.

Lee, Steward. “Lost In Translation” The Guardian, 22 May 2006.

Seirlis, Julia Katherine. Laughing all the way to freedom? : Contemporary stand-up comedy and democracy in South Africa. 2011, Vol. 24 Issue 4, p513-530.

Stein, Joel. How Everybody Loves Raymond Plays in Moscow.  May 5, 2011.  <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_20/b4228077681906.htm>