People say humor is universal, everyone laughs, it's a common ground. I say... BullPucky!
The hardest thing I can try to teach in an English class is humor. It's not just the language.
Not even physical humor always crosses. The Japanese love slapstick, Three Stooges-style physical humor. Slap someone upside the head, Leroy Jethro Gibbs style? Ha-ha-ha! Hit him with a folded 3-ft-long paper fan? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Turn that fan into a bamboo kendo staff and knock him pretty much senseless? HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA! John Stossels's interview of David Schultz back in 1984 would have left them in stitches. (Yes, I am exaggerating for effect)
But spoken humor relies on cultural mores and cues learned from infancy to create the humor. The Japanese are really good at puns, they egg-cel at them. Even in English, advertising is packed with egg-zamples: Channel 10's slogan? "I need jyu! (jyu is Japanese for 10).
Rakugo and Manzai are 2 very popular comedy styles. Rakugo is a storyteller or raconteur sitting in front of the audience weaving a long tale with an unusual ending or punchline providing the release. Manzai are pairs of comedians, usually with an aggressive funny guy and a dumb, straight guy - very much like Abbott and Costello.
American-style stand-up falls flat. I've tried my favorite Steven Wright line ("I live at the end of a dead-end, one-way street. (pause) I don't know how I got there.") in classes before, and even the best students give me blank looks. Even my wife, whose grasp of English and American culture is incredible, sometimes doesn't understand my jokes (surely, the fault must be cultural, not in the delivery!!).
Another difference is when or why people laugh. When the missus and I went on one of our first dates, we decided to see "Ghost". I would laugh at all the usual points, my wife-to-be snickering beside me, and could hear one other person in the packed theater laugh at the same point. "Aha! Another furriner," I thinks (turned out to be someone I knew - we all know each other, you know!). Then the Japanese laugh at a different point in the translation, while I stare blankly at the screen.
Now, I don't know if this is something peculiar to Coloradans, to Americans, or to Western culture (surely, it isn't just me! And don't call me Shirley! RIP), but when I see something horrifically bizarre, I laugh. I'm not some sadist, laughing at a beheading; I laugh in shock at Joe Black bouncing from windshield to windshield. I snort in disbelief while crossing my legs at the idiot who tries to slide a skateboard down a 2-story bannister, slips, and catches his jewels in a body-weight slam... Not getting my enjoyment at another's expense (get it?), just laughing at the absurdity of what has just happened. It's a defense mechanism, I think. It's also a sure-fire way to piss off my lady, who lets me know in no uncertain terms that she doesn't like it.
Yet, Japanese laugh if I stumble and fall. If I bark my shins climbing off my bike, the little granny next to me smiles and giggles. I hit myself in the face with a mini-bat one day, and the whole class giggled (OK,OK, that probably did look funny: idiot pastes himself, then stares dazedly at the class). I used to get pretty offended, to tell the truth, until someone realized that what was obvious to the Japanese, that they were laughing in sympathy, as a way to commiserate, wasn't at all obvious to me, and explained the reasoning behind their laughter.
So, just remember, they might actually be laughing with you, and not at you, just like your mom used to say.
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