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Humor: When It Does And Doesn’t Work

June 17, 2016

Most of us would like to think we have a sense of humor. It is a uniquely human trait and one that we all share in some degree. The problem is that humor is not universal. What’s funny in one language or culture often is not funny in another.

Years ago, my wife and I moved to Italy. We lived in a small village where people have an extraordinary sense of humor. However, my first time out as Shecky Greene proved to be a disaster. We were visiting a new friend who was in her mid-70s. She is very quick so I thought I would try out an old chestnut from my college years: What’s black and white and red all over? Of course, I had to explain that red and read sound the same in English but mean different things. I should have stopped right there. When you have to explain a joke ahead of telling it, well it’s usually a bad omen. However I proceeded to give my friend the traditional answer: a newspaper. She got all of that just fine. But then I said, “In my college years the answer was a wounded nun.” My friend scowled at me and then flatly said, “That’s not funny at all. I went to school to study to be a nun.” Oops! It seemed as though language and culture were not the barriers; it was simply that I did not know what my friend had studied in her youth.

I learned over the years to stick with current events and learn what is generally considered humorous in other languages and cultures. The language thing is super important. In Italian, there is not such phrase as a pain in the ass. They put it much more delicately: Spina al lato – Thorn in the side. Eventually I learned to make jokes about political leaders but never the pope. Comparing Berlusconi to Pinocchio was okay, but the Vatican was off limits. Interestingly, jokes are often followed by the uttering of “Porca Maddona” which translates as “Filthy Virgin Mary.” That one I don’t get! A good joke in Italian often refers to local politicians as thieves, the Caribinieri as the Keystone Cops, etc. Italians aren’t fond of authority. Hence it is just fine to joke, “Guarda Berlusconi. Sua faccia e’ proprio della pele di culo!” (Look at Berlusconi, His face is really skin from his ass.)

Also I learned that self deprecation is a central part of village humor in Italy. I have been telling jokes at my own expense for years now. One of their favorites is when I explain that I once asked for a senior discount for my wife and I at a museum. The young lady selling the tickets took a long look at me and then said, “You can have the discount because you’re old but your daughter will have to pay full price.” Cute and unfortunately a true story.

The two jokes I learned to stay completely away from are the following: “Hey Luigi, is thata U-Boat? No thata one there belonga to Uncle Sam.” It just isn’t funny in Italian plus you can’t tell it by putting those extra vowels on the end of every word… they already end in vowels.

The other one involves the advertisement in the local classified newspaper ads. “Italian World War II rife. Like new. Only dropped on the ground once.” They get that one but they are not amused. The best I’ve ever received was an acknowledgement that the joke was understood followed by “We’re lovers not fighters.”

These days I stick to jokes about the current Prime Minister, myself and anything to do with belittling authority. Yes, it doesn’t hurt that Prime Minister Renzi does look like Mr. Bean. I’m always fair game and local government is already a joke just needing to be retold.

On a serious note, one true mark of language fluency is your ability to tell a joke and make people genuinely laugh in another language. Try it, it’s fun!

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Read author Allen E. Rizzi’s latest books available at Amazon.com

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2 Comments
  1. Davide permalink

    I can’t tell a joke in English and make folks laugh!

    Like

  2. Anche io!!!

    Like

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