That's a Laugh


Multilingual Humour

Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion.
I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.

- Kurt Vonnegut

I am thankful for laughter except when milk comes out of my nose.

- Woody Allen

by John Hawkins

Can a joke be funny in every language?

The other day I was out drinking with some Japanese friends, and, as I'm sure many other people have in a similar situation, we got onto the subject of jokes.  I ought to know by now this is generally a very ill-fated topic indeed.  English jokes in particular seem to be very linquistic and/or cultural, and are very difficult to translate.  If you have to explain any part of a joke, like the dual meaning of one word, or the context in which we normally use a particular phrase, or the personality of a famous person referenced, you've utterly killed it.

The other problem is not so much language or culture related, but actually that our concept of jokes often doesn't really exist at all in other cultures.  Humour definitely exists in Japan, people laugh all the time, but it seems to be more about behaviour and particular situations.  You can't necessarily expect to string together a few words and get a laugh.  I do know one Japanese joke, which manifests itself in a form we would find familiar.  I've not yet managed to make anyone Japanese laugh with it, but perhaps I haven't quite mastered the correct way of delivering it yet:

bulletMichael Jackson no suki na iro wa nan desu ka?
bulletOW! (Said whilst doing a Michael Jackson style action)

In English, this is:

bulletWhat's Michael Jackson's favourite colour?

Au is the Japanese word for blue, you see.  Okay, I didn't make any promises about how funny it was, but this proves, albeit rare, that the concept of jokes does exist in some form in Japan, even if they're not a particularly popular type of humour compared with, say, good old slapstick, and men dressing up as ladies.

I did learn recently, thanks to the wonderful Adam and Joe Go Tokyo on BBC Three, that Japanese humour, particularly the stand-up comedian variety, tends to be a lot less derisive.  A particular no-no is having a go at anyone in the audience.  This stems from the wide ranging Japanese belief that customer service is of paramount importance, and stand-up comics in Japan consider the members of their audience as customers.  Self ridicule, on the other hand, seems to be highly acceptable, and almost obligatory, making many Japanese comedians look to me a lot like medieval jesters to some extent.  Catchphrase based humour seems quite popular.  Something like the Fast Show might work surprisingly well in Japan.  They have Mr Bean there, and this is more or less the average Japanese person's only experience of English humour.  It's a very visual brand of humour, and therefore it is no great surprise that it easily crosses cultural and language barriers (the Americans like it too, apparently).  From my experience they don't seem to enjoy Blackadder very much though.

So, clearly there are many types of humour.  There's visual humour, slapstick, word play, cultural references, sarcasm, political satire to name but a few.  Some types are seemingly more popular than others depending on where you come from.

It may just be that English is better suited to linguistic humour than other languages, perhaps in the same way that it is such a popular choice for song lyrics around the world.  The rich nature of English, thanks to all the other languages that have fed into it over the years, seem to give it more words with double meanings, more words that rhyme, and perhaps just more words altogether than many other languages.


"Did You Hear the One About Hitler?"

The butt of jokes

by David Crossland

A new book about humour under the Nazis, Heil Hitler, The Pig is Dead, by Rudolph Herzog, gives some interesting insights into life in the Third Reich and breaks yet another taboo in Germany's treatment of its history.  Jokes told during the era, says the author, provided the populace with a pressure release.

Hitler visits a lunatic asylum.  The patients give the Hitler salute.  As he passes down the line he comes across a man who isn't saluting.

"Why aren't you saluting like the others?" Hitler barks.

"Mein Führer, I'm the nurse," comes the answer.  "I'm not crazy!"

That joke may not be a screamer, but it was told quite openly along with many others about Hitler and his henchmen in the early years of the Third Reich, according to Herzog.  But by the end of the war, a joke could get you killed.  A Berlin munitions worker, identified only as Marianne Elise K, was convicted of undermining the war effort "through spiteful remarks" and executed in 1944 for telling this one:

Hitler and Göring are standing on top of Berlin's radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to cheer up the people of Berlin.  "Why don't you just jump?" suggests Göring.

A fellow worker overheard her telling the joke and reported her to the authorities.

German film director and screenplay writer Rudolph Herzog, isn't trying to make readers laugh.  He wants to examine the Nazi period from a different perspective, and sees contemporary jokes as a good way of showing people's true feelings at the time.  "Jokes reflect what really affects, amuses and angers people.  They provide an inner view of the Third Reich that possesses an authenticity one usually misses when reviewing other literary texts," says Herzog, 33, whose book (the title of which is the punchline to another Hitler joke) goes on sale in September.  "Political jokes weren't a form of active resistance but valves for pent-up public anger.  They were told in pubs, on the street - to let off steam with a laugh.  This suited the Nazi regime which was deeply humourless."

Releasing Steam

Many Germans were angry about Nazi fat cats getting top jobs in the government and industry, but they didn't rebel.  They just told jokes:

A senior Nazi visits a factory and asks the manager whether he still has Social Democrats among his workforce.  "Yes, 80%," comes the reply.

"Do you also have members of the Catholic Center Party?"  "Yes, 20%," the manager responds.

"Don't you have any National Socialists?"  "Yes we're all Nazis now!"

The vanity of the Nazi top brass was the butt of many jokes:

Göring has attached an arrow to the row of medals on his tunic.  It reads "continued on the back."

Such jokes were harmless to the Nazis and didn't reflect opposition to them, says Herzog.  He contrasts it with the desperate gallows humour of Germany's Jews as the noose tightened during the 1930s and in the war years:

"Two Jews are about to be shot.  Suddenly the order comes to hang them instead.  One says to the other "You see, they're running out of bullets."

Such jokes told by Jews were a form of mutual encouragement, an expression of the will to survive.  "Even the blackest Jewish humour expresses a defiant will, as if the joke teller wanted to say: I'm laughing, so I'm still alive," says Herzog.

His book, based on contemporary literature, diaries and interviews with 20 people who lived through the Third Reich, comes to some uncomfortable conclusions: From an early stage, Germans were well aware of their government's brutality.  And the country wasn't possessed by "evil spirits" nor was it hypnotised by the Nazis' brilliant propaganda, he says.  Hypnotised people don't crack jokes.  "If you laugh about Hitler, you rob him of the metaphysical, demonic capabilities that the post-war apologists attributed to him," says Herzog.  That makes it all the more astounding that the "hollow fairground magic of the Nazis", which was laid bare in contemporary satire and literary testimony, resulted in the Holocaust, he says.  "The Germans were by no means powerless victims of propaganda.  Many saw through the games played by Goebbels and his consorts.  This didn't change the fact that the country was sucked down into a whirlpool of crime in the space of just a few years."

This joke about Dachau concentration camp, opened in 1933, shows people knew early on they could be imprisoned on a whim for expressing an opinion:

Two men meet. "Nice to see you're free again.  How was the concentration camp?"

"Great!  Breakfast in bed, a choice of coffee or chocolate, and for lunch we got soup, meat and dessert.  And we played games in the afternoon before getting coffee and cakes.  Then a little snooze and we watched movies after dinner."

The man was astonished: "That's great!  I recently spoke to Meyer, who was also locked up there.  He told me a different story."

The other man nods gravely and says: "Yes, well that's why they've picked him up again."

Breaking Taboos

Herzog's book is just the latest indication of a fundamental shift in Germany's treatment of its Nazi history in recent years.  As the wartime generation dies out, the children and grandchildren are taking a more detached view of the past, and a number of taboos have been broken as a result.  In 2004, the German film Downfall, about Hitler's last days in his bunker, portrayed the dictator's human side.  Earlier this year, big swastika banners went up in Berlin during the filming of Germany's first comedy about Hitler - something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.  "Each new generation of Germans has to get to grips with the past," Herzog says.  "Taboos have been broken.  With the distance of time you see the ridiculous side of this regime, but without forgetting its evil.  We're still too close to it for that."

German society quickly became militarised after the Nazis took power.  New organisations were created, each with its own range of uniforms.  One joke making the rounds was that the actual army would in future wear civilian clothes so that it could recognised.  Many found the Heil Hitler salute with its outstretched arm ridiculous.  A circus director in the western city of Paderborn, a confirmed Social Democrat opponent of the Nazis, trained his chimpanzees to raise their right arm whenever they saw a uniform, and they even took to saluting the postman.  He was denounced and a received an official notice forbidding the chimpanzees from making the salute and threatening slaughter.

Another joke that illustrated life under the Nazis was this one:

"My father is in the SA, my oldest brother in SS, my little brother in the HJ (Hitler Youth), my mother is part of the NS women's organisation, and I'm in the BDM (Nazi girls group)."

"Do you ever get to see each other?" asks the girl's friend.

"Oh yes, we meet every year at the party rally in Nuremberg!"

The Nazis passed laws in 1933 and 1934 banning comments that criticised the regime.  But court cases usually resulted in just a warning or a fine, and alcohol was taken as a mitigating factor.  Anti-Jewish jokes, of course, were welcome - and they flourished in the 1930s reflecting the anti-Semitism present in German society.

Pride and Sarcasm

Rearmament and economic revival in the 1930s and Hitler's early victories brought a wave of national pride:

What does it mean when the sky is black?  There are so many aircraft in the air that the birds have to walk.

Many Germans credited Hitler with restoring the country's honour in the wake of its World War I defeat and the economic crisis and political turbulence of the 1920s.  During the war, the regime tried to entertain the troops and distract the civilian population by promoting comedy films and harmless cabarets.  Jokes about Italy's disorganised army also featured.  Here's one:

The German army HQ receives news that Mussolini's Italy has joined the war.  "We'll have to put up 10 divisions to counter him!" says one general.

"No, he's on our side," says another.

"Oh, in that case we'll need 20 divisions."

As it became clear that Germany was losing the war and Allied bombing started wiping out German cities, the country turned to bitter sarcasm:

"What will you do after the war?"

"I'll finally go on a holiday and will take a trip round Greater Germany!"

"And what will you do in the afternoon?"

But telling such jokes was dangerous.  "Defeatism" became an offense punishable by death and a joke could get you executed.  "With the defeat at Stalingrad and the first waves of the bombing campaigns against German cities, political humour turned into gallows humour, silliness gave way to plain sarcasm," says Herzog.  Humour hasn't fully recovered in Germany.  "Jewish humour is famous for its sharpness and biting character and we miss that here today along with a whole range of aspects of Jewish culture," he said.

Source: 30 August 2006 photo credit AFP

The Best Medicine?

by Dr Stephen Juan

What Is a Laugh?

Physiologically, laughing is a series of spasmodic and partly involuntary expirations with odd vocalisations, normally indicative of merriment.  Often, laughing is a hysterical manifestation or a reflex result of tickling.  Normal laughing is of two types:

bulletMild laughter - when there is an occasion to laugh lightly or moderately
bulletHearty laughter - when there is an occasion to laugh more vigorously

Abnormal laughing is of three types: compulsive, forced, and obsessive (for which there is no occasion).

Do Other Animals Laugh?

The human is the only animal that we know for sure laughs.  But we really would have to ask other animals about this.

What Makes Us Laugh?

Other than simple tickling, laughing is based on fear.  Fear of loss of dignity, social embarrassment, exclusion from the group, being fooled/exploited, death, injury, or sex.  The more anxiety-prone the subject is, the better it is as a subject for humour.  Different societies find different things funny.  So do different generations within a society.  There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy, between the funny and the sad, between what makes us laugh and what makes us cry, between pleasure and pain.  This is why watching someone slip on a banana skin is universally funny: someone else loses their dignity - and that's better than it happening to us.

In one US study, it was found that people laughed due to the following:

bullet31% of laughter was caused by wisecracks, put-downs, clever remarks, and the stupidity of others
bullet21% by odd incidents and situations
bullet20% by tv, movies, and plays
bullet15% by a happy mood in general
bullet13% by actions and antics of others.

Of course, the sense of humor of Americans differs from that of all other peoples.  For example, they think their tv sitcoms are actually funny...

What Happens to Our Body when We Laugh?

When you give way to laughter, electrical impulses are triggered by nerves in the brain.  These set off chemical reactions in the brain and elsewhere in the body.  For example, your endocrine system orders your brain to secrete natural tranquilisers and painkillers.  Other released chemicals aid digestion.  Still others make arteries contract and relax and improve blood flow.  Laughing may not be the best medicine, but it's certainly a good one.

Why Is Laughing Important?

Among other things, laughing restores balance and equilibrium.  Charles Darwin argued that it helps us discharge surplus tension and mental excitation.  Freud argued that laughter helps us deal with lustful thoughts.  Laughing is important to our very survival.  Laughing starts when we are about six weeks old.  Darwin argued that a baby laughing gives pleasure to the caretaker and thus helps lessen the likelihood of parental rejection - both aiding personal and species survival.

Does Laughing Keep Us Healthy - Even Make Us Well?


Biochemically, laughter reduces the body's production of cortisol.  It is known that cortisol suppresses the body's immune system.  Thus, by laughter, the body's immune system is left unimpeded by cortisol.  In particular, the immune booster, interlukin-2 is allowed to express itself without being inhibited by cortisol.  Furthermore, research shows that when we laugh, our metabolism rate picks-up, muscles are massaged and stimulated, and a variety of biochemical substances rush into the bloodstream.  Studies have demonstrated that, after a period of laughing, subjects not only feel momentarily relaxed, but they also have fortified themselves against depression, heart disease, and heightened their pain resistance.

Who Laughs More, Men or Women?

Studies show that men and women laugh just about equally.  It has been found that men tell jokes far more often than women.  But women smile more often than men.  (Are women smiling at the men's jokes?  Or at the men laughing at their own jokes?)

Who Jokes More at Work, Bosses or Other Workers?

This may come as a surprise, but a number of university studies have found that bosses joke more than other workers.  For example, in a US study of staff meetings at Boston General Hospital, it was discovered that the senior doctors joked more often than the junior doctors and that the junior doctors joked more than the paramedics below them.

Do Groups with Jokers Get Less Work Done?

Quite the opposite.  In an experiment conducted at the University of California at Los Angeles, it was found that groups that contained a frequently funny and witty person worked better on problem-solving tasks, worked better together, and were overall more productive than groups that had no "joker."

Do Laugh Tracks Make Us Laugh More?

The tv industry continues to debate whether canned laughter makes a show funnier.  In a UK experiment, subjects listening to tape-recorded jokes laughed more when there was a laugh track in the background.  However, even though they laughed more, when the subjects rated the jokes, they did not rate the jokes as any funnier than when there was no laugh track.

What's the Most Important Quality for Success in Telling a Joke Well?

First of all, the joke has to be funny.  Professional comedians usually recommend that you always tell a joke while standing up.  That way you can use your body much easier when you have illustrate something.  Beyond this, when you tell a joke, you need a lively way of talking that's more relaxed and varied in pitch than when you're talking about serious matters.  Of course, a sense of humour is important too, also a sense of timing, a good memory, brevity of expression (make all words count), self-confidence, an outgoing manner, a quick wit, and sensitivity to the nature of the audience.  (For example, don't make World War II jokes in Berlin.  "Don't mention the War!" as Basil Fawlty might say.)

Source: © 2001 HarperCollinsPublishers Pty Limited ABN 36 009 913 517; all rights reserved; this is an interesting website - you might want to visit - check out Dr Juan's "odd news"

The Grim Reaper: When the Joke's not Funny Any More

Did You Hear the One about the Frontal Lobe?

by Anne McIlroy

Here is one more reason to dread getting older.  Canadian researchers have found that as we age, we have more trouble getting jokes.  Older people still easily get simple humour but have more difficulty than younger people with complex jokes, said Prathiba Shammi, a psychologist at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto.  Dr Shammi's test envolved performing three humour tests on two groups of volunteers, people in their late 20s and people in their early 70s.

In the first test, the participants were presented with a series of statements, some of them funny, some of them not.  Both groups had no trouble determining that "Sign in a hotel: Please take advantage of the chambermaid" is intended to be humorous, while "Sign in a hotel: Visitors are requested to turn off the lights when they leave the room" is not a joke.  (Dr Shammi did not make up all the jokes.  She used a series that a Boston humour researcher had developed.)

The second test was more challenging.  The volunteers were asked to choose the correct punch lines for 16 jokes.  The seniors made on average four mistakes, while the young people did not make any.

The third test involved cartoons with no captions.  The volunteers were asked to look at four similar drawings, and choose the one with a funny detail.  Again, the seniors made significantly more mistakes than the younger people did.

In 1999, Dr Shammi and her colleague Donald Stuss, at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, made the discovery that the brain's right frontal lobe plays an important role in understanding humour.  The study on humour and ageing was designed to learn more about a region of the brain that sets us apart from all other animals.  The right frontal lobe is involved in feeling empathy and detecting sarcasm and irony, in addition to understanding humour, Dr Shammi said.  In her earlier work, she found that people with damage to their right frontal lobes have difficulty getting punch lines and prefer slapstick humour to more sophisticated gags.  Children, whose right frontal lobes are still developing, also seem to prefer slapstick.  The seniors in the study, however, were not into slapstick, particularly.

There is evidence that the brain's frontal functions may be the first to deteriorate with age.  This may explain why older adults do not get more complex jokes, Dr Shammi said.  She is careful to stress that the researchers do not suggest that the elderly volunteers are in any way brain damaged or that they would have trouble with most jokes they might hear in social settings.  They simply have a reduced ability to get complex jokes.  "They made more errors than the young people."

There are two types of brain functioning involved in getting jokes.  The first is cognitive - understanding what is funny about something.  Abstract thinking and problem-solving are involved, complex higher mental functions believed to be associated with the frontal lobes.  The second part of getting a joke is the response - laughing or smiling.  The seniors in the study had no trouble appropriately responding to the jokes when they got them.  "The good news is that ageing does not affect emotional response to humour - we'll still enjoy a good laugh when we get the joke," said Dr Shammi, who is in her early 40s.

Humour Test Example

Participants in the study were asked to furnish the punch lines for jokes such as this:

The neighbour approached Mr Smith at noon on Sunday and inquired, "Say, Smith, are you using your lawnmower this afternoon?"

"Yes, I am," Smith replied warily.

The neighbour answered:

  1. "You won't be wanting your golf clubs.  I'll borrow them."
  2. "Oops," as the rake he walked on barely missed his face.
  3. "Oh, well.  Can I borrow it when you're done, then?"
  4. "The birds are always eating my grass seed."

The funny answer is D.  No, just kidding.  It is A.

Anne McIlroy is the science editor for The Globe and Mail

Source: Monday 25 August 2003

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