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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

World sees humour in different ways. Funny that

The cast of Seinfeld… Many of the comedy shows we find funny are written by Jewish writers. Time magazine estimated in 1978 that 80 per cent of professional American comics were Jewish.

“Different nationalities have different senses of humour, with the Germans entirely lacking one. It’s said Otto Von Bismarck only laughed twice in his life. Once when his mother-in-law died and once when he saw the Swedish army,” writes Whimsy columnist CLIVE WILLIAMS.

What actually is a sense of humour? Oxford Languages defines it as follows: “A person’s ability to perceive humour or appreciate a joke.”

Clive Williams.

It’s said that different nationalities have different senses of humour, with the Germans entirely lacking one. I don’t think that’s so – it’s just that it’s different to British and American humour – or perhaps they find less to laugh about? 

It’s said that Otto Von Bismarck only laughed twice in his life. Once when his mother-in-law died and once when he saw the Swedish army.

Looking through Quora I came across this comment about the Germans: “Germans just have that reputation for being practical and efficient. That sometimes translates to why they aren’t really the smiley type, they can often appear grim. But Germans do have a sense of humour, their sense of humour. 

“An example of German humour would be this: ‘Yesterday, I met my friend Horst at the hospital. He’d swallowed a sponge. He says it doesn’t hurt but he’s always thirsty,’ and ‘Plants grow very well if you speak kindly to them. Which is why I sometimes go into the garden and insult the weeds’.”

What about the French sense of humour? Another quote from Quora: “What I’ve noticed, being a funny guy across both cultures (…): French humour is more cruel: it relies a lot on humiliating situations, especially where the butt of the joke totally lacks self-awareness. The Diner de Cons is a great showcase for French humour where a character is being humiliated, and other characters are ridiculous through pretension.” 

(Le Diner de Cons is a comedy play about a weekly “idiots’ dinner”, where guests, who are prominent Parisian businessmen, must bring along an “idiot” whom the other guests can ridicule. At the end of the dinner, the evening’s champion idiot is selected.)

Do the Chinese have a sense of humour? Well, what’s funny to us may not be funny in China. In fact, a lot of things we find humorous in our culture can be downright offensive in Chinese culture. Embarrassing others is a big no-no. 

In China, the popular form of stand-up comedy is “crosstalk” in which two comedians talk and exchange puns and allusions. For a stand-up comedian, a lack of facial expressions while delivering witty one-liners is considered very entertaining. Joe Wong is a stone-faced China-born comedian who is known for his most quoted punchline: “Hi, everybody… So, I’m Irish.” (I’m told Chinese find that hilarious.)

Many of the comedy shows we find funny such as Seinfeld – are written by Jewish writers. Time magazine estimated in 1978 that 80 per cent of professional American comics were Jewish. Jewish humour is diverse, though it most often favours wordplay, irony and satire, while its themes are often anti-authoritarian – mocking religious and secular life alike. Sigmund Freud considered Jewish humour unique in that it’s often self-deprecating.

Some examples of Jewish humour:

Rabbi Altmann and his secretary are sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” says his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?” 

“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine and assimilation problems in America. Now that I read Der Stürmer, I see that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. It makes me feel so much better!”

During the days of oppression and poverty of the Russian shtetls [small Jewish towns or villages in eastern Europe], one shtetl had a rumour going around: an Orthodox Christian girl has been found murdered near their village. Fearing a pogrom, they gather nervously at the synagogue. Suddenly, the rabbi comes running up, and cries, “Wonderful news! The murdered girl is Jewish!”

Question: Is one permitted to ride in an airplane on the Sabbath? Answer: Yes, as long as your seat belt remains fastened. It’s considered that you’re not riding, you’re wearing the airplane.

During World War II, a sergeant at Fort Benning gets a phone call from a prejudiced woman. 

“We would love it,” she says, “if you could send five of your soldiers over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner.” 

“Certainly, ma’am,” replies the sergeant. 

“Oh… just make sure they aren’t Jews, of course,” says the woman. 

That Thanksgiving evening, the doorbell rings. The woman opens her door and, to her horror, five black soldiers are standing in front of her. “Oh, my!” she exclaims. “I’m afraid there’s been a terrible mistake!” 

“No ma’am,” says one of the soldiers. “Sergeant Rosenbloom never makes mistakes!”

Clive Williams is a Canberra columnist

Clive Williams

Clive Williams

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