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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Humor Doesn’t Travel Well

When I was in college taking German classes to get a minor in the subject, I remember one class concentrated for a time on the jokes of Dr. Sigmund Freud. We were reading his 1905 book, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten (Wit and Its Relationship to the Unconscious). After having to read so many explanations of what makes something witty, none of us, except our professor who was a German by birth, thought they were funny—most of them were so old that we had all heard them too many times, and for some the humor was too well explained to be funny anymore. A good example is this excerpt:
  Two Jews meet near a bathing establishment. “Have you taken a bath?” asked one. “How is that?” replies the other. “Is one missing?”
  When one laughs very heartily about a joke he is not in the best mood to investigate its technique. It is for this reason that some difficulties are experienced in delving into their analyses. “That is a comic misunderstanding” is the thought that comes to us. Yes, but how about the technique of this joke? Obviously the technique lies in the double meaning of the word take. In the first case the word is used in a colorless idiomatic sense, while in the second it is the verb in its full meaning. It is, therefore, a case where the same word is taken now in the “full” and now in the “empty” sense (Group II, f). And if we replace the expression “take a bath” by the simpler equivalent “bathed” the wit disappears. The answer is no longer fitting. The joke, therefore, lies in the expression “take a bath.”
  This is quite correct, yet it seems that in this case, also, the reduction was applied in the wrong place, for the joke does not lie in the question, but in the answer, or rather in the counter question: “How is that? Is there one missing?” Provided the same is not destroyed the answer cannot be robbed of its wit by any dilation or variation. We also get the impression that in the answer of the second Jew the overlooking of the bath is more significant than the misconception of the word “take.”
Mostly we joked amongst ourselves about what a terrible sense of humor they must have had to laugh at jokes such as:

   In his distress a needy man borrowed twenty-five dollars from a wealthy acquaintance. The same day he was discovered by his creditor in a restaurant eating a dish of salmon with mayonnaise. The creditor reproached him in these words: “You borrow money from me and then order salmon with mayonnaise. Is that what you needed the money for?” “I don’t understand you,” responded the debtor, “when I have no money I can’t eat salmon with mayonnaise. When I have money I mustn’t eat it. Well then, when shall I ever eat salmon with mayonnaise?”

Even speaking somewhat the same language, people of different cultures do not always appreciate each other’s humor.

One New Year’s Eve my mother, my sister, and I were traveling on a ferry boat across the English Channel toward Dover. We had been walking about the deck, blessing our good fortune in the clear, calm weather with its full moon. But it was very cold. We went into the lounge of the boat and found a group of women and their children watching cartoons on a little television set. We sat down in the back to watch—the cartoons were from Hollywood, the mid-1950s through early 1960s. We recognized Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. These were the cartoons of my sister’s and my childhood. We began to laugh, finding the antics of these characters as funny as we thought them when we were little. And the women and children turned to look at us. They were not finding any of this the least bit funny.

We were embarrassed to be the focus of a little scene. We stifled our laughter. And I suddenly saw the scenes from the point of view of strangers to the United States. They were violent, tapping into the American stock cartoon theme that such characters cannot truly be hurt or killed. They were filled with puns and sly references to American life and culture. Maybe they weren’t funny after all.

But as we kept watching, we found it harder and harder to stifle our giggles. They were funny!

Even between families, humor sometimes does not translate. My family has had to become slowly accustomed to my husband’s very dry sense of humor. I like it very much, of course, but at first my siblings did not understand when he was or was not joking.

One family may love to pull practical jokes that another family finds appalling. My mother tells me that her mother was constantly having her apron strings tied to her chair during Sunday dinner, and then somebody would ask her to fetch something else from the kitchen. She’d jump up with a chair stuck to her. If anybody at that dinner table said, “Pass the peaches, please!” you might have to watch out, because one of the boys would take the dish and pass it like an American football, through the air!

One Sunday after my mother and father became engaged, he arrived for dinner with his former guardian, his very proper Aunt Ruth. She was horrified at the antics and jokes all around her.

Humor, I fear, is best left at home when you travel.

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