Comedy: finding the funny bone

Some argue that humour is universal, others that it is restricted by culture. With more and more comedians taking to the international circuit, Vision asks, can a joke be shared around the world?

What does humour really mean? This is the question philosophers of yore, research boffins, academics and comedians working dive bars have long been struggling to answer. There are as many theories of humour as there are ideas of what’s funny, what constitutes humour and why it might exist in the first place.

The world of comedic theory owes a debt to a certain David H Monro, Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, Australia. During his lifetime, he articulated different theories of what constitutes humour, referencing some rather serious names in the philosophy and psychology canon. The first of his theories is relief theory, the idea that laughter is a way of releasing psychological tension. Sigmund Freud noted that comedy helps us outwit our inner censor, which usually tries to stop us thinking thoughts in a malicious vein.

Monro also mentioned that comedy could arise from superiority, an idea first put forth by the political philosopher Hobbes, a man who could only ever see the world in a state of absolute totalitarianism or open war. Given his rosy outlook on life, it is little wonder he thought comedy was a desire towards vainglory and self-esteem. Essentially, we laugh because others’ bad luck and misfortune make us feel superior.

Unexpected punchline

And then there is the idea that humour comes from incongruity, when the unknown collides with the expected. It’s the meshing of completely different ideas, and the difference between what you think would happen versus what actually did. Immanuel Kant, who wrote a manual on the normative rules of ethical behaviour, noted that humour arises from “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing”. In essence, he makes reference to the dichotomy between the set-up and the unexpected punchline.

And this brings us to the more practical application of comedy. I run a monthly community comedy night in Dubai called One Night Standup, where a bunch of talented comedians come together to entertain a loyal audience and occasion-ally heckle one another. At a recent gig, a comedian said, “This is the first time I’m doing comedy.” This, of course, pulled the audience towards sympathy, and for those who had seen her perform before, confusion. Then came the punchline: “Normally, I get my maid to get up on stage for me.”

The author of this particular gag was Sheida Seddiq, who describes herself as “the second female Emirati comedian ever”. With the joke she is deconstructing preconceptions about the Emirati lifestyle by referencing the use of domestic help in the UAE by expatriates and Emiratis alike.

Her joke obviously requires specific cultural references. If you took it to Tahiti, shorn of context, it wouldn’t work. Seddiq agrees that cultural understanding certainly changes humour, but that there are some universals. World events, family and work are common experiences shared by people the world over. Yet she also realises that jokes can be very specific. As an Emirati, she says that UAE-specific jokes would include shopping malls, extended Emirati families and a diversity of expats.

Much humour is universal. Tom and Jerry, Mr Bean and Charlie Chaplin are all examples of slapstick and situational humour that don’t need verbal repartee to create laugher. But Jamil Abu-Wardeh, the brains behind The Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour: 3 Guys and Wonho, and the person responsible for introducing a standup comedy slot in the programming of the Showtime Arabia TV network, almost despairs of the idea of universal humour.

“Understanding of humour is different within cultures, let alone across different ones. What is funny to an 80-year-old female professor would not appeal to a 20-year-old male. Age, education, geography all affect what a person finds funny.”

Universal appeal

But he does offer up a joke that might be almost universal in its appeal. “What is the last thing that goes through a fly’s mind when it hits the windscreen of a moving car?” The answer: “Its backside.” All you need to understand that joke is a working knowledge of flies, cars and windscreens.

Mina Liccione is a Dubai-based hybrid artist passionate about rhythm and comedy. The Italian-American took to the stage at age three and did the New York beat, appearing in and touring with musicals including Stomp, before moving to the sandlands. She has been involved in mentoring the UAE’s new generation of standup comedians in some way or another. With typical sangfroid and elucidation, she contextualises humour as not just being culturally specific but relevant to various cultures for different reasons.

“Comedy was always a reflection of life. Kings had their court jesters, the Greeks separated their theatre into comedy and tragedy and the Italians started street theatre based upon village stories and characters with commedia dell’arte. The phrase ‘slapstick’ was coined in the commedia dell’arte genre when a troupe member nailed two boards together to make a sharp slapping sound for comedic fight scenes. Clowning can be traced back to African tribes.”

Except perhaps for being tickled with a feather, an Amazonian rainforest dweller, an Arab grandmother and a jowly Texan might not have too many culturally funny points in common. But one thing most comedians agree on is the simple three-step process of joke construction: the connection, the conceal and the reveal.

The connection creates a relationship between two objects, while the conceal hides the actual direction the joke is taking. The reveal is when the curtains are pulled away. Consider, for instance, Groucho Marx’s brilliantly timeless application of this process: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

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