International comedy is harder than Eddie Izzard says | By Giacinto Palmieri

International comedy is harder than Eddie Izzard says

By Giacinto Palmieri

An interview with Eddie Izzard in The Guardian last week was a great testimony to his commendable efforts to demonstrate that comedy can cross borders between cultures and languages.

In offering a theoretical justification of this own enterprise, however, Izzard seems to think that, for comedy to work across borders, all that is needed is to adapt culture-specific references – or replace them with universal ones. But there is more to it than that.

One question is whether people from all cultures laugh with equal frequency and in the same range of social situations. The answer is quite clearly no. For instance, in British culture humour plays a much bigger role in weddings, academic lectures and parliamentary debates than in, say, the Italian one. The traditional claim of the British to have some sort of monopoly on sense of humour can be partially justified in these terms. What it actually means is that in British society humour plays a much wider role than in most other societies, which is probably true.

The more complex question is whether all cultures laugh at the same things. What makes this question complex is that humour itself is complex – we laugh at many different kinds of things even within the same culture.

Traditionally theories of humour have tried to choose one aspect of humour in order to define it exclusively in its terms. Of late, though, the consensus in humour studies (yes, there is such a field of study) is that a more pluralistic approach is required.

For instance, Freud's relief theory – that the pleasure of humour is the pleasure that comes from setting ourselves momentarily free from the constraints of a taboo – is clearly well suited to explain jokes on subjects such as sex and religion.

When we apply this theory to the problem of humour across cultures, it appears quite clear that different cultures have different taboos, hence they will laugh at different things. In British humour, for example, a big role is played by depicting people who behave in an involuntarily rude way and by the embarrassment that derives from it, while in American humour a much bigger role is played by depicting people who fail and become 'losers'.

Izzard, however, specialises in absurdist humour, which can also explained in terms of relief theory, since its source is the relief from the laws of logic. These laws are indeed considered universal, so jokes based on breaking these rules do seem to have a universal appeal, which probably explains why Izzard is so convinced of the universality of humour.

Another traditional theory of humour is the superiority theory, according to which the pleasure of humour derives from the feeling of being superior to its target. Again, while this theory cannot explain humour in its entirety, it does seem to explain some jokes, such as those depicting certain ethnic groups depicted as stupid. If applied to the problem of humour across cultures, it is clear that different societies have different underdogs, so people from different cultures will laugh not only at different things, but also at different people.

Finally, according to the incongruity theory of humour, humour originates from the contrast between opposing thoughts. It is a good theory to explain puns.

This theory, and the aspect of humour that it captures, seems universal. I recently read about the Japanese comedy form of Rakugo and was struck by the realisation that puns play a huge role in it. Which is why, I think, it is so important to keep the problem of the universality of humour separate from the problem of its translatability: while often untranslatable, puns, in fact, seem to be universal, in the sense that all cultures seem to laugh at them.

What Eddie Izzard is doing, in other words, is more difficult and more commendable that what his own theory of humour seems to credit him for. It is really a tour de force (majeure).

Published: 9 Feb 2015

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