Humour is tricky. Parody is trickier. I once watched a documentary about a Korean-Dutch comedian who took his show back to his parents' North Korea, where the authorities changed everything "to make it more presentable to a Korean audience". I wasn't entirely sure who was being offended by whom, much of the time, but I'm pretty sure both, and everyone. Comedians will tell you being funny is like that. Jenny Allen has certainly experienced it this week with her piece I'm A Mom, which didn't appeal to Pamela of Silent Sorority, amongst others. This surprised me - not the lack of appeal, per se, but her eventual reaction to it - because the message Jenny and Pamela are trying to convey are so much the same. (Here is what Pam wrote about the infamous Anne Romney mum-speech.)

Humour is tricky. There is a cliche in the world that Americans have no sense of humour, which is, of course, outrageously untrue (example: Jenny Allen), but it is a testament to the delicacy of humour that it can be so hard to deliver across even the most subtle of cultural boundaries. I have a couple of American friends, and both of them insist on suffixing their jokes with "I'm kidding!" which, for me, not only sucks the humour out of it, but almost offends me. Where I come from, not being able to recognise or handle a bit of light-hearted joking around is a social deficiency akin to mean-spirited name-calling, or complaining loudly and repeatedly about your host's roasted pumpkin. When an American friend says, "I'm kidding!" after a joke, I hear, "I am funny, but you are socially deficient. You are probably the sort of person who gets pleasure from mean-spirited name-calling, or thinks it's ok to loudly and repeatedly criticise your host's roasted pumpkin." I have to consciously remind myself that they are actually trying to remove offense from their humour, rather than add it, and that this is probably their response to being misunderstood as expats living in a foreign culture. Then I have to forceably resume what remains of my merriment.

The whole thing is topical for us at the moment. Lately, whenever we laugh, The Young Master wants to know why it's funny. This morning I laughed because when (for the forty-third time) I released the balloon I'd blown up for the purpose of releasing, it flew around and around the room and into the rubbish bin. "Um, it's, well, it's like even the balloon is tired of the game," I explained.

"I'm not tired of the game," Master replied gravely.

"Yes but... no I suppose you're not. Why don't we blow it up again?" But it was too late. I'd laughed, by my laughter and the following explanation I'd inferred that there was something funny about the fact he was still interested in the game long after everyone (including, apparently, the inanimate balloon) had ceased to be interested, and now I was locked into a discussion about the nature and meaning of humour and I had to think fast about what I wanted him to learn. Was I supposed to agree that the joke had been made in error, and promise to never joke about releasing balloons again? Would that teach him to be fearful of making jokes, which can be such a useful tool? Should I, by my example, encourage him to tack a metaphorical or actual "I'm kidding!" on to the end of every joke he makes, to ensure the listener doesn't take it too seriously, knowing that this will offend a lot of people he has to spend Christmas with? Should I demonstrate how to suck it up, push him to laugh at his own quirky determination to watch that balloon fly around the room til both his parents lie passed out on the floor from hyperventilation? Would that send an inappropriate message that I think him foolish, or that he can laugh at anyone over anything and expect them to join in?

I thought Jenny Allen's article was funny. Much funnier than a tired old balloon flying into a bin after its forty-third journey around the room, and more important, too. Through parody, she deftly exhibited not only the offensiveness of recent political speeches to women without children, but to women everywhere, whatever their choices or circumstances. It's a feminist piece, calling on politicians to speak to women as if they have a place outside the assigned role of motherhood - much as you might speak to men, regardless of their current reproductive status. She had a tightrope to walk between the too-subtle and the too-obvious, and I thought she walked it brilliantly, but not everyone agrees. Some, like Pam, think the piece doesn't push hard enough, and is in danger of being taken seriously. Of course, if mother-worship is a hot-button topic for you, it will be harder to recognise or appreciate the parody. Your buttons will have been triggered and your anger will already be high before the writer smirks, metaphorically speaking, and as a result the joke will be lost much more easily.

Humour is tricky, but it is also a powerful tool for facing adversity, making a point, or bridging a gap between people - even across cultural boundaries - so I really do need to know how to explain its nuances to my four year old. If you have any universal rules to throw me, I'd be most grateful.


Lollipop Goldstein said...

Ha -- you write, "There is a cliche in the world" but surely you know that cliche doesn't exist here, which is part of the world. Our cliche is that British people have no sense of humour. And Canadians are nice. I think cliches or stereotypes are also things that don't cross cultural boundaries well.

I loved Jenny Allen's piece. Like laughed until I cried funny. And then would think about it again while doing something else, and with no visible trigger, fell over in laughter again. But I also felt that way with Allen's piece about the guest looking for coffee in the house, and often quote it when we are a guest somewhere and can't find anything in the person's house.

What I liked about that piece is that Jenny points out the absurdity in both the arguments themselves and the people who make them.

And wow -- big changes over here visually. Like it very much.

Bea said...

Maybe I'll have to look up the piece about the guest looking for coffee.

I'm sure the cliche I mentioned doesn't exist in many parts of the world, and I certainly wouldn't expect Americans to think of themselves in that way. Clearly you guys have a lot of comedians and sitcoms etc and I have not gained the impression you think of yourselves as a sombre nation, insofar as any nation can agree internally on how it views itself. At the same time, I doubt I'm revealing anything that Americans don't know - it's a commonly-enough reported cliche.

But the cliche about the British having no sense of humour is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. The British are hilariously funny. On the whole - I could name exceptions (some of these cultural subgroups are exceedingly small). But here you have two groups who both claim that the other has no sense of humour, presumably because they keep missing each other's jokes.

I have to admit, humour is one of the things that gets me as an expat. I feel like I am forever making absolutely hilarious comments that fall completely flat, and then I have to reconstruct the entire scene over dinner to The Earl just to get any satisfaction. And I know it's funny, because he nearly doubles over with laughter. It's just not funny to most people I mix with face to face.

So yeah, I guess humour is something I struggle with in more ways than one.

Bea said...

Of course it's more complex than that because there's also common ground.

Pamela T. said...

I've reflected more about why I was so unnerved. Jenny Allen's piece brought back memories of sitting at a baby shower after we'd lost our alpha pregnancy. Sitting, trapped, in a room listening to pregnancy and labor and mommy/baby bonding stories after losing my pregnancy was excruciating in every sense of the word.

Intellectually I know what she was trying to achieve, emotionally it delivered something akin to a sucker punch.

Bea said...

That's what I was tying to get at with the hot-button issue paragraph, Pamela.

But to reiterate what I just posted on your blog, I think it is mostly to do with style of humour. This was a sarcastic parody, and a lot of people just don't gel with that.

Pamela T. said...

Life was simpler and laughs came more readily before infertility redefined my world. Fortunately, i do laugh often and, this series of comments aside, I try not to take myself too seriously. If I were to psychoanalyze, one could say that -- through my A Fresh Start blog -- I'm relying on a mothering instinct to protect and defend vulnerable or downtrodden women who often feel bullied by a society ignorant of what they've lived with and through.

While we ended up on different paths, Bea, I very much appreciate your willingness to continue to weigh in and try to understand as well as to challenge my thinking.
We're both in new territory and figuring it out as we go along.

And, yes, i think we've demonstarted that much like beauty, humor, satire are in the eye of the beholder.

Mali said...

I know different cultures grow up with very different comedy styles. As do different families. (My husband's father and brother love puns. Shrug!) I grew up with NZ, Scottish, English, Irish, Australian and American comedy in books, radio and TV, and can see the delights in all of them. I was therefore astounded to see Mel's comment that Americans think the British aren't funny. As you say, the British are hysterically funny. So are the Kiwis (Flight of the Conchordsd a great example of a very different kind of humour). I've also lived in Asia and have Asian relatives, and know the differences between Singaporean/Thai/Malaysian and Filipino comedy.

That said, as Pamela said, the Jenny Allen piece was a bit of a sucker punch to those of us without kids. I don't think it has anything to do with parody/humour style. By saying that, you're just saying that you have a better sense of humour than those of us who didn't find it that funny. That's a bit like telling a Jewish person they don't have a sense of humour if they don't like a joke about Jews.

I think if I had kids, I might have found it funny. I would have smugly been able to laugh at all my fellow mothers who fell into this stereotype, remembering hearing these things when I was infertile and relating to it, and I would have been able to feel generous towards my childless friends, joining with them in scorning the ridiculousness of the comments. Except that the comments (jokes) weren't anything exceptional or witty or insightful. They were everyday comments and attitudes we come across ALL THE TIME. (With the exception of locking the husband in the basement). So where was the parody? And so whilst I appreciate her efforts to be funny about this, I don't think she succeeded.

I mean, what's hysterically funny about this?

"Because, if you’re not a mom, you may not be a bad person, but you are an extraneous person."

Women without children are made to feel extraneous all the time. It is one of our deepest fears. So it's funny making fun of our deepest fears? We are also made to feel as if we are bad, selfish people (because we didn't adopt and can sleep in on weekends). Etc.

Maybe her target audience was in fact mothers? Mothers (those who are at least understanding of infertility and the mom-worship culture) seem to be the only ones finding it funny. (Presumably the mom-worshipping mothers are those who are offended by it.) But if mothers were her target readership, then that, you know, just kind of defeats the purpose of her piece and reinforces the stereotypes she tried to expose.

Extraneous we might indeed be. And now we're being made to feel as if we're humourless too.

Bea said...

Hi Mali. First of all, OMG Flight Of The Conchords is up there in the category of "funniest things ever". We bought their music album and play it often.

Secondly, re: British humour - you and I are also on the same page there, although I have heard the cliche about the British before Mel mentioned it. In fact, on two occasions I can recall an American has said it to me in all seriousness in almost exactly those words. I just had to politely but firmly disagree, but I think I only changed one mind (and actually that wasn't me, that was the group of British people who joined our discussion shortly after the comment was made and - completely unknowingly - proceeded to make a joke approximately once every sentence, half of which had to be explained sotto voce to the American until at last he admitted with a rueful smile that it was just a cross-cultural thing).

Bea said...

But to the main point: Of course I'm not trying to say I have a superior sense of humour, and I apologise if I've come across that way. I don't know if you've read my followup post yet, it's possible there may be a third. However just in the meantime:

That line about being an extraneous person was, for me, the absolutely, hands-down, funniest line in the whole thing, precisely because that is the attitude people give out all the time (and especially in the Anne Romney speech). The target of the joke, the people being made fun of, are the people like Anne Romney who forget to acknowledge that women do things other than raise children. The target of that joke is very much NOT the women who are made to feel excluded because they don't have children, and it is doing the exact OPPOSITE of making fun of them and their deepest fears. Saying that joke is making fun of childless women's fears about feeling extraneous is like saying the Big Train sketch I linked to in my followup post is making fun of women who have been attacked by men. Whereas Big Train is actually making fun of romance novelists.

There are two target audiences for Jenny Allen's column:

1) Women everywhere who are sick of hearing that the only worthwhile thing they can do with their lives is raise children. This group includes mothers and non-mothers. These are the people who are supposed to be laughing.

2) Anne Romney and the Mumzilla, who are not supposed to be laughing, but feeling ashamed of themselves, now that their attitudes have been exposed for what they really are, with no soft edges, euphemisms, or polite facades.

And I think a lot of people in the target audience - mums and non-mums, are going to be laughing hysterically, and at the same time many are not, and it is going to mostly be about their style of humour. Which doesn't mean they don't laugh at other things or that they are humourless (see Pamela's comment, above - I firmly believe her that she laughs often!) just that this particular thing doesn't appeal to them.

That said, I think there is some truth in the fact that someone might feel like they have greater "permission" to laugh if they are a mother themselves, because mothers (a certain style of) are the target of the joke. So to use your Jewish example, it is like telling a very funny joke about a Jew to a non-Jewish audience vs a Jewish audience. The Jewish audience is probably going to laugh harder because not only is the joke funny but they don't have to worry about what people will think of them if they admit they find it funny. At the same time, not every Jewish person everywhere is going to find the joke funny, and that's going to come down to their style of humour.

So I do agree (and did already agree in the original post, and also followup comment to Pamela) that there is a difference in reaction depending on life circumstances, but perhaps my earlier musings about it being too much an emotional issue were only part of the answer, and I think this is the missing piece, as prompted by what you've said in your comment.

In conclusion. The truth about comedy is different types of jokes appeal to different people for all sorts of (sometimes very very subtle and nuanced) cultural reasons, and saying so doesn't mean that one sense of humour is better and the other worse, or that I think so personally.

So I hope that clears up any misunderstandings over my point of view.

Bea said...

Sorry I had to split that up as it got too long.

Jjiraffe said...

Lots to ponder here...

I lived in the UK as an ex-pat for a few years. I'd be quite curious actually about your reaction to my post about 9/11 as it was about the differences between my reaction to 9/11 and my English colleagues as the day progressed. They used humor that day and I thought it was totally inappropriate and hurtful. Almost all Brits I have met ARE funny, and most of the time, I love to laugh. Just not that day...

I also thought Allen's essay was funny. But I get now why others didn't...

Here's my 9/11 post:

Mali said...

I don't want to get into a prolonged argument, because I'm sure you are very funny and that we share similar senses of humour (we must if you love Jemaine and Brett). But I have to say two things, even though I probably shouldn't.

One. You didn't need to explain what she intended with the "extraneous person" comment. I know exactly what she meant. I got the "joke." I got them all. That's my point. It just didn't work for me (or other childless women I know). It hurt. It was too close to home. And if I'm honest I guess it hurts a bit to know people are laughing hysterically at that too.

Two. This is a piece written by a mother, about other mothers and their stereotypes about non-mothers. And mostly mothers are finding it funny. (I accept there are probably childless women who might have found that funny. I just haven't found any yet.) So, (to use a local analogy) this is more like me (a Pakeha = non-Maori) telling a joke about Pakeha stereotypes of Maori behaviour, to a group of Maori, intending to mock those stereotypes. Talking about how great I am because I'm pakeha, and that I therefore deserve better jobs and housing and education and health outcomes. Ridiculous yes? Yes. And I'm mocking the people who hold that view. But how would the Maori who were listening about me saying that? How would they feel hearing stereotypes repeated once again? Would it hurt if I hit too close to home, and laughed way too loud. Used examples they encountered every day. That they would face that evening/tomorrow. So they wouldn't laugh. Then I would stand and tell them why the joke is so hysterical, and that they really should get it, and try to explain the "jokes" to them.

Now, I agree with you, the Maori guys could tell the joke if they wanted - absolutely, I agree with you - and might laugh uproariously at it. But it's very different if a non-Maori/Pakeha makes the jokes. Because as a Pakeha, I can't quite anticipate how they will feel about that joke, or about me telling it, even if I try to put myself in their situation. And it still comes across a little as if I'm laughing at them, as well as the people who hold the stereotypes.

Ok, I'm happy to leave this now. You're not going to convince me it was funny, and I'm not going to convince you it wasn't.

I'll go read some more of your posts, as I've only just discovered your blog, and I'm attracted to the whole expat thing (having been there done that).

Bea said...

Ok, sorry to patronise, Mali! I took your question literally. (See who's missing what now?)

And don't worry - I'm not trying to convince you it's funny. If you're not already laughing, you won't laugh (and if you are, you already have).

I think the Maori analogy flags up a lot of the nuances at stake here, including who is "allowed" to laugh and make jokes. A Maori telling those jokes would have reached a slightly different target audience for reasons already discussed (although there would have been much crossover), just as Pamela making those jokes would have reached a slightly different target audience. But in this case I'm glad a mum made those jokes because to me the most important target audience here is group 2) from my comment above, and Pamela (or substitute non-mum) wouldn't have reached them so effectively. That's really important to me because it was written primarily to make a point, humour was only the device. We have to also take into account that this was a direct response to a specific event - it wasn't an unprovoked comedy routine, and that makes things different as well.

And if I can reiterate a point (I know, I know - we should be finished already if we're just reiterating) I made on Pamela's blog I guess mainly I just didn't expect that sort of negative reaction against Jenny. I expected plenty of people not to laugh, sure, but that's different. And more broadly than that, it's bringing up a lot of questions I've had about humour and culture in general lately, so I'm using the topic to think through them.

Bea said...


I think you sorted it out quite well in that post. Everyone responded in their own ways. Nobody was in any way failing to notice the seriousness of the event itself. Telling the British not to make jokes would have been like telling you you weren't allowed to cry or try to contact your loved ones (although surely they could have let you go home?). When terrible stuff is happening you have to allow people to use their coping mechanisms, and to do that you have to recognise them for what they are.

Bea said...

P.S. I also learned about the word "bloody" the hard way.

Bea said...

(Sorry, Mali, I just re-read that and I completely left out one thing because I got interrupted.)

I was also going to say that the main difference between the Maori/Pakeha analogy is that Jenny Allen is not really responding on behalf of non-mums. She is happy to include them in her list of people Anne R has offended, but she is responding first and foremost to a more personal offense - the slight she herself felt as a woman and a feminist. So I think it makes a big difference that she has personal ownership of the offense, albeit as a woman who has children. Whereas I can't see a situation where a non-Maori has the same ownership of those issues.

But yeah. Whole lotta nuances.

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