Humor and societal norms

If I’d taken some sociology classes in college, I might have gotten this point sooner: humor is driven, by and large, by societal norms. Furthermore, it is usually in contrast (marked or absurd) to those same norms. Allow me to illustrate.

Japan: most of us know that public conduct there has been driven by very strict rules, for as long as history holds. For the most part, it still is. Everyone’s supposed to be proper and dignified. The very regimented lifestyle, and lack of personal space, I might add, leads to the desire to escape it all, to do something completely different. Hence, Japanese humor and comedy focuses on the absurd, on the unlikely, on the odd, the weird, etc. If I’d gotten this sooner, I wouldn’t have asked why Japanese ads are so embarrassing a while back. Now I understand, and I can begin to enjoy it.

Take a video like this for example, a “study” of the best way to escape farts. Only the Japanese could have dreamed this up.

Or how about this follow-up to the Human Tetris video I posted before?

England: No need to explain much here. In the land of the stiff upper lip, public behavior was excruciatingly dry and complex, at least for a particular class — so much so, that most English humor focuses entirely on it, and the contrast between said behavior and that of the lower classes. A search for Benny Hill, Mr. Bean or Harry Enfield on YouTube suffices to illustrate my point. The behavior of the upper classes is so captivating when skewered, that even bastardized versions of such behavior, the ones that trickled down to the bourgeoisie and the middle class, are fascinating. Keeping Up Appearances was one show that capitalized on this.

USA: You might ask why current humor here in the good old US kind of stinks (at least I do). Well, to answer my own question, I think it’s because we’ve been free of restrictive societal norms, at least when it comes to public behavior. In a way, we’ve neutered one of our most potent sources of humor, though it wasn’t done on purpose. We started out with a few civilized cities and mostly wilderness and farms, and it’s still pretty much that way ;-).

Most people are still relaxed in public, and getting even more relaxed. Americans just don’t ascribe to certain norms when out in society, and to a certain extent, this is excusable. In a melting pot like ours, standards differ from family to family, and without huge, focused, national efforts to introduce some standards, things will not improve.

Fortunately, we did have those annoying yuppies in the 80s and early 90s, and we could make fun of them for a while, until that got old. The movie Trading Places (1983, IMDB listing) has some pretty good examples of pseudo-aristocratic behavior just ripe for skewering.

So, here in the States, we’re fresh out of good material unless we tap into history. Or, we could always make fun of how indecently relaxed people have become in public. For example, not a day goes by that I don’t see people wearing unsightly plastic clogs (you know, the “fashionable” kind, the sort that give you athlete’s foot and make your feet smelly) or low-cut jeans that make me wonder what’s more disgusting — the fact that they’re not falling off even though I can plainly see the butt crack, or the plentiful layers of fat that flow over the waistline.

At any rate, the point that I wanted to get across is that I finally get it: humor, by and large, is driven by societal norms, which of course, differ from society to society. I’m beginning to enjoy Japanese humor. I even get why those ads featuring American celebrities are so absurd. They have to be. When you wear a suit and have to act proper all day long, even at home, you long for something completely different.

No matter what culture or nation we talk about, as people, we all share a basic set of needs and wants. One of those is laughter. While the things that make us laugh may differ from region to region, we all want to laugh, and we enjoy ourselves even more when we laugh with others. It’s nice (at least for me) that I can get to understand other cultures through their humor. It’s certainly an interesting way to look at their societies.

4 thoughts on “Humor and societal norms

  1. Thanks for the links, Chris! Peep Show looked the most promising out of all of them. The lead character looks deranged though, so there’s only so much schadenfreude one can deal with before the show gets downright weird. I’m still sticking to my original assessment that the vintage stuff is better.


  2. That’s a fair point. Any comedy when seen for the first time feels fresh… except Python, which will ALWAYS be brilliant and fresh. I think there is something about bizarre humour which never loses its edge.

    Here’s some good examples of British humour. You should bear in mind that it’s British TV so it has a LOT of swearing compared to US TV.



  3. Chris, perhaps I should have qualified my post by saying that I prefer the vintage humor. I find most of the new stuff to be recycled, unimaginative, and even downright vulgar. Thanks for your recommendations though. I’ll try to have a look at those new comedies. Can you perhaps send me links to some representative clips I can find online?

    What’s also interesting is how the shows I mentioned are perceived within England, here in the States, or in Romania, where I grew up. I grew up on re-runs of Monty Python, Benny Hill, Mr. Bean and shows like Keeping Up Appearances here in the States. In Romania, Benny Hill appeared only in the early 90s, after the fall of communism. So these shows took on a life of their own once they got exported from the UK. Generations of people that hadn’t seen them when they first appeared there, got to see them for the first time decades later. So naturally, that humor appears fresh to us.

    I’d also be interested to see what other Brits think of the shows I mentioned. As much as I value your opinion, you’re only one man, and I’d like to get a more comprehensive view of the matter.


  4. Hey Raoul,

    Your examples of British comedy are really out-dated. Nobody in the UK has watched Benny Hill since the early 70s, Mr Bean was never really funny, it was more of a kids show and Harry Enfield was funny for a bit in the mid 90s, but only because he had Paul Whitehouse (the Fast Show) writing and acting on his show. Ive never really watched Keeping up Appearances, it was more a show that your grandparents would watch.

    Class doesnt get much of a look in in British comedy anymore. That was more the case when Oxford and Cambridge comedians and writers dominated British television. It tends to now focus on laughing at people who aren’t quite socially adept. Not exactly racicts, homophobes and sexists, but those that are just not getting it right.

    The homour, and many of the jokes are similar, but the focus of the comedy has skewed from what it was in the early 90s and before.

    For good examples of current British TV comedy, have a look at The Thick of It (political), The Green Wing (hospital), Extras (actors), The IT Crowd (workplace geeks) and Peep Show (erm…cant really pidgeon hole this one).


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