Why No One Here Is Laughing at My Jokes

I’m finishing my very brief first visit to India–Bangalore, in particular. I have given six lectures in three days, enjoyed several meals on the campus of the ACTS Institute where the week-long seminar for graduate students is being held, and driven back and forth through Bangalore’s kaleidoscopic traffic in those three days.

Everyone who comes to India for the first time records profound and moving experiences. Usually those experiences are described in terms of shocking juxtapositions: ancient/modern, Indian/British, rich/poor. I’ve had those experiences, too, but cannot think of a single original, interesting thing to say about them. They’re just real: profound and moving.

But here is something else I’ve noticed, not so profound, but disconcerting at the least. My best jokes, throughout my lectures, have flown across the room, making no evident connection with my audience, and then have silently disappeared in a far high corner where they went to die.

I am teaching some rather complex stuff: theology of religions, philosophy of knowledge, sociology of fundamentalism, theological ethics. The students seem to be understanding well enough. So it’s not as if we are simply not communicating.

No, the jokes just aren’t working. And I’ve found out why.

Some of my hosts have lived and studied in the West, and continue to travel there frequently. To a person, they get my jokes and laugh good-naturedly. So when I asked them about contemporary Indian humour among the middle-class people I am addressing–who, to be sure, come from virtually every corner of this vast and varied land–they say this: Think of North American humour a generation or more ago. Don’t think “Frasier” or “The Office” or Jon Stewart. Goodness, no! Think “I Love Lucy,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and Jerry Lewis.

Their humour, it seems, is straight on the nose, big smiles telegraphing the punch line, with no ambiguity: That’s a joke. Ours, instead, comes at you sideways, no smile, with a dash of bitters. Oh, yeah: I get it.

I like our humour better. I like clever, I like witty, I like sardonic, I like wordplay, I like irony. I hate slapstick and most physical comedy (although I love David Hyde Pierce on “Frasier” re-runs, but he’s a genius). So I’m glad for our sort of jokes, and when I re-pitched my humour for the benefit of my audience, I was genuinely glad they were amused, because I care about them, but I also was inwardly embarrassed. (“Oh, brother: You call that a joke? Why not put on some funny pants and honk a horn?”)

So what? So I’m now wondering whether I need to reconsider my almost constant use of such humour. Friends have warned me, in fact, that people near me, whom I want to stay near me and to enjoy being near me, are frequently uncomfortable with me just because they’re not quite sure what I mean by that. And not knowing means not feeling safe. And nobody likes to feel unsafe.

I might not like “I Love Lucy”–in fact, I can’t stand it. But you always know who’s who and what’s what in that world.

In my world, you often can’t be sure whether that remark was a compliment or an insult. You often can’t tell for certain who is friend and who is foe. You often can’t tell where you are, and who is with you.

So some of my students are wary of me. Some of my colleagues keep a certain distance. And some of my family members wonder–if only for a second–whether I really love them.

That’s a pretty big price to pay for trying to be humorous.

In fact, it’s really not funny.

0 Responses to “Why No One Here Is Laughing at My Jokes”

  1. Rev. Mike

    Allow me to recommend to you a recent Albert Brooks movie–Looking for Humor in the Muslim Word. As I read your story here, images from that film came to mind.

  2. Wasabi Rhetoric » Blog Archive » Westernized humor

    […] This post by John Stackhouse is an interesting commentary on Westernized humor. I have little to add other than a memory: on a mission trip to Guatemala, three of us dressed as clowns. We attempted to be silly in a standard ha-we’re-clowns way, but when one clown pulled a chair out from under another, none of the kids laughed. Apparently in America our standard of humor is a lot meaner than elsewhere. « I guess I’m learning something… […]

  3. Mark

    I’m inclined to agree with April. Furthermore, if my status as a former student of yours and ongoing admirer of your work is to give me any leverage at all, I would like to order you to continue being funny. Oh, but don’t think I haven’t appreciated the points you’ve made here. After all, I’m an admirer of your work.

  4. Beth

    I think that humour can be a defense mechanism, and can sometimes turn on the offensive, whether intended or not, as you’ve explored here. But I think (keeping with the military metaphors) it can also be disarming. In the classes I’ve taken from you, I’ve found that the majority of your jokes are directed against yourself. I remember you pointing out how you use self-deprecating humour especially after saying something serious and important, as if to communicate, “I say some great things, but don’t make me out to be the ultimate authority – I’m human like the rest of you.” I haven’t forgotten that, and lately it’s been making me consider how I come across as I learn to preach. Anyway, thanks for leading me to think more about my own humour, and what its effects might be, for better or worse.

  5. SursumCorda

    Thank you for addressing the topic of how our jokes are received, which inspired my own blog post; I’ve included the link rather than copying my comments here.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Many thanks, friends, for these generous affirmations. And thanks to Beth particularly for her kind observations. As a “recovering narcissist,” I do work hard to avoid the occupational hazard of telling yet another story that stars me as the hero… 😉

    And isn’t it wonderfully humble of me to make that effort?

    Oh, dear…

  7. Wil

    I deal with the same thing. It’s a defensive thing for me. Although I can analyze myself to death, I actually envy people who can speak from the heart and are not scared to get challenged. It takes practice for me, and I need to feel safe. From what, I don’t know.

  8. LBetts

    For 2 years I taught students in Asia for whom English is not their native language. Most of my humor is also based on wordplay, satire or inflection, and was usually missed as you indicate yours was.

    My own hypothesis after spending two years with the students is that the sophistication asymmetry between us was simply one of language: verbal humor requires one of the most sophisticated levels of language achievement in the language being used for humor, while visual/physical humor simply requires far less language development. But I was wrong once, so…

  9. Jim aka Yacouba

    I’ve often thought that if ever I went back for a ThD my thesis would be on the subject of Biblical Humor. There’s really not too much thigh-slapping going on in those thousands of pages. So, what’s REALLY funny anyway?

    According to http://www.ballard.co.uk/images/Information_images_docs/Euro_joke.doc humor is a highly cultural idea. Lots of great examples of gaffes are given, and the various foundations of humor in different cultures are discussed, along with who is allowed to be the appropriate teller of the funny.

    As a career missionary to Africa, I’ve developed quite a collection of cannibal jokes (not “in good taste” in certain circles or contexts). Did you know that the ecumenical movement began after cannibals attacked a missionary retreat center and feasted for days on Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists, etc.? And that the cannibals didn’t like to eat the charismatics because … they were always throwing up their hands! or the divorcees because … they were bitter.


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