Italians laugh backwards – ahahah instead of hahaha. But making them laugh at an English joke – or even smile politely – isn’t always easy.
The other day I was preparing material for a conversation lesson at the language school where I work. The topic was “fear/phobias”, so I printed out this well-known Far Side cartoon. I showed Valeriano, who didn’t find it remotely funny. “E’ divertente,” I insisted. “Ma perche’?” asked Valeriano.
I didn’t bother trying to explain, but had a similar reaction from my students. “Ah, English humour,” said one woman, knowingly. Although Gary Larson is American, I knew what she meant. In Italian “umore inglese” doesn’t only mean “English humour”, but also “humour that isn’t funny”. Italians view English humour in much the same way as English food – with cynicism and mild embarrassment.
“But why is it funny?” another student asked, frustrated that she didn’t understand.
“It just…is,” I said. “It’s an absurd situation. The idea of a duck watching someone is ridiculous, and the idea of someone having a phobia of being watched by a duck is even more ridiculous.”
She still didn’t get it. I grew up reading The Far Side and was determined to find a cartoon that they’d find at least mildly amusing. So I showed the class this one:
They all agreed that this one was funny. Valeriano had the same reaction. So, according to the results of my not very scientific survey: 100% of Italians are amused by mosquitoes, but not by ducks. Why?
Although sense of humour is often personal, depending more on the individual’s personality than their nationality, I’ve noticed some general patterns. Surreal/absurd humour doesn’t go down well in Italy. I’ve tried Monty Python on Italians, for example, and they generally don’t get it. They prefer humour that’s more accessible and situational – US sitcoms like Friends, How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory.
Physical humour is also much easier to understand. For example, Mr Bean is more popular in Italy than England. Physical humour is more universal and nothing is lost in translation. Even if you basically understand the language of a joke in a foreign language, a delayed reaction – taking a second to translate – can somehow make it less funny.
For an Italian, the mosquito cartoon is funny because the humour is mostly visual and it’s a “logical” joke. It makes sense. The duck phobia cartoon is not funny because the humour comes solely from the absurdity of the situation. While an American might find the cartoon funny because it doesn’t make sense, the lack of sense is the exact reason an Italian won’t get it.
So, what about Italian humour? What do Italians find funny in their own language? I started by thinking about the things that Valeriano and I laugh about, before realising that coupley in-jokes don’t really count. We laugh about the silliest things, such as saying the name “Pasquale” in an exaggeratedly Neapolitan accent. Aside from that, I can only give a few examples of Italian humour I’ve discovered through Valeriano. This is just a random selection, and not intended to be representative of the best or most famous Italian humour.
La Settimana Enigmistica
“I’m very sorry that your relationship ended so badly, but please, tell me which archive system you used!”
A fairly conventional newspaper comic strip – not really Italian-specific humour. If you understand the language, you get the joke.
A TV series that takes the piss out of TV series. It’s set in Rome and follows the making of a truly terrible soap opera called Gli occhi del cuore 2 (“The eyes of the heart 2”). I’ve seen a few episodes and while I find it funny, it’s not laugh-out-loud-funny like my favourite UK/US comedy (ie: Arrested Development). I don’t know if that’s a reflection of personal tastes, cultural differences or just Boris as a series. I intend to keep watching and find out.
Barzellette sui Carabinieri (Carabinieri jokes)
Un carabiniere preoccupato incrocia un suo collega che gli chiede: “Perché sei così preoccupato?”. “Domani ho l’esame del sangue e non ho studiato nulla!”
A worried Carabiniere bumps into a colleague who asks him, “Why are you so worried?” “I’ve got a blood test tomorrow and I haven’t studied at all!”
Un carabiniere fa a un altro: “Gianni la vuoi una birra?” e l’ altro: “sono astemio” e lui: “Astemio la vuoi una birra?”
A Carabiniere asks another, “Gianni, do you want a beer?” The other: “I’m astemio (tee-total)”. The first Carabiniere: “Astemio, do you want a beer?”
I suppose these are the equivalent of dumb blonde jokes in English? Carabinieri (policemen) are generally regarded as being a bit dim. Obviously the two jokes I’ve given as examples are pretty dreadful, but so are the equivalent jokes in English.
oroscopo del duemiladiciassette per tutti i segni.
grande fermento a inizio anno in ambito lavorativo, ti intesteranno una pizzeria gluten free a mogadiscio.
chiuderai a novembre per controlli asl, gli ispettori somali busseranno a denari ma tu non ti genufletterai a cotali richieste estorsive, denunciando tutto al questore.
ti faranno trovare all’immacolata sgozzato in una toyota rav4, col pesce di un missionario comboniano sistemato ad arte nella tua bocca per la foto di rito sull’articolo di cronaca nera.
la gente continuerà a fare il pizzo a riso quando dici che sei vergine, augurissimi.
A great start to your career this year: you’ll get a gluten-free pizzeria in Mogadishu, which will be closed down by the health inspectors in November. The Somalian health inspectors will try to get money out of you, but instead of giving into their demands you’ll report them to the police. You’ll be found with your throat cut in a Toyota RAV4 with the fish of a Colombian missionary placed artfully in your mouth (?!) in the cronaca nera (crime pages of a newspaper).
People will continue to laugh when you say that you’re a vergine (virgin). Augurissimi.
Luca Fiorentino is an untranslatable Neapolitan writer who is prolific on Facebook, updating almost daily with stream-of-consciousness satirical ramblings in dialect. It’s incredibly sharp, often extremely vulgar satire – not mainstream Italian humour. You also need to be Neapolitan (or know a Neapolitan) to understand most of it. Out of all the Italian humour I’ve been exposed to so far, I think Luca Fiorentino might be my favourite. Perhaps because there’s that streak of the surreal that resembles some British humour. Or perhaps there’s something distinctively Neapolitan about it, which is different to more mainstream Italian humour. Sometimes when I say something sarcastic or dry that seems particularly British (to me, at least), Valeriano says I sound Neapolitan. I’ll have to investigate some more conventional Neapolitan comedy (starting with Toto’) and see if there’s a link…