Humor and Anthropology/
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
Humor is Everywhere
Anthropologist Mahadev Apte has
• Not only does humor occur in all
human cultures, it also pervades all
aspects of human behavior, thinking,
and sociocultural reality. It occurs in
an infinite variety of forms and
Both Folklorists and
Anthropologists Study Humor
Folklorist Elliott Oring has observed that:
• Anthropology focuses on the concept of culture
whereas folklore emphasizes the notion of tradition.
• Folklorists confront and study humor because a
number of the traditions they study—tales, songs,
• In fact, jokes and other forms of humorous
expression have come to be recognized as the pre-
eminent form of folkloric expression in
contemporary urban society.
Kan Ghu Ru = “We don’t understand!”
Some anthropological findings are funny only
in retrospect because when cultures first
interact, there are bound to be mistakes .
One of the earliest and most famous mistakes was when
Christopher Columbus named Native Americans Indians
because he thought he had come to India. These two
photos illustrate one of many cultural differences even 500
As the world becomes smaller through technology and
travel, such mistakes are less common as ordinary
people make efforts to learn about other cultures. Here
a girl in one of our classes tries on an Afghan chaderi
(a burka) and then folds it back when getting reading to
serve Afghan food
In another example of cultural differences, when the ISHS
humor conferences are held in the United States, we use the
smiley face on the left, but when in 2012 it was held in
Poland, the organizers used a face like the right one.
• Derek Freeman writes that anthropologists
need to know the cultures they are studying.
He wrote that,
• “Margaret Mead did not speak Samoan and
in large measure became a victim of the
Samoan sense of humor—what fun it must
have been for lively young Samoans to
deceive this tiny, pink, foolish American
woman who was asking them silly
• He thinks that the Samoans were
playing a practical joke on Mead.
• For example, she was deceived into
thinking there was no rape in Samoa
(which had a far higher incidence of that
crime than most other societies)
(Freeman (1983) 347-349, Davies (2008) 160).
Common Ethnic Metaphors Based on the
Colors of RED, YELLOW, and BROWN.
• In Asian Am. communities, • A ‘Twinkie’ is a person
the most common slurs yellow on the outside, white
are not such terms as on the inside.”
‘Chink’ or ‘Jap,’ but ‘FOB’
(‘Fresh Off the Boat’) or • Native Americans call other
‘white-washed,’ meaning Indians ‘Apples’ if they are
too assimilated.” red on the outside but white
on the inside.
• Kids who do not assimilate
drive cars dubbed as ‘Rice • African Americans call other
Rockets,’ and their Blacks ‘Oreos’ if they judge
pastimes and clothes are them to be brown on the
likely to be Asian. outside but white on the
Further Complications Connected to
• Chinese writer Frank Chin criticized Maxine Hong
Kingston for Woman Warrior, Amy Tan for The Joy
Luck Club, and David Henry Hwang for his plays
F.O.B., and M. Butterfly.
• He accused these writers of “boldly faking” Chinese
fairy tales and childhood literature.
• Kingston responded, “Sociologists have criticized
me for not knowing myths and for distorting them.”
• Kingston has explained that in China, pirates
illegally translate her books for publication in
Taiwan and China.
• These pirates “correct” her myths, and
revise them to make them conform to
traditional Chinese versions.
• “They don’t understand that myths have to
change, be useful or be forgotten.”
• “Like the people who carry them across
oceans, the myths become American.”
Christie Davies has made a chart showing the joking
targets in 28 different countries. However, the ones
given below are the most recognizable
• Americans consider Poles, Italians, and Portuguese as
stupid while Jews, Scots, New Englanders, and Iowans
• Canadians consider Newfies as stupid and Jews, Scots,
and Nova Scotians as tricky.
• Mexicans consider people from Yucatan as stupid and
people from Monterey as tricky.
• Nigerians consider Hausas as stupid and Ibos as tricky.
• The English, Welsh and French consider the Irish,
Belgians, and Swiss as stupid, and the Scots and Jews
Davies also says that:
• The most common targets of ethnic humor,
live on the geographical, economic, or
linguistic edge of the society or culture
where the jokes are told. They live in small
communities, or rural areas on the periphery
of a nation, and are immigrants concentrated
in blue-collar occupations. “There is no
evidence that the targets are stupid, but they
occupy stupid locations.”
Also, the marginalized groups learn about
the mainstream groups, but the mainstream
groups remain ignorant of the marginalized
• The joke tellers identify with the target
groups by seeing them as comically stupid
versions of themselves.
• The best joking relationship between two
groups is when the groups exhibit both
“attachment and separation,” along with
“social conjunction and social
IS ETHNIC HUMOR A SWORD OR A
• Depending on its context, humor can
be offensive (aimed at ridiculing a
group different from the joke teller’s).
• But humor can also be defensive
(aimed at protecting a group from
• Or it can be both at the same time.
• Why aren’t Jews concerned about the
• Because they don’t consider a fetus
viable until after it graduates from
• If the tellers or listeners of this joke are gentiles, it
may be anti-semitic, criticizing Jews as being overly
ambitious and arrogant.
• But if the tellers or listeners are Jews, it may be an
expression of Jewish pride and the extraordinarily
high standards of child rearing.
• Can you think of any examples by or about
your own ethnic or religious group?
• When a group member tells an ethnic or
religious joke, it opens the door for inner-
group communication and invites group
members to examine their attitudes and
• But if outsiders tell the same joke, the effect
is the opposite, because the outsider focuses
on the group’s most obvious characteristics
and implies that these characteristics belong
to everyone in the group.
• Because outsiders have little power to bring
about internal change, the effect is to
stereotype the group, and this lessens the
chances for change.
• An Arizona Republic headline (7-26-2012) read “Arpaio
assistant takes heat at trial.” Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his
deputies were being tried in Federal Court for
discrimination against Hispanics and for “inaccurate or
false interpretations of federal immigration law.”
• Sgt. Brett Palmer admitted forwarding racially insensitive
e-mails to other deputies and members of the human-
smuggling unit. One was a cartoon of a Hispanic man
passed out near a bottle of tequila with the caption
• Pratt said he “regretted sending the e-mails,” but he
considered them to be jokes (our underlining).
List some of the relevant issues in this case?
An Old, More Generalized, Joke
Based on Ethnic Stereotypes
• HEAVEN is the place where the cooks are
French, the police are English, the
mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian,
and everything is organized by the Swiss.
• HELL is where the cooks are English, the
police are German, the mechanics are
French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything
is organized by the Italians.
What are some differences between this joke
and the ones the Deputy Sheriff sent out?
What to do about such jokes?
• Christie Davies says,
that to become angry
about such jokes and to
seek to censor them
because they impinge
on sensitive issues is
about as sensible as
thermometer because it
reveals how hot it is.
• DO YOU AGREE? WHY
OR WHY NOT?
ETHNIC VS. POLITICAL JOKES
• Alan Dundes says that Americans have more
ethnic than political jokes because America has
a free press where politicians and politics are
lambasted on a daily basis.
• Americans therefore have little need for oral
• But because people are often uncomfortable
discussing such subjects as sexuality or racism,
these tend to become the hidden subjects of
Most of the Success Is in the Telling
• Most good joke-tellers do not memorize jokes.
• They simply remember the punch-line, the theme of
the joke and possibly a couple of particularly clever
• And then they RE-INVENT the story by putting in
local color and adapting it to something that has
recently happened. Arizona’s congressman, Morris
Udall, was a master at this kind of adaptation.
Robert Priest’s M.I.C.H. Theory
• A psychologist at West Point Military Academy
proposed the MICH theory of Moderate Intergroup
• He says that people will not use humor with each
other unless there is some kind of tension or strong
• However, when feelings go beyond the moderate
level then humor exacerbates, rather than helps a
• Therefore, the most amusing jokes are usually found
in the middle ranges, because this is where the
hostility does not overpower the humor.
Univ. of Maryland Scholar Larry Mintz has
described stages that immigrants go through as
they adapt to the majority culture.
1. Critical humor targeting their own ethnic group
(e.g. Harpo Marx)
2. Self-deprecatory humor including themselves in
the targeted ethnic group (e.g. Chico Marx)
3. Realistic humor as part of accepting integration
(e.g. Groucho Marx)
4. Critical humor targeting mainstream culture (e.g.
Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks)
• During the “golden age” of radio, ethnic voices were
especially important in helping listeners know who
• One radio show which ran during the 1940s was
named “Allen’s Alley,” and featured Fred Allen.
• There was a loudmouth Irishman named Ajax
Cassidy, a farmer named Titus Moody, and a
pompous Southerner named Senator Beauregard
Claghorn, whose signature line was “that’s a joke,
• The writer of the show, Kenny Delmar
modeled the Claghorn character after a
Texas rancher who had given Delmar a
ride in his Model-T ford.
• Even today there is a Warner Brothers’
cartoon character by the name of
Foghorn Leghorn who is modeled after
Basic Principles to Keep in Mind:
1. Someone’s else’s ethnicity does not seem nearly as
important as our own.
2. Most people are happy
to develop their ethnic
3. The appreciation of
correlates with how
much we know about,
and identify with, the
4. Even within the United States we have cultural
differences as shown on this decorative map at a U.S. Egg
restaurant where the egg shells are decorated with
stereotypical images of different parts of the country.
5. Humor is a tool that can
be used either for
building up or tearing
6. Today, people are more
sensitive when they hear
jokes, and tellers need to
be aware that a particular
joke can travel much
further than the
• Toward the end of his career, Groucho Marx worried
about talented comedians who would soon be out of
work because dialect humor was out of fashion.
• Charlie Chan’s pidgin English disappeared from the
airwaves and so did Tonto’s manly grunting.
• Children no longer read El Gordo comic strips and
both Beaulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy are gone.
• Bill Dana gave up telling jokes through the voice of
his popular Jose Jimenez character and Frito-lay
discontinued its Frito Bandito commercials.
What do you think about these changes?
Larry Wilde, a professional comedian who
came to our humor conferences said that jokes
are 25% funnier if they are tied to an ethnic
He claimed this made them more specific and
therefore funnier, but he got lots of
Today, what techniques, besides making
characters come from different ethnic groups
do script writers use to help people
distinguish between particular characters as
on Sesame Street or in cartoons?
Ethnic Web Sites:
*HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROMGUANTANAMO BAY:
*RUSSELL PETERS--INDIAN ACCENT:
*DAVE CHAPELLE: “White People”
*JO KOY: “Chinese People”
*MARGARET CHO TALKS ABOUT RACE