National Styles of Humor
by Don L. F. Nilsen, and
Alleen Pace Nilsen
Afghanistan at the Crossroads
Ghenghis Khan came to Afghanistan.
Marco Polo came to Afghanistan.
The Silk Route went through Afghanistan.
The British came to Afghanistan.
The Americans came to Afghanistan.
The Russians came to Afghanistan.
The Kuchies travel through Afghanistan;
They travel toward Russia in the Spring and Summer time.
And they travel toward Pakistan in the Fall and Winter time.
Afghanistan is like New York.
It’s a great place to visit, but nobody gets to stay.
International Humor that Translates Well
from Culture to Culture
Physical humor tends to play well across
international borders, and of course
comedians in America’s silent films had
international audiences.
Examples of comedians who have international
audiences include:
Charlie Chaplin,
Buster Keaton,
Laurel and Hardy, and
The Three Stooges
Bulgarian Humor
Every year there is a humor festival in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, that attracts
visitors from around the world.
They have a museum called the “House of Humour and Satire” with tanks
and guns made out of soft cloth.
In front of the House of Humour and Satire is a statue of Don Quixote and
Sancho Panza.
They make fun of the fact that they are cheap. They erected a statue of
their humorous founder Racho Kabacho (Racho, the blacksmith) in the
middle of the river, because that was where the land was cheap.
And during the festival, dozens of people dress up like Charlie Chaplin
with mustaches, top hat, tuxedos, oversized shoes and canes. And
they all walk in straight lines and then make right-angle turns to walk
in a new straight line.
Political Cartoons across International Boundaries
Another type of humor that translates well across
international boundaries are political cartoons.
These cartoons are caricatures in which the salient
features are exaggerated, so that the depictions
become very recognizable.
The cartoon must also be epiphanal, so the characters
in the cartoon tend to be very stereotypical.
This allows the point to be made in a very quick and
succinct way, much like the punch line of a joke.
Classical Greek Satire
But much humor is situated both in time and in space.
Horace wrote mild and gentle humorous satires. These were called
Horatian satires.
Juvenal wrote bitter and sardonic satires. These were called Juvenalian
We also have Horatian and Juvenalian satires in later times.
Jonathan Swift wrote the Horatian satire Gulliver’s Travels, and he also
wrote the Juvenalian satire A Modest Proposal.
Similarly, George Orwell wrote the Horatian satire Animal Farm, and the
Juvenalian satire 1984.
Postmodern Deconstructed Humor
A satire presents a dystopia (what life is), and suggests a eutopia (what
we want life to be), but in order to do this, it has to be judgmental.
When satire becomes non-judgmental, it turns into gallows humor, and in
America most of our satires have become ironic rather than satiric.
Examples include:
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller,
One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, and
The World according to Garp by John Irving
These are all dark, but there are some that are even darker:
Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and
Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Frontier Tall Tales vs. Urban Legends
In early America, some people stayed in the safe and comfortable East while the
adventurers went West to tame the frontier.
These early American frontiersmen sent stories back to the gullible Easterners
about the frontier West.
They told about obsidian mountains, and fish that jump into boats, and about
water shooting out of the rocks at regular intervals of the day, and about
“grand canyons.”
And some of the stories were true, while other stories were “tall tales,” and many
of the Easterners couldn’t tell the difference.
There were frontier stories about John Henry, and Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill. It
is said that Pecos Bill’s tombstone reads: “Here lies Pecos Bill. He always lied,
and always will. He once lied loud. He now lies still.”
Frontier Humor vs. Urban Legends
But as America became industrialized, and Americans moved to the
cities, a new type of humor developed: the urban legend.
These urban legends were about new inventions, new discoveries, and
new fears about city life.
There is an urban legend about a solid cement Cadillac, and about a $100
Mercedes, and about a thief in a changing room, and even one about
Little Mikey who would eat cereal that nobody else would eat.
Little Mikey is said to have eaten some pop rocks, and to have drunk
some Coke, and to have exploded.
The Alligators in the Sewers
One of these urban legends is about the alligators in the sewers.
Some Americans bought tiny alligators and tiny turtles for their children,
and when they were finished with them they flushed them down the
toilets into the sewers.
Some other Americans’ homes were raided while they were smoking
marijuana, and they flushed this down the sewers.
The sewer was a very rich environment for the many plants and animals
that were flushed down the toilets, because of all of the water and
So there are urban legends about alligators in the sewers, and powerful
marijuana in the sewers, and even of turtles that have mutated into
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
German “Schadenfreud” Humor
Germany has “Der Struevelpater,” a dark
figure who burns up little children who
play with matches and cuts off the
fingers of little children who play with
This dark figure is designed to teach
children that there are serious
consequences for doing bad things.
English Humor: Chaucer’s Eccentrics
There is a Night, a Miller, a Pardoner, and a Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales. The following is a tale about the Nun.
Ther was also a nonne, a Prioresse,
That of hir smyling was ful symple and coy,
Hir gretteste oath was but by Seinte Loy,
And she was cleped Madame Eglentyne.
Ful wel she song the service dyvine,
Entuned in her nose ful semely.
And Frenshe she spak ful faire and fetisly
After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,
For Frenshe of Parys was to hir unknowe.
Humor in Shakespeare’s Comedies
As an example of a Shakespearean comedy consider A Midsummer
Night’s Dream.
It is a “comedy of humors” with many eccentric characters, but the magic
in the play makes the characters even funnier.
Bottom, for example, ends up with the head of an ass. His name is
Bottom, and in English, one’s “bottom” is one’s “ass.”
Humor in Shakespeare’s Romances
The women in Shakespeare’s romances can be very uppity until the last
act, at which time everybody gets married, the natural order is
restored (with the man in charge), and they live happily ever after.
This is true in Much Ado about Nothing, and it is also true in The Taming
of the Shrew, in which the shrew gets tamed in the last act.
Romeo and Juliet is a romance that begins as a comedy and ends as a
In this play, Mercutio is a mercurial or comic figure. When Romeo asks
how badly he is wounded he says, “ ‘Tis not so deep as a well, nor so
wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.” “Ask for me
tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man.”
Humor in Shakespeare’s Histories
Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is dripping with
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones….
The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambituous;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault….
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse; was this ambition?
Humor in Shakespeare’s Tragedies
But the best humor in Shakespeare is the comic relief in his tragedies.
When the tragedy becomes unbearable, the play must be comic not
only for relief, but also to contrast with the stark tragedy that came
before and will surely follow afterward.
Consider the drunken porter scene in Macbeth.
Consider the fool-is-smarter-than-the-king speech in King Lear.
Consider the Polonius in the wings speech in Hamlet.
Or consider the grave digger’s scene in Hamlet:
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most
excellent fancy….” “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your
songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on
a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning?”
Lewis Carroll’s Parodies
With most of his parodies, Lewis Carroll
was protesting the didacticism and
sentimentality imposed on Victorian
children and their parents.
“Twinkle, twinkle, Little Star, How I
wonder where you are,” becomes
“Twinkle, twinkle, Little Bat, How I
wonder where you’re at.”
England’s Didactic Tradition
G. W. Langford wrote a poem that not only preached to
parents, but also threatened them with a reminder of
the high mortality rate for young children.
Langford’s poem went as follows:
Speak gently to the little child!
It’s love be sure to gain;
Teach it in accents soft and mild;
It may not long remain.
Lewis Carroll’s Parody of Langford’s Poem
Lewis Carroll turned Langford’s poem into a
song for the Duchess to sing to a piglet
wrapped in baby clothes:
Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes.
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.
Isaac Watts’ Original Poem:
“Against Idleness and Mischief”
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
Lewis Carroll’s Parody
of Isaac Watts’ Poem
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
Oscar Wilde’s Comedy of Manners
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners
in which high society is one of the targets.
Lady Bracknell asks Jack, “Do you smoke?”
Jack responds, “Yes, I must admit I smoke.”
Lady Bracknell continues, “I am glad to hear it. A man should always
have an occupation of some kind.”
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play about names. Jack Worthing
invents the name of “Ernest” for times when he is being anything but
At the end of the play Jack discovers that Ernest is his real name, and he
says to Gwendolyn, “It is a terrible thing for a man to find out
suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.
Can you forgive me?”
American Parodies
Parodies of Edgar Alan Poe’s “Bells”
Hear the sledges with the bells—
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the Icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight.
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Demer Cape’s Parody of “Bells”
See the doctors with their pills—
Silver-coated pills.
What a world of misery their calomel
How they twingle, twingle, twingle in the
icy-golden night
You have taken two that mingle.
And you wish you’d had a single;
While your cheeks are ashy white…
Oh, the pills, pills, pills—
Pills, pills, pills, pills.
So ends my rhyming and my chiming on
the pills.
Barry Pain’s Parody of “Bells”
Here’s a mellow cup of tea, golden tea!
What a world of rapturous thought its
fragrance brings to me!
Oh from out the silver cells
How it wells!
How it smells?
Keeping tune, tune, tune
To the tintinnabulation of the spoon
And the kettle on the fire
Boils its spout off with desire,
But he always came home to tea, tea, tea,
Tea, tea, tea, tea.
Anonymous’ Parody of “Bells”
Hear the fluter with his flute,
Silver flute!
Oh, what a world of wailing is awakened
by its toot!
How it demi-semi quavers
On the maddened air of night!
And defieth all endeavors
To escape the sound or sight
Of the flute, flute, flute,
With its tootle, tootle, toot…
Of the flute, flewt, fluit, floot, Phlute,
Phlewt, Phlewght,
And the tootle, tootle tooting of its toot.
The Irish Rogue
The Irish Rogue is not a criminal, but he is very bright
and charismatic. And he is subversive.
Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is a typical Irish Rogue, in
the tradition of Christy Mahon in John Synge’s
Playboy of the Western World, Mr. Boyle in Sean
O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, Finn MacCool in
James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and Sebastian
Dangerfield in J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.
Jonathan Swift was even being a bit roguish when he
wrote “A Modest Proposal.”
Rogues are revered in Ireland, because it was
the Rogues who fought back when the
English were taking over Ireland.
Rogues break rules and laws, but it is always
for the greater good.
Rogues are “entertaining and high spirited,
and they diffuse violence with their use of
humor. Although they are flirtatious, they
seldom form any lasting alliances with
Many rogues are linked to an aristocratic figure, usually
an Irish rebel chief, for whom they risk their lives.
The ‘rogue’ is articulate, good natured, fun loving, and
exhibits an irrepressible élan vital.
Rogues tend to be imaginative and resilient comic
Japanese Humor vs. Navajo Humor
The Japanese are very serious during working
hours. They consider their bosses and their
fellow workers part of their family, and they
do their best to be productive and impress
their working companions.
But after working hours, they go to Karaoke
bars and drink lots of saki, and make fun of
their boss and their companions. Their
humor can be very slapstick, and very silly.
Japanese Humor vs. Navajo Humor
In contrast to Japanese humor, Navajo humor is part of
everyday life. It tends to be physical, and it involves
many practical jokes. Navajos will often parody
white men by talking loudly, boasting, and
interrupting others.
When a child is born into a Navajo family, everybody
tries to make the child laugh, and the first person
who is successful in doing so becomes a part of the
family. There is even a formal ceremony to induct
this laugh-inducer into the child’s family.
Trickster Tales:
Pourquoi Stories & Cautionary Tales
Most American Indian tribes, like many African
tribes, have trickster tales. The tales are
cautionary, and they are also explanatory.
African Anansi tales tell why mosqitoes buzz,
and why the elephant has a long trunk.
Indian Coyote stories and other trickster tales
tell how a person should act often by
demonstrating how not to act.
Indian culture also often has “contraries” who do everything
They ride their horses backwards.
They wear little clothing in the winter and much clothing in the
They lift great weights with ease and have difficulty lifting light
They attack a powerful enemy, and cower at a lesser power.
And they say the opposite of the truth.
Some ritual clowns also do the opposite of what is right as a
demonstration of what not to do.
Humorous Metaphors in Farsi
(Iranian Persian)
NOTE: In Farsi, these are dead metaphors and are therefore not funny.
But to an outsider learning Dari, they are very funny.
The Farsi word for walking is “baa Xate yazdah” (going by bus line
number 11). The 11 stands for two legs while walking.
The Farsi word for “ladybird” is “kafsh duzak” (little shoe-smith)
The Farsi word for “osterich” is “shotor-morgh” (camel-hen)
The Farsi word for “pneumonia” is “sine pahlu” (chest-side)
Humorous Metaphors in Dari (Afghan Persian)
The Dari word for “popcorn” is chos e fil” (elephant’s fart). This
has recently been changed to “pof-e fil” (elephant’s puff).
The Dari word for turkey is “fil morgh” (elephant chicken)
The Dari word for turtle is “sang posht” (rock back)
The Dari word for walnut is “chahar maghs” (four brains)
--Thanks to my Dari and Farsi consultants:
Sajida Kamal Grande of the University of Nebraska, Omaha
formerly of Kabul University in Afghanistan
And Behrooz Mahmoodi-Bakhtiari, University of Tehran
Afghan Mullah Nasruddin Stories
NOTE: These stories teach people logic and how to reason
Mullah Nasrudin and the balloon on the ankle
Mullah Nasrudin looking for a valuable coin in the wrong place
Mullah Nasrudin stealing watermelons
Mullah Nasrudin lifting a heavy boulder
Mullah Nasrudin shooting his own shirt
Mullah Nasrudin’s donkey, the salt, and the wool carpet
Mullah Nasrudin and the three Friday sermons
Mullah Nasruddin
Afghan Web Sites:
Bill Gau’s Afghan Signs Web Site”
Don and Alleen Nilsen’s Afghan Web Site: