IP:220.* * *
Is it possible for a foreigner to understand British humour?
In my opinion, there are a surprising number of similarities between British and Chinese humour. British humour is notoriously known for its dryness, suffused with irony and sarcasm to the extent of bordering on offensive. It teaches you to not to take yourself too seriously. To put it brashly, it loves to ‘take the piss’: out of oneself, of the people you like and of the ones you don’t. This is perhaps best represented by the once popular comic TV series Little Britain, a show that survived on crude, exaggerated parodies of your supposedly everyday Brit, poking fun at the working classes (the ‘Chavs’) and the obese. It traded on its British audience’s sense of self-deprecation. The Britishness of the humour may be reflected in the failure of the spin off of the show, Little Britain USA, to entertain an American audience, who are perhaps too used to the fluffiness of shows such as Friends to find humour in endless crude jokes about homosexuality, fatness and other sensitive topics.
依我之见，腐国和大中华的幽默还真是惊人地相似。众所周知，英式幽默的特点就是平淡无奇，却又偏偏要尽挖苦讽刺之能事，简直有了冒犯的意味。笑话看多了，你就懂了：别太把自己当回事。话糙理不糙地讲，英式幽默能把所有人祖宗八辈地挖苦一遍：挖苦自己，挖苦喜欢的、不喜欢的三教九流。这一特质在红极一时的电视喜剧《小不列颠》（Little Britain）中展现地淋漓尽致，剧中的大量桥段靠着粗暴夸张的模仿，挖苦着不列颠的芸芸众生，嘲笑着中产阶级（“小混混”）和肥胖人士。也是抓准了英国观众的自嘲精神。如此英国特色到了美国佬那可没人买账，《小不列颠》的姊妹篇《小不列颠大美利坚》（Little Britain USA）就没能娱乐到美国人民，这些人可是看惯了《老友记》（Friends）里烂俗的段子，管他是拿同性恋、大胖墩还是其他敏感话题开涮呢！
The art of self-deprecation
While some topics may still be too taboo to joke about due to the ‘face saving’ culture in China, self-mockery, known as ‘Zi Hei’, is also becoming a more popular form of humour. This can be seen by the roaring and mostly favourable response to actor DengChao’s Weibo posts, filled with photos and clips of himself in drag and all sorts of weird and wonderful costumes and makeup. Rather, it is those who take themselves too seriously or think too highly of themselves that often end up as the butt of jokes in both British and Chinese cultures: think politicians in the UK, the and nouveau riche or ‘second generations’ in China (stemming off the ‘My father is Li Gang jokes’).
The deadpan nature in which some British jokes are delivered is comparable to Chinese ‘cold jokes’. Both take a moment for the recipient to register, and both are not necessarily funny to all who hears them. Eating dinner at a British restaurant the other night, we sat next to a group of men on a ‘stag-do’; each of them was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a sentence that was directed at the groom-to-be. One of them said: ‘some say he works from home, even though he lives only a few yards from his workplace.’ We could only guess that this was an endearing way of labelling their friend as lazy, but not having known them personally, our response was ‘that’s cold’!
Due to the wealth of Chinese characters and sounds, a lot of Chinese humour is inspired by homophones, and playing on words or characters. Equally, the Brits are fond of their puns, which are frequently integrated into everyday conversation. This is often followed by the disclaimer ‘no pun intended’ – although like many other forms of British humour, this serves the exact opposite purpose of what it says, by lightheartedly acknowledging that a joke has been made. One of my personal favourites belongs to comedian Leo Kearse, winner of the UK ‘pun championships’: I was at hospital last week. I asked the nurse if I could do my own stitches, she said "suture self." (punning cleverly on “suit yourself”.)
A rich history
Furthermore, both China and Britain have a rich and profound history and culture for comedians to work with. For example, Chinese humour may incorporate historical figures: ‘Yuan Fang, what do you think?’ (lines from a TV series based on a Tang dynasty magistrate and statesman). The Brits, if Little Britain is anything to go by, are always receptive to jokes about the centuries-old class system.
But this is only a tiny sample of what I’ve experienced in the enriching worlds of Chinese and British humour – and there’s so much more to discover. After all, is there a better way to get to know a culture than by learning its sense of humour?