You are currently viewing Why is it so difficult to be funny in English? The Mysteries of Laughter in Language Learning

Why is it so difficult to be funny in English? The Mysteries of Laughter in Language Learning

Being funny in a second language can be quite an adventure! In this article, we will explore the challenges you might encounter and see in practice how native speakers deal with them in communication.

Written with love by: Suzanne Pilch, ICF Certified Coach & MPEC Partner

There are many reasons why being funny in a second language is a complicated task. They stem from the very essence of humour which is built on metalinguistic pillars such as: Incongruity, wordplay, satire, irony, timing, surprise and – last but not least – observation and description. The very nature of what makes a human laugh has been a subject of interest for many philosophers since Aristotle, who delved into the analysis of the ars comica, examining the nature of comedy and its various aspects. So, as you can see, being funny in ANY language, even in the one we’re fluent in since birth is no walk in the park.

However, if we add to the complexity of building a humorous effect the limitations of using a language we don’t have a full mastery of, the task can prove to be a true challenge. So, let’s now analyse in more depth the reasons why being funny in a language we’re learning can be an arduous endeavour, shall we?

First off, we have cultural differences. Humour is like a secret language shared within a culture, relying on specific references, wordplay, and shared experiences.

What tickles one culture’s funny bone might leave another culture scratching their head. So, when using a second language, you might miss out on those cultural nuances that make jokes shine.

The Cultural Factor: British Vs American Humour

Let’s explore two contemporary examples from late-night shows to highlight the impact of cultural differences on humour:

The US: Jimmy Fallon

In a segment on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Jimmy Fallon highlights the cultural differences between American and British humour. He mentions that British people love dry humour and sarcasm, while Americans tend to favour more direct and punchy jokes. To illustrate this, he humorously shares a British-style joke:

“Why don’t scientists trust atoms? Because they make up everything!”

This example showcases how humour can vary based on cultural preferences.

While British audiences may find this type of dry wit amusing, it may require some cultural context for others to fully appreciate the clever play on words and the humorous perspective.

The UK: James Corden

During a monologue on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” James Corden amusingly delves into the contrasting styles of American and British humour. He quips, “You know, I’ve noticed a major difference between American and British comedy. In America, when someone says something sarcastic, people laugh. But in Britain, when someone says something sincere, people suspect they’re being sarcastic!”

This joke cleverly plays on the stereotype that British humour often involves a dry and sarcastic delivery, to the point where even genuine statements may be interpreted as sarcastic. It highlights the nuanced differences in humour appreciation between the two cultures, eliciting laughter by juxtaposing the contrasting reactions to sarcasm and sincerity.

Then comes the oh-so-feared language proficiency. Humour often thrives on clever wordplay, puns, and linguistic subtleties. Wrapping your head around these in a second language can be like trying to catch a slippery fish! It takes time and practice to master the vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic expressions needed to weave humour effortlessly.

Remember what we said about incongruity being one of the components of humour? Well, without a full mastery of a language, we will find incongruity both difficult to grasp and hard to create. Incongruity is the art of juxtaposing unexpected elements, be it through surprising situations, unlikely pairings, or absurd scenarios. It tickles our funny bone by subverting our expectations and highlighting the delightful clash of the unexpected. Picture this, a penguin waltzing in a tuxedo. Isn’t it delightfully absurd? It surely is. But to conjure such an image, we need to be entirely sure that our attempt will be understood as intentional and not as a language mistake coming from the fact that we’re not mother tongue speakers. 

Timing and delivery are key ingredients too. Picture a stand-up comedian nailing their punchlines with perfect timing. Now imagine trying to replicate that timing in a language that’s not your mother tongue. It’s like tap dancing on thin ice! The extra mental effort of processing the language or translating ideas can throw off the joke’s flow, robbing it of its comedic impact.

I Principi Della Commedia Spiegati da Ricky Gervais

The power of pauses in comedy

You surely have a clear image of a comedian standing on stage, about to deliver a punchline.

They take a deliberate pause, allowing anticipation to build before revealing the hilarious twist. It’s like a well-timed comedic symphony! 

Let’s explore how pauses enhance the comical effect with some examples from famous stand-up comedians.

Louis CK

Louis CK, a famous comedian known for his unique style, often uses pauses as a comedic tool to enhance the delivery and timing of his jokes. By strategically inserting pauses at specific moments, he creates anticipation, increases tension, and emphasises punchlines. Let’s delve into an example of how Louis CK uses pauses for comedic effects.

The Anatomy of a joke by Louis CK

Norm Macdonald

Norm Macdonald, a master of deadpan delivery, skillfully utilizes pauses in his comedy to create a unique comedic rhythm. Known for his dry and understated style, Macdonald strategically inserts pauses at unexpected moments, leaving the audience hanging in anticipation. These pauses not only allow the introduction of his jokes to sink in fully, but they also build tension and enhance the comedic impact of his punchlines. By elongating the silence and making the audience wait for the final punchline, he adds an additional element of surprise and subverts expectations, resulting in uproarious laughter. Macdonald’s intentional use of pauses showcases his impeccable comedic timing and highlights his mastery of the art of comedic timing.

How does Norm Macdonald build a joke?

So you see, pauses can be like comedic punctuation marks, adding rhythm, suspense, and surprise to a performance. They create an engaging and interactive experience, allowing the audience to savour the comedic moment and amplifying the impact of the punchline. But if you are still learning how to build a natural prosody in English, it can be really difficult to measure the pauses and place them exactly where they should be to maximise the comical effect.

Last but not least, let’s not forget about social and contextual awareness. Humour thrives on understanding social dynamics, appropriateness, and cultural references. It’s like dancing at a party—you need to read the room and adapt accordingly. But in a second language, without that deep understanding of the culture and language, navigating these nuances can be as tricky as solving a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded!

We wouldn’t be a training centre (learn more about MPEC and our tailor-made Language Method) if we didn’t mention how the fear of making mistakes can put a damper on your comedic spirit. The fear of stumbling over grammar, mispronouncing words, or unintentionally offending someone can be like a comedy roadblock. It’s understandable to be cautious, but remember, comedy loves risk-takers and experimenters!

But fear not! With persistent practice, exposure to the language and culture, and learning from native speakers, you can unlock the world of humour in your second language. It’s a journey that takes time, patience, and a deep understanding of the language and cultural context. So keep smiling, keep laughing, and embrace the adventure of humour in a non-native language!

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