Americans are so not funny — one of the first impressions I had when I first came here some eight years ago. I have had to adjust my biased opinion over the years and take a more subtle view on humor in America versus Europe.
What I realized was that Americans cannot really be blamed for not being funny. Let me elaborate.
Personality and culture determine much of what one would consider funny or not. Where we grew up, how we were raised and educated, personal experience, age, historical development of the culture we associate ourselves with, geographic location, and many other aspects define how we interpret jokes.
Whether we get a joke is determined by interpretation, filtered through cultural context. Therefore, we cannot transfer our understanding of humor so easily from one country to another. What someone from one culture might find hilarious would be completely inappropriate or lame in another.
Ok, so now that we understand that humor is different from culture to culture, we can easily see that a newcomer will not always get a joke. More importantly though is to also realize that jokes made by a new comer might not be understood or misinterpreted. This can lead to uncomfortable situations.
I’ve had that happen to me a number of times. Not that I’m particularly funny, but on several occasions I have used my dry humor, stating something serious that was not meant serious at all. I have received confused looks from people that were not sure whether I was joking or not. Only after I state that I was joking, they got it.
And that’s how it oftentimes works here — you’re only funny once you make blatantly clear that you are making a joke. American humor is more slapstick and obvious. This was very confusing to me in the beginning. I didn’t understand why someone would add that she or he was making a joke.
Did they think I was too stupid to get the joke or was I actually not as smart as I thought I was and was there more to the joke that I didn’t get (this is similar to the feeling you get when something goes too smooth and you get that awkward sensation that you’re missing something).
A lot of it has to do with the use of irony. Not that Americans don’t use irony, but I think that Europeans just use it more frequently and as a foundation for most jokes. Americans have the tendency to add “only kidding” to make sure that the other party knows that a joke was made.
For me that takes away the power of the joke. The best jokes are the ones that sit for a while before you know what was happening.
I think this comes from the fact that America is a land of immigrants where everyone comes from somewhere else and people had to learn to co-exist. Or better put, are still learning to co-exist. Knowing that humor is very culturally specific and not readily understood by others makes it almost a necessity to be very clear about the fact that you are making a joke.
You don’t want to offend anyone especially when in good spirits and making lighthearted jokes. It could drive people apart. But humor is also a way to bond and establish connection. A joke can be an easy way to start an interaction and set the tone. Perhaps then it is not so bad to ensure that all understand when a joke is made.
So that raises another interesting question. If the various cultural groups that exist in America are not funny in interacting with each other — and as an extension, main stream comedy TV shows and movies that have to cater to many different cultural groups are often a weak rendition of the European versions (the best examples being Shameless and The Office) — do we see great humor within these groups? As an outsider, I will never find out.
Humor is not something to joke about, so let me end by adding that much of what I stated in the above contains irony and I actually think that a lot of Americans are really funny including many movies and TV shows (just kidding).