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February 10, 2003

The land of the free and irony-deficient

There is much truth to the claim that different nations and cultures have different ideas about what they find funny. Of course there is also diversity within a nation. Personally I find most American humour as exhibited by its most popular 'family' sitcoms to be rather corny and piss-weak; at the same time my favourite kind of humour is the darker, smart arsed, self-conscious type exhibited by New York Jews and personified by, say, Seinfeld and Woody Allen, which probably has in turn some basis in Yiddish culture and all those stories that Rabbis supposedly like to tell.

Australian humour is again very different. I sometimes find it too camp and crude but the part of it which most appeals to me is the ever present sense of irony, stoicism and dark moods underlying it - Australians like to joke about tragedies as a way of coping with them in a way that, for instance, the more sentimental Americans would find rather inappropriate. I attribute the Australian sense of humour to the higher concentration of people of Irish descent, and in particular, Irish Catholics, amongst its population.

Then there are the French who claim to have wit rather than humour.

What is worth noting is the many Australians, who despite their genuine fondness for their American cousins, regard those 'Yanks' as rather irony deficient. Now it turns out we must extend this designation to the more recent US immigrants as well. A famous Australian comedian and satirist, Barry Humphries is apparently being asked to apologise for the allegedly racist remarks he made when writing as his screen persona, Dame Edna Everage, for Vanity Fair.

In this month's issue of Vanity Fair, which has Latina Salma Hayek on the front cover, Dame Edna pens a "Ask Dame Edna" column and a reader asks her which foreign language should she/he learn? The reader says that everyone around me is saying "learn Spanish" and notes that even President Bush speaks Spanish. The reader then concludes his question with "Are we all going to have to speak Spanish?"

Dame Edna responds with: "Forget Spanish. There's nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD of Man of La Mancha will take care of that. There was a poet named Garcia Lorca, but I'd leave him on the intellectual back burner, if I were you. As for everyone's speaking it, what twaddle! Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or German, where there are at least a few books worth reading, or, if you're American, try English."

Now the supreme irony of all of this is that Dame Edna was a character created by Humphries to take the piss out of his parents' generation i.e. she is a satirical character meant to represent the sort of snooty, insular old lady hostess found in certain posh suburbs in Australia - what we call the 'bluerinse' set or what Americans might call 'little old ladies in tennis shoes'. So when will the sorts of people being lampooned by the Dame Edna character start asking for apologies from Vanity Fair too? This is really a bit like asking Archie Bunker to apologise for his racist remarks. A little sense of humour (and irony) please, amigos!

Posted by jason_s at 03:28 AM

Barry Humphries seems to be quite popular over in the states, perhaps quite a few American's 'get' our 'ironic' humor after all.

Posted by: "aussie" Nick at February 10, 2003 06:38 AM

Unfortunately, the economic priorities of the activism industry reward humorless nincompoops and leave the worldly and witty in the bread lines.

Posted by: duende at February 10, 2003 10:57 AM

Seinfeld is actually a Jewish-Arab mix, believe it or not, as was his teenage girlfriend. His family immigrated from Syria. It's not as uncommon as people think, I've met another. Shit happens.

A friend of mine says that all good American comics are black, Jewish, or Canadian.

Posted by: zizka at February 10, 2003 11:14 AM

just because they are from damascus does not imply that they are arab. they might be sephardic, or originate in the pre-sephardic population. arab-speaking jews perhaps (just as persian speaking jews or kurdish speaking jews are not persian or kurdish per se)....

(damascus has an old jewish community that predates the arab conquest-only a few families remain though....)

Posted by: razib at February 10, 2003 01:59 PM

"A friend of mine says that all good American comics are black, Jewish, or Canadian."

nah. plenty of good white gentiles. i follow stand up somewhat. the last good jewish stand up was clay. carlin and williams are still going strong. leary and foxworthy are not bad. seinfeld's stand up is weak.

rock's bigger and blacker was awesome. then i saw williams' live on broadway. no chance to even breathe.

lots of good gentile writers too. just research a bit.

Posted by: jody at February 10, 2003 05:42 PM

No, Seinfeld really is half Arab. I didn't deduce it from his Syrian origin. A simple "Jewish-Arab Seinfeld" Google will get you there. Seinfeld doesn't hide this -- I first saw it in People mag -- but it isn't part of hid PR packet either.

So maybe Jews were funny originally because they were marginal, but now to be marginal and funny you have to be a Jew/Arab ?? Or Canadian?

Posted by: zizka at February 10, 2003 06:34 PM

zizka, ok, so seinfeld's mother is a *syrian jew* from damascus, ergo she's an arab? well-if you use that criteria, you know that 50-60% of israel's population is arab! yes, the 20% who are muslim & christian arab, and the 30-40% fom yemen, morocco, iraq, etc. also, most american jews are not of jewish ethnic heritage, they are polish & russian, etc. etc. etc.

Posted by: razib at February 10, 2003 07:34 PM

I stand corrected. Relying on memories of things a comedian says in People magazine is not very good research. Seinfeld spoke of his Damascan relatives as if they were Arabs, and based on what he said they were culturally middle-eastern. He was kidding, though. The Arab comedian Hanania (married to a Jew) speaks of Seinfeld as a Jewish-Arab role model. But again, a comedian.

So the individual I know is the only true Jewish/Arab mix I can point to. Unless she was lying to my face about her parents, she was real.

Posted by: zizka at February 11, 2003 09:17 AM

np, but you know that NEW YORK TIMES has done profiles of jewish-arab people who live in israel. uncommon, but not unknown (and these are only the acknowledged one, how many israeli wives have [at least before the second intifada] were humped by their palestinian hired help but passed the kid off as their husbands? not like there's that big a physical difference like there was between blacks & whites)

Posted by: razib at February 11, 2003 01:21 PM